The Napkin Project: Inspiring creativity

7 June 2013

When is a napkin not a napkin? When it’s something to keep your hands busy. Or a bag. Or a hat. Or an aide-memoire. Intrigued?

Saffron bird by Deirdre Nelson for Brunelcare. Image: Max McClure.This is all relevant to a new project we are excited to be launching this week.  The Napkin Project is designed to communicate how important creativity can be for those living with dementia. Over the past year we have been working with artists Deirdre Nelson and Eamon O’Kane on commissions to stimulate and engage residents in a new Brunelcare dementia care home – Saffron Gardens in Bristol. The resulting artworks are wonderful and you can find out more about them here.

As part of the project Deirdre Nelson noticed that residents in Brunelcare’s existing Saffron care home were often fascinated by the textured edges of items, playing with, handling and exploring objects such as the napkins they used at mealtimes.  A member of staff told her that one resident would join napkins together to carry her possessions around with her and that another used hers as a vase to hold flowers; in this way a napkin became more than just a napkin. The Napkin Project evolved out of this observation. 

What if we could tell more people about dementia and creativity and get them involved in crafting a beautiful object for use by residents in the home? This is, in essence, what The Napkin Project is about and it has been generously made possible by Arts Council England and Bristol City Council.  

This innovative initiative will use social media and practical craft workshops to engage the general public in using their skills to embroider a unique and individual napkin to help inspire the residents of Saffron Gardens creatively.  We will be sending out the bare napkins and creating a social media storm around the project, posting pictures as the finished napkins flood in.  We are hoping that people will also post pictures of work in progress or the finished napkin using Flickr, Instagram and Facebook and Twitter.  

You can follow the project on the Napkin Project blog (  On the blog you'll find information about the project, links to all the connected social media, to resources around the subject of creative ageing and to information about the other Saffron Gardens artworks.  You will also find information there about how to register to receive your napkin. 

Creative Toolbox by Eamon O'Kane for Brunelcare. Image: Max McClure.We strongly support the idea that creative activities and the arts can be a powerful tool in ‘unlocking’ the ability of people with dementia to express themselves and enabling them to tell their stories.  An activity can be anything from eating lunch or taking a bath to interacting socially with others.  By taking a creative approach, simple objects and activities can be transformed from the mundane to something more stimulating. Lunch might become a picnic; residents might be engaged in preparing a meal or encouraged to dress up to eat it; a walk in the garden could involve the collection of autumn leaves to make a mobile. 

Working creatively is central to the theory of person-centred care.  Many of those who work with people with dementia will have their own raft of personal and creative resources they use everyday and the benefits of working creatively apply equally to staff as to those with dementia. As an approach, it places the feelings and connections of the individual at the heart of everything.  It values communication and interaction and helps to support a sense of personal identity and to encourage autonomy and agency. Recent Baring Foundation reports have been instrumental in communicating and sharing these ideas. Links and more information on the subject are available on the blog.

These ideas form the fundamental backbone to this project.  We hope some of you will get involved and look forward to seeing your finished napkins.

Photography by Max McClure.