How we are using creativity and craft to tackle dementia... one stitch at a time

12 December 2013

It gave us a boost to see The Napkin Project featured in the Guardian Online Culture Blog and Arts Council England News this month.

The project is a collaboration between Willis Newson, care home provider Brunelcare, artist Deidre Nelson and hundreds of volunteer participants. It is centred on a website – The Napkin Project Blog - which raises awareness of the importance of creativity to people living with dementia and encourages volunteers to embroider and gift napkins to be donated to care homes to use as reminiscence tools.

Lin Feist, Manager of Saffron Gardens, Brunelcare’s new dementia care home in Bristol said: “What has appealed to me most about the Napkin Project is what a fantastic reminiscence tool the napkins are. With them all being based around the theme of home and family, this can mean so many things to different people and evoke very different emotions.”

The first bundle of embroidered napkins was presented to staff and residents at a tea party in November when Saffron Gardens’ staff and residents met with some of the people who have contributed napkins.

“We plan to use them not only at meal times, but also have them placed around the home to act as conversation starters and to encourage different uses. Residents make a beeline for them. They hold them, stroke them, talk about the imagery on them, select a favourite and take it back to their room. Relatives, visitors and staff use them to spark conversation and memories.” said Lin.

The Napkin Project began when artist Deirdre Nelson was working with staff and residents at the care home. She noticed how important fabric was to the residents and often saw people spending a long time smoothing a napkin, touching its edges or folding and refolding it. Sometimes someone would fold a napkin to create a vase for a flower, or make a napkin into a purse.

Deirdre said: “I realised that a napkin is more than just a napkin in the way residents interacted with existing napkins in Saffron Gardens. By gifting the napkins, people are helping to bring additional creativity and fun into the care home. As well as making art, people have helped to create something practical for the care home. It is important also for staff to know that lots of people want to contribute, and care about their residents and the work that they’re doing.”

More than 120 people from around the country have contributed embroidered napkins. Generations of families have shared their sewing skills, colleagues have spent lunch breaks stitching, and the project has got people thinking about much-loved family members and friends with dementia.

The Napkin Project is part of a larger arts programme for the new care home run by Willis Newson for Saffron Gardens.

Willis Newson Director, Jane Willis said: “The process of making the napkins by the volunteers is an important part of the project. People tell us how much enjoyment and satisfaction they have got out of making and donating a napkin. How it has promoted reflection, given them time to think – about loved ones, about how they can help others, about what home means to them.”

One volunteer embroiderer said: “We have lost one family member to dementia and have another who is also suffering so we know how little things can help. I haven't embroidered for many years and my daughters have yet to learn so it will be a lovely process for all of us.”

Willis Newson is seeking to extend the project to other care homes, starting with three care homes managed by Brunelcare.

Maybe you would like to make and donate a napkin for Christmas by creating one over the Christmas break?

Email us at to get your napkin. Don’t forget to tell us your name and address.

Photos by Jim Wileman