Ruth Durkin: Getting creative at Free Hand

Crafts from the day

Free Hand describe themselves as ‘a space to be creative for people living with depression and anxiety’. Ruth went down to one of their sessions in Shalesmoor to find out more, and spoke to founder Charly Calpin to get the full lowdown.

One cold, January evening I abandoned the comfort of my sofa to venture to a creative session with Free Hand. Armed with my printed Google directions and map, I walked to CADS in Shalesmoor with an open mind.

I don’t really consider myself to be a creative person, at least not in terms of things like sewing, crafts and painting. My creativity usually comes out in the form of cooking, baking and writing. However, after a successful patchwork-making afternoon at a friend’s hen party last year, I felt confident to give it a go and see what happened.

I arrived to the session late, cold and flustered. I’d gone into the building through the wrong door and when I finally reached the right room my glasses were steamed up and I was all fingers and thumbs. I always find January to be a difficult month (as many people do) so I was feeling especially self-conscious.

I sat down and was greeted by smiles from the group, in addition to a piping hot cup of tea. I soon relaxed and felt at ease with the group. The session was structured in that the theme was quilt making, but the atmosphere was very relaxed. No one was telling everyone what to do, but guidance was there if required or needed. The table was covered with books about quilt making, with people flicking through for ideas. A large selection of fabrics were available and some people had brought their own material.

I decided to make one square of fabric in the session. I’ve never used a sewing machine before, and was guided in how to operate it by the group organiser. I was unsure at first, but enjoyed the process, and although the finished item is far from perfect, I felt a real sense of achievement.

I left the session with a bit of a spring in my step. It was great to sit in an environment where everyone understood about the experience of depression and anxiety, without actually talking about it. I felt sure that if I had started a discussion, it would have been welcome and approached in a friendly and honest way. Having free reign to create whatever I wanted, with help and guidance there if I wanted it, allowed me to feel confident to express myself.

I’d really recommend attending Free Hand. Whether you consider yourself to be arty or creative or neither, it’s a friendly room where you can just be yourself in the company of people who “get it” in terms of mental health challenges.

free hand 2

I also decided to find out a bit more about Free Hand by speaking to its founder, Charly Calpin.

Who came up with the idea for Free Hand and how did it get started?

Free Hand started with emails between myself and CADS. Creative processes helped, and continue to help me through depression and anxiety. The idea for Free Hand was that it would be a creative outlet, more like a club than class or workshop really. Somewhere relaxing and non-judgemental to just learn, make and chat. CADS have a space CADet programme where they give you free space for six weeks and I emailed them with the idea of having creative sessions and they said yes! That was almost two years ago now.

How many people work for the project and what are their roles?

That’s a tricky question really, currently Free Hand collaborates with different artists and makers in Sheffield, and they create the sessions with guidance from myself.

Hannah Von Roast is currently volunteering, she is an amazing illustrator with an interest in mental health. She is currently helping out at the sessions but in the future we will be planning exhibitions together as the project moves forward.

CADS have given Free Hand so much support; without them it wouldn’t be where it is today. Not only have they provided space, but won funding, offered advice and support.

That’s just me left. I liaise with artists, plan the calendar, set up, buy materials and refreshments, write the blog, and I now run all our social media. A wonderful volunteer, Tori did all of that before her move to Manchester, she taught me so much! I’m also working on ways to become self-sustaining and make information easier to access and become able to signpost people to mental health services if they wish. I’m working with different community group in Sheffield and doing creative things at events to connect and raise awareness.

How do you decide the theme of each session?

The way Free Hand runs has changed so much in the last two years. To start with sessions were completely open so I took a range of materials and people were invited to just come and make. I found this could be a bit intimidating for people so started to put themes on place as inspiration; this also made it easier to promote.

Since winning funding in September 2016, we have been able to employ artists to plan and facilitate their own creative sessions which has been amazing. People sharing their passions and talents is a beautiful thing to witness and so much awesome artwork has come to life because of that.

What feedback have you had from people who attend the sessions?

Feedback has been great! It’s a space where people feel very comfortable and enjoy the friendship as well as the making. I think the best feedback was someone saying they weren’t afraid to try things and it not being perfect or successful, that’s an amazing thing for me to hear. Through trying we learn, we start to process that something not being perfect is okay and we can laugh at things going wrong or we have happy accidents through experimenting.

Here are a few comments from attendees:

“It’s a space where I feel comfortable enough to have things flop or go wrong and to be moody or silly. Plus you get to take pretty things you’ve created home with you!”

“Personally, creativity is good for my mental health, my self-confidence, my self-esteem, my well-being, and other people frequently find the same about themselves.”

“Attending creative groups encourages me to keep regular hours, and to interact and socialise with other people in a familiar and welcoming space.”

“I’ve found Free Hand to be a warm and supportive environment where it’s safe to try new creative methods without fear of failure or ridicule. Perhaps at the start of the session you just wanted to sit quietly for a while but you soon felt brave enough to start getting involved, this would cause no problems.”

“I heartily recommend Free Hand to everyone with even the vaguest of creative inkling. Please come along, you have absolutely nothing to lose.”

Do people pay for the sessions, and if not, how is it funded?

It is free, that is one of the most important things to me that it remains that way. In September 2016 Free Hand won funding from Awards for All and the National Lottery’s Big Fund, which has been amazing. It means we’ve got a more permanent space where work can be left, it’s more comfortable and we can decorate it! Funding pays for the artists to lead the sessions and for some materials and refreshments. We also have a budget for an exhibition which is exciting.

Before then CADS gave us space for free! I had a collection of art materials we’d use and I just topped them up as and when I could. Wonderful artists, like Kelli Sara, Lisa O’Hara and Ellie Ragdale offered their time and materials for free, which I am forever grateful for.

What future plans are there for the project?

Moving ahead I want to be self-sustaining. That would be the dream! I’m looking at different ways we can try to achieve that. I want to connect more with other groups, I’m getting more training and am excited to put that into practice. We are going to be holding pop-up exhibitions and expand to have Skype sessions. We have a Red Bubble shop online where people can buy items with artwork from sessions on it and the profits go towards materials etc. I’ve also started to make videos explaining more about how to access different mental health services which I’d like to do more of.

What would you say to someone considering attending for the first time?

I’d say, I know it’s a difficult step to take coming somewhere new, but the sessions are very relaxed. There’s no pressure you can come and go as you please. If you don’t feel up to creating come and have a brew and a few biscuits! 


You can find out more about Free Hand including details of their next session, at:


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