Sew over it

It started with a map. Then local craftivists placed their works where offences took place. Now there are plaques and an exhibition

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Aishley is nine years old. She and her five-year-old cousin Georgia are playing out on her street – a quiet residential road on a desirable new housing estate. They venture towards the local shop, a safe distance their parents are happy for them to go in daylight, but Aishley takes her little cousin’s hand all the same.

Kate Doran’s affecting work depicts her own sexual assault at a bus stop

A man approaches them – tall, skinny, late fifties or early sixties – and asks if they can point him to a public toilet. Aishley tells him there’s one a mile or so away. He says he’s desperate – do they know if there’s an alley nearby where he can go in instead? Aishley gestures to the closest alley. Can she show him where it is? She knows to say no. Gripping on to Georgia’s hand they run, as fast as their legs will carry them, back home.

“It’s just absolutely harrowing when I think about us as little girls running off down the street. At the time, I was a bit scared and I knew it wasn’t right but it’s terrifying when I think about it as an adult – what could have happened and how scarring that could have been and traumatic. It’s horrific. It really is.”

Aishley is 16. She is in town one afternoon after school, wearing her uniform. It’s winter and suddenly dark, the shops have closed. She is waiting to be picked up by her mum when a man begins to follow her. She starts to take unusual routes to lose him but he follows her everywhere. She sees a phone box and pretends to call home but she doesn’t have any money. He waits outside. She doesn’t know what to do. She panics, leaves the phone box and runs. He chases her. She bangs on the the window of a shop. She’s lucky – a woman is inside and lets her in to call her mum.

“I was genuinely terrified. It was horrific. I remember just the panic. The woman in the shop, I still remember her now – I remember how she smelled, because she hugged me. She was so lovely. She’d always worked in there, it was called Etam and I’d shopped in there so I knew who she was. I needed the safety of another woman and she was there, thank god, because I don’t know what I would have done. Now, there’s that safety net of having a mobile phone, whereas back then you didn’t even have that. It was like, run!”

These are just two of a lifetime of instances of sexual harassment in public places that Aishley Bell Docherty, now in her thirties, can recall. But until last year, she never did.

“I’ve never considered really chatting to anyone about it before, just because you try and forget about it, but I think, as a female, the majority of us have experienced those situations.”

But the brutal murder of Sarah Everard almost a year ago sparked a conversation about street safety and women found power in sharing the stories of these encounters – sometimes frightening, sometimes banal – in a collective call to Reclaim These Streets. In Blackpool, Bell Docherty and around 50 other women plotted their stories of everything from catcalling to drink spiking on an interactive map showing where and when incidents occurred. Recording her experiences, Bell Docherty says, sparked lots of conversations – with her wife, her friends and family – about their respective experiences of harassment. It’s been a revelation.

“What I find really shocking is when I’ve been talking to that older generation about it they don’t really consider it to be harassment. They think it’s just normal.”

But the incidents in school uniform – there was another when she was approached walking home – are two she could never forget. She says they were formative experiences.

“They were a big part of shaping my confidence in how I dressed later on. I was like, okay, it affects more than just how you look or how you feel so if I’m going to a certain place I won’t wear certain things. Right or wrong, it’s the way it is. It helps you to avoid situations and the sooner you learn that the better.”

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Bell Docherty’s story resonated with others too, including Linda Copeland who embroidered her words “I started to take strange routes. He followed me everywhere” onto the back of a utilitarian denim jumpsuit. The words sit alongside a needle-felted map of Blackpool with the incident location marked.

It was one of many craftivist responses to the stories plotted on Blackpool’s Street Harassment Map made by members of local textile group Knittaz With Attitude. Over 20 participants took to cross stitching, crocheting, appliquéing and embroidering pieces inspired by the reports on the map, under the banner We’re Sew Done. When the pieces were finished, organisers placed them in the locations plotted on the map before bringing them back to the safety of indoors for an exhibition in Blackpool Central Library in autumn 2021. The pieces were replaced on the streets with plaques containing quotes from the reports and a link to an online exhibition of the work. Now the Knittaz are hoping to crowdfund a book to further share the work and the women’s stories.

“I didn’t realise when I started this project how big an effect it would have on me,” says Norma Foulds, an artist, maker and long-time member of the Knittaz. “To start with it was just something to get me back into making again.”

Like many artists, Foulds’s creativity had been stifled by various lockdowns and restrictions in the year leading up to the project but she found herself inspired.

“I had found a really old, linen pillowcase that had belonged to my husband’s auntie – quite plain with a little bit of embroidery on. I’d stopped using it, because it was so thin and I’d been having a big clear-out, and I thought, you know, I’m going to use this.

“It was that association with when something bad has happened – it never leaves you. It’s there in your dreams, when you lay your head on your pillow.”

Foulds embroidered the quote “He tried to drag me saying, come on, come home with me” recorded by a 53-year-old woman outside the Regent Cinema.

“It was raining, I had my umbrella up and didn’t see the man until he literally threw his arms around me,” she wrote of the 2019 encounter. “I was lucky that there were people nearby who had seen what happened and got him off me.”

Then Foulds made another piece – an embroidered eye above a quote from Emma, 29, who reported being followed by a man as she walked down residential roads to her friend’s house.

“I could tell he was following me so I lit a cigarette to let him walk ahead of me. I looked up and he gave me a cold stare in my eyes,” she wrote.

