A Necklace of Stars in Derbyshire

A Necklace of Stars celebrates childhood and the night sky in words, song and stitches.


This case study is part of a series from the LGA Culture Commission

The project reached, engaged with and inspired isolated older adults across Derbyshire in their own homes, working with an embroidery artist, creative writer and musician. The embroidered stars have been brought together from all participants to form a quilt, which is being exhibited and toured around Derbyshire’s cultural venues accompanied by the poetry and lullabies written by the creative writing participants, the whole encapsulated in a beautiful catalogue. 

Key partners: Arts Derbyshire, Arts Council England, Derbyshire Public Health and Derbyshire Home Library Service. 

The challenge

The challenge was how to alleviate social isolation and loneliness amongst older people – a proven killer. A Necklace of Stars was set up pre-pandemic to provide creative activity for people confined to their own homes. The original plan was for individuals, contacted through the Derbyshire Home Library Service, to receive one-to-one sessions in their own home with either an embroidery artist or a creative writer. The pandemic brought isolation into sharper focus for many more people and also meant that our approach had to change; A Necklace of Stars quickly became a remote embroidery and creative writing project. Participants received weekly one-to-one phone calls from the artists, Lois Blackburn, Philip Davenport and Matt Hill, plus emails where accessible, and parcels of all the materials they needed for the project were sent through the post. Project participants faced a number of issues which had caused them to feel lonely. For many it was the pandemic, the sudden stopping of everything that they were able to do to feel alive before, and the fear of what the pandemic could bring. Others faced physical or mental health issues which had caused them to feel lonely over a period of time even prior to the pandemic. 

The solution

Since April 2020 we have worked with 75 individuals over the phone, engaging in creative conversation and activity. The embroidery participants received a pack of materials in the post and the artist guided them through the process, as required, through her weekly calls, over a period of 3-6 weeks. Writing participants had weekly phone calls with the writer, with the option of completing their own writing between calls. The same participants then had the option of working with the musician in the same way to work together to compose songs and music related to the overarching themes of lullabies and dreaming.

All the embroidered stars have been brought together to create a unique and striking quilt which is being exhibited alongside the creative writing and a lullaby soundtrack around Derbyshire’s cultural venues in 2022-2023. 

The lead artist, Lois Blackburn, has produced a beautiful catalogue, featuring the poems and lullabies written by the participants, alongside detailed images of the quilt. All participants have received their own copy, along with a CD of the lullabies, as a keepsake of their engagement. A digital version of the catalogue and lullabies are also available on the Arts Derbyshire website. Two events are planned for later in the year for participants to come together in person at one of the exhibitions to celebrate their work. 

The impact

The project is a testimony to the power of human connection and creativity in the face of lockdowns and isolation. “Art isn’t usually considered to be an emergency service, but during the lockdowns this was a lifeline to isolated people. Out of something terrible we managed to conjure some little glimmers of hope.” (Project poet Phil Davenport) 

While the wider world became a place of fear for many older people, here embroideries, poems and songs reached up to the shared night sky as a way to escape, and to connect with other participants, knowing that they were looking at the same sky. 

“There is an aura off the stars, it’s very powerful. It draws us to it, gives us peace... Instead of taking life for granted, I’m writing, exploring it. Opening my eyes to the starlight...” (participant) 

Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive with many participants commenting that the phone calls and the creative tasks were a highlight of their week, and that it helped them to have something to focus on that felt important and worthwhile: 

‘It's been a beautiful life-saver for me.’ (participant) 

‘It saved my sanity. I lost my husband two years ago and when he died, I had nothing else to do.’ (participant) 

‘I am alive at last. Instead of autopilot, someone’s flipped the switch. And it started with looking at the stars.’ (participant) 

The artworks are now touring Derbyshire and people are seeking out the exhibited artworks in number. The profoundly beautiful nature of the work gives pause to the day and calls viewers to question their own relationship with lullabies, comfort and dreaming through the stars. 

“I’m amazed - in all my years in libraries I’ve never seen a response like it.” (Exhibition venue manager). 

How is the new approach being sustained?

This is a time-limited project, ending when the project funding ends in July 2023. However, the quilt will continue to be exhibited, and participants each have their own catalogue and CD. We have learned much about working remotely and 1:1 in a deepened creative engagement, and we plan to weave this new way of working into future funding bids and projects. 

Lessons learned

The University of Nottingham’s Institute of Mental Health evaluated the first stage of the project, using semi-structured interviews with 20 participants and the UCLA loneliness scale to evaluate the impact of the project on participants’ sense of loneliness and mental wellbeing. 

Some findings from that report: 

  • The project “reduced the subjective experience of loneliness. Both those people who did embroidery and those who wrote poetry valued highly the individual attention that they received from the artists”. Creative conversation and activity gave purpose and meaning in a time which seemed to have lost both. 

  • “The overwhelming success of the project in relation to the subjective experience of participants was achieved through a complex delivery process, one that had to be adapted to the virus restrictions. This was well managed by the flexible and imaginative artists. Instead of meeting participants face to face, they could only have phone contact, distributing materials by post. Communicating about embroidery was particularly hard because of the remote mode of working with textiles”. 

  • “Because the artists were in regular contact with some quite lonely and often frail individuals, their role expanded to include counselling, protection and prevention of mental ill health. By all accounts they did this well and sensitively.” The report found that the artists carefully monitored the impact of their activities on the wellbeing of individual participants whose moods could vary widely. “This is all about keeping people going, keeping the bad at bay, exorcising some demons and finding peace so we can deal with the more immediate pandemic fears.” (Project poet Philip Davenport) 

  • The artists challenged participants to do well, and participants enjoyed learning new skills and were pleased with the end result: “The poetry is more challenging for me. I wouldn't have taken it on without that extra little nudge from Lois.” (participant) 

Contact

Ann Wright, email: ann.wright@derbyshire.gov.uk 

Find out more about the Necklace of Stars