Women's sheds are helping women change their lives | AWW (2024)

Sharon Linolli isn’t bragging when she proclaims herself “queen of the lathe”. Rather, she’s reflecting on the fruits of an unexpected journey. “I was really scared of retiring,” she tells The Weekly. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to die. This is the end of my life.’ It sounds dramatic but that’s how I felt. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to contribute’.”

Joining the Robertson She Shed in the NSW Southern Highlands seemed a smart way for the single retiree to pick up some handy skills. She has now built new kitchen drawers, decked her house out with her own exquisitely turned woodwork, and gained a bunch of the handiest, most supportive friends you could wish for.

The 30-year-old men’s shed movement is well known. It was begun with the idea of bolstering male retirees’ mental health. It boasts steady funding, a peak body and sheds across Australia bristling with expensive tools. Few of the women’s sheds that have cropped up over recent years enjoy such benefits. And there’s another important difference.

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“Men go to men’s sheds to learn to open up, and possibly learn some new skills to build on skills already gained throughout their lifetime,” says Beck Agius, an electrician and president of Rockhampton Women’s Shed in Queensland. “Women are joining our shed, already quite capable of expressing themselves [emotionally], but wanting to learn these hands-on skills.”

Most female shedders agree on this. Yet social and emotional benefits certainly follow.

“After I lost my job, I kind of cut myself off from everyone I knew,” says Angela McCredie, 57, a member of the Blue Mountains Women’s Shed. “And that’s not healthy, is it? So it was about creating new friends and learning something. If I hadn’t come to the women’s shed, I think I’d still be in my dark hole. I really do.”

Sheds are invaluable for older, perhaps single women. But, in contrast to men’s sheds, their unique, highly affordable offering attracts women of all ages and stripes, from social workers to chief executives, rose gardeners to mammographers.

Noosa