“That made me shudder because there have been times when I’ve been out and about and somebody’s looked at me and it’s made me go cold inside,” says Norma. “It’s made me quicken my step and it’s made me look around a bit more. Am I on my own? Where can I run to? It’s that feeling – with just one look you know that you’re not safe. It’s so scary.”

Thinking about these women’s experiences as she documented them in textiles struck a chord with Foulds.

“When I started embroidering the words, they really seeped into me and it had quite an impact on me. Much more than I anticipated,” she says. “It triggered personal experience of being in situations where I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable. I have a daughter who’s now 24 and, as a mother, to think that she may have suffered some of those things is quite horrific.

“Doing this work really highlighted that we shouldn’t have to be worried that women can’t walk home on their own after seeing their friends. We shouldn’t have to say ‘text me when you get there’ but I do all the time. And my daughter says it to me now when I go somewhere. It is sad that we feel we have to.”

Kate Doran is an artist and maker who made a series of punch needle pieces – a form of needlework similar to rug hooking – after initially recording three incidents on the Street Harassment Map. Her largest piece, and the most affecting, is a depiction of her own sexual assault at a bus stop. A woman stands with a black horned figure looming over her – its shadowy form forcing itself through her legs. She had just dropped her daughter off at school when it happened.

“A man walked past and stopped to ask me the time. When I moved my hands to take out my earphones he lunged forward and forced his hands between my legs. It was really scary. You just don’t expect it in broad daylight. If I’d been outside the pub at the bus stop at 11 o’clock at night, I’d kind of be on the lookout for something to happen to me, but just at the bus stop when there were other people there, it was shocking.”

Doran says she is mad at herself for how she reacted – pushing the man away, shouting “What are you doing?”, then bursting into tears and running away.

“I just wish I had said ‘Somebody grab that guy!’ or even done it myself, because he wasn’t big, but instead I just felt so violated and upset and scared.”

Making the punch needle depiction of the piece was labour intensive.

“I started it and thought – why?” she laughs. “But I got a lot of out of it as well. I found it was a way of letting go of what happened. There are worse things that have happened to me that are not relevant to this project but that was a really traumatic incident for me that I don’t talk about a lot.

“I just realised that talking about these things is actually super-important. The reason I don’t talk about it, and the reason that I then haven’t reported worse things to police in the past, is because nobody believes women – but nothing’s ever going to change unless people start talking about it.

“I wanted to make the piece to represent exactly what happened to me and I found it difficult at first because obviously getting grabbed where I was grabbed was a huge violation. When I was drawing the piece out with the dark shadow coming from that area, it was quite emotional because it just reminded me of it and how it made me feel. But it’s helped me get past it and helped me feel a bit like I was taking power back from what happened to me.”

Visit to view Blackpool’s Street Harassment Map. Visit to view the online exhibition and donate to its crowdfunder  

Fund of stories

By sharing their stories on Blackpool’s Street Harassment Map women have made a tangible change to the future safety of women in public spaces.

Last year Blackpool Council used their testimonies as evidence to support its bid for the government’s £25.5 million Safer Streets Fund, the latest round of which had a particular emphasis of improving the safety of women and girls.

In October it was the only individual town in the North with a successful bid and was awarded £550,000. The council said was in no small part a result of the women’s testimonies and vowed to “use them to shape its approach to understanding and addressing the concerns of women and
girls using the public realm”.

Last week Kate Aldridge, head of commissioning and corporate delivery at Blackpool Council, confirmed to Big Issue North the fund would be spent in four areas:

a commission to the third sector for the development and implementation of the council’s #itstopshere initiative across the town. Aldridge said the council hopes it will become a movement to “empower women and girls to reclaim our streets and challenges everyone to do and be better”.

a fund to implement the Green Dot bystander programme, which involves training focusing on sexual abuse, domestic abuse and harassment. This will be delivered in schools and colleges as well as to people working in the town centre such as door staff, bar staff, taxi drivers and voluntary organisations so that “there is one scheme and one set of techniques and unifying language which go across generations”.

an “overall better-served area which is harder for people to commit crime in” via a fund to make car parks and surrounding routes safer and better lit as a deterrent to people congregating “in a way which makes car park users feel unsafe”. This part of the fund will also go towards working with businesses in the town centre to “maximise safety in transition from their premises into the public realm and encourage positive investment and confidence”.

work with communities in key locations to end antisocial behaviour, including street harassment, that “is blighting the lives of those living in the area”.

Lancashire Constabulary has shown support for the project and encouraged anyone sharing their stories on the Blackpool Street Harassment Map to also report it to the police.

It said: “Sometimes people are afraid to speak to us for a wide range of reasons. However, no matter who you are, how long ago the incident happened or what took place, our prime concern is to give you the support you need. We’ll listen, understand, and guide you through the investigation process at a pace you’re comfortable with, whilst respecting your wishes.”

A spiking victim who had recorded her story on the map but not with police was subsequently encouraged to come forward, but despite attempting to speak to police twice in November, her complaint so far hasn’t been followed up

Safer Streets Fund allocation across the North West and Yorkshire  

Cheshire £1,100,000
West Yorkshire £655,281
Blackpool £550,000
South Yorkshire £550,000
Greater Manchester  £549,744
Cleveland £381,771
North Yorkshire £ 306,802
Merseyside £269,931

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