A new era for Scottish Women’s Institutes while preserving the craftsmanship of the past

SWI Chief Executive Diane Cooper leads the organization into a new era

Its roots are in rural Scottish life and it’s known for its home baking and knitting competitions, but now one of the oldest women’s organizations is set to reinvent itself while ensuring that the craftsmanship and skills are passed on to future generations.

With around 10,000 members, Scottish Women’s Institutes have seen membership numbers plummet in recent years and have been hit hard by the pandemic. While some of their offerings went live as organizations were forced to adapt, Covid and lockdowns had an effect on numbers.

However, SWI is now entering a new era as it seeks to grow its membership and develop a sustainable future in order to survive.

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First formed in Scotland at Longniddry, East Lothian in 1917, it has grown to have a presence across Scotland – from the most rural islands to bustling cities.

Based in Edinburgh, there are 29 federations across Scotland with over 500 institutes. Membership peaked at 35,000 but has been steadily declining, but now the trend is changing.

SWI Chief Executive Diane Cooper hopes to grow membership as the organization evolves

SWI Chief Executive Diane Cooper hopes to grow membership as the organization evolves

SWI Chief Executive Diane Cooper hopes to grow membership as the organization evolves

In recent months new groups have started including in Bathgate, West Lothian and Knightswood, Glasgow, and next month people will have the opportunity to join them at an event at The Mercerie venue in Sauchiehall Street. The venue opened earlier this year and is owned by young businesswomen Nikki Fairfull and Afton Ferguson who are also supporting the evening.

Chief Executive Diane Cooper is leading the resurgence. She has been in the role for 10 months now and with the support of the majority of the membership, Ms. Cooper is beginning to sow the seeds of change to meet the needs of women in the 21st century.

“We are a declining membership organization and when I started I saw the membership trajectory on a yearly basis, and Covid just created a big drop,” Ms Cooper said. “During the pandemic, there were services to make sure people always felt connected, because one of the key things about SWI is that it’s about friendship.

“That’s why people join SWI – you have the learning and the fun, but the friendship is key. However, I realized that we needed to think about a strategy to ensure the survival of the organization and make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Prince Philip meets the Ladies of Peeblesshire SWRI in 1966.

Prince Philip meets the Ladies of Peeblesshire SWRI in 1966.

Prince Philip meets the Ladies of Peeblesshire SWRI in 1966.

SWI is now growing as part of a three-year strategy that aims to increase membership, create new groups and seek to create a dedicated visitor center that preserves the past while looking to the future.

Ms Cooper added: “We need to start regenerating and modernizing to make sure we represent and support women in every community in Scotland. Initially, the members came from rural areas, but things have changed and I think it’s a good time to think about moving forward.

“We have a new group at Bathgate who were a pilot and now have around 70 members. We announced it on social media – a new group of women sharing friendship, having fun, tasting gin, swimming in nature, and the response was fantastic.

“I didn’t expect this reaction and now this group is set up and running. Next was Knightswood in Glasgow and from there we started getting emails from people interested in their own groups in the north, east and south. We are seeing huge demand and maybe Covid has pushed that and people are enjoying having company.

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From jam making and Victoria sponge competitions to tailoring and tailoring, SWI has had strong ties to craftsmanship and this is something the organization is keen to develop while offering different relevant activities for today.

From Sanquar gloves to leather work and embroidery, the know-how of SWI members will be preserved

From Sanquar gloves to leather work and embroidery, the know-how of SWI members will be preserved

From Sanquar gloves to leather work and embroidery, the know-how of SWI members will be preserved

They are also looking to work with a national charity that supports families who need a boost. They hope members will get involved to help them improve their skills and give them the chance to learn something that could help them in their daily lives.

Ms Cooper added: ‘We have very skilled members and I want to make sure those skills are passed on to the next generation. If we don’t, they will be lost and it would be irresponsible of us to do so.

“It is important that, as part of the overall strategy, we impart these skills which align with our ambition to develop a visitor learning center for women in Scotland.”

From Sanquar gloves to leather work and embroidery, the know-how of SWI members will be preserved

From Sanquar gloves to leather work and embroidery, the know-how of SWI members will be preserved

From Sanquar gloves to leather work and embroidery, the know-how of SWI members will be preserved

Talks have already started with funders as SWI’s vision is to have a dedicated facility where its story can be showcased.

“At the moment, all our heritage is stored in boxes and we have started to keep all these works of art from 105 years ago,” Ms Cooper added. “They were reviewed by a curator who said we have several very important collections and they should be presented as a legacy of SWI.

“The whole idea of ​​the center would be for it to be educational, learning about history, showcasing crafts such as Shetland lace and other parts of Scotland. We would also have a cafe and a shop to generate income.

“We were looking for a new site with the best location to be able to offer events and invite people to help them develop and offer skills such as cooking, sewing and cost-of-living assistance.

“One thing we will always remember is our rural background, where it all started, and we will make sure we have equality across Scotland and are inclusive.”

Members of Luss SWI

Members of Luss SWI

Members of Luss SWI

From Inverness to Largs via Portobello, many territories are now interesting to involve.

In Glasgow, Gail Hughes was amazed at the response to an initial social media post and now the new band have had their first meetings in Knightswood.

“We started as an online community with almost 300 members and decided to hold our first meetings. We have about 20 women who have joined us and we hope to build on that.

“I think the traditional values ​​of SWI and women supporting and helping each other to learn and enrich their lives is the draw.”

To attend the Glasgow event on November 15, go to www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/glasgow-womens-group-launch-tickets-445890760267 or email [email protected] uk.

About Tracy G. Larimore

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