By Melissa Hunt
When ex-journalist Lindsay Garfitt had the idea for setting up a new and fresh-faced Women’s Institute in Sheffield, her friends were slightly hesitant to say the least.
Typically synonymous with knitting circles and the 50-plus, the 100-year-old WI is now boasting a younger more fashionable resurgence and Lindsay wanted to get in on the action.
The inspiration came to her after a feature-writing trip to the Houses of Parliament with ladies from WI’s in Derbyshire.
During the long journey from Chesterfield to London, Lindsay’s preconceptions of the Women’s Institute changed:
“All my stereotypes about the WI disappeared; these women were part of a brilliant organisation that helped them to learn new things, meet new people and take time out of their busy lives to do something for them.”
Despite being a daunting task to set up, and friends Kim Wheelan and Jennifer Marsden in need of a little convincing, the three finally created Seven Hills WI back in October 2009.
Now celebrating its 5th birthday, the group is the largest WI in South Yorkshire with a capacity membership of 135 women, ranging from the ages of 22 to 56.
As well as the usual jam-making pursuits, Seven Hills WI have totally rebranded the Women’s Institute in Sheffield, hosting a whole array of activities from baking to bellydancing.
It has been a highly successful half a decade for Lindsay and her team with the group becoming their baby over the years.
However, with Lindsay getting married and Kim currently pregnant, the committee members have decided to step down and focus attention on raising families of their own.
It’s an end of era for Seven Hills, so it only seemed fitting to hold a birthday bash to celebrate all the fun the women have had in the past 5 years.
I went along to reminisce with members and to find out what the future holds for Seven Hills WI.
The group has come a long way since their first meeting at the Three Cranes pub:
“We couldn’t even fit into the room we’d booked. It was far beyond our expectations.”
Today the WI’s home is at the swanky creative hub Electric Works in the city centre, where I was greeted with a whole host of cakes and treats upon my arrival.
The standard of the baking competition was high for their 5th birthday, with impressive offerings including everything from a sweetie cascading cake to a humble chocolate sponge with the committee’s faces on it.
Lindsay confessed that Seven Hills is a rather “foodie” group, but her face on a dessert is definitely a first.
Today was a rather laid back evening in comparison to previous meetings she told me, Seven Hills being a young spirited and proactive group.
When asked what her favourite activity was over the past 5 years Lindsay found it difficult, “I couldn’t pick just one favourite activity as we’ve done such a wide range of things”
She said the best activities were the ones she would have never thought of doing such as their craft beer tasting event where she found her taste for strawberry ale.
The eclectic mix of workshops and talks are one of the endearing features of Seven Hills, especially for founding members Di Coupey and Blanche Spataro.
Di explained: “I think Seven Hills is so successful because it’s managed to keep the traditional WI elements but is never scared to try new things, which keeps it fresh and appeals to the younger members.”
Di and Blanche confessed that some of their favourite activities had been the more unusual, from a talk on the history of knickers to a rather risqué workshop on women’s sexual pleasure.
Creative pursuits have included everything from bunting to brooch making, with craft workshops a regular feature of the WI calendar.
Whatever the events, Di and Blanche told me it was the chance to meet new friends that really appealed to them.
Blanche, a newbie to Sheffield 5 years ago said “Everyone is so lovely and welcoming. All my friends in Sheffield I’ve made through the WI”.
Di added that the opportunity to meet new women was a godsend since her life long friends had settled down with families:
“I’ve met so many lovely people through the WI, and because it’s such a great mix of people, from different backgrounds and jobs, I would have never met them in day to day life.”
In this sense, today’s WI isn’t a world away from when it was set up in 1915, as women from all different classes were encouraged to mix and share skills.
Lindsay explained this was one of her original aims when she set up the WI:
“As you get older it is a lot harder to make friends. It’s been great for our members who maybe have felt a little bit isolated, for example those who have come back from uni or lost touch with school friends.”
The opportunity to bring women together is what makes the Women’s Institute still relevant today, Lindsay added:
“I think a lot of people have an unfair view that it’s all old ladies sitting in church halls making jam. But actually, the women in the WI are amazing in all the campaigning they do”.
From Keep Britain Tidy to free school meals the WI has been the backbone of many recent national initiatives.
More close to home Seven Hills WI have raised money and awareness for causes such as women’s homelessness and children’s cancer care.
It is this legacy that Kirsty Bowen hoped she could build on as she steps into Lindsay’s place as Seven Hills’ new president:
“I’m really looking forward to doing more fundraising as in the past it’s been a great way for our members to work together and get passionate about something.”
On her feelings of taking over the group she told me she was excited but had “big shoes to fill”.
I put this to Lindsay and asked if she would be sad to step down:
“I think it will be a bit weird but I think it’s the right time. Our lives have changed so much since we started it – I was 24 when it began and now I’m nearly 30. It seems like a good time for us to go.”
She reassured me she was still going to be an active member and looked forward to just being able to enjoy future meetings without all the worry of organisation and planning:
“I’m sure the new committee will want to put their own spin on things. I’m excited to see what they come up with.”
On a reflective note I asked her what advice she would have given herself 5 years ago:
“Oh gosh! Definitely do it. It’s been brilliant.”
For more information on Seven Hills WI visit: http://sevenhillswi.blogspot.co.uk