When former 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,” said Lindsay. “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 fifth 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 bellydancing to burlesque.
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.
Looking back it’s clear the group has come a long way since their first meeting at the Three Cranes pub.
“When we had our first meeting we didn’t think anyone would turn-up, but in the end over 50 people came,” recalls Lindsay.
“We couldn’t even fit into the room we’d booked. It was far beyond our expectations.”
Today the young, spirited and proactive members of Seven Hills WI’s meet at the swanky creative hub Electric Works, in the city centre.
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.
Whatever the event, it seems there is always an opportunity to meet new friends.
Di added: “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. She said: “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 hopes she can build on as she steps into Lindsay’s shoes as Seven Hills’ new president.
She said: “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.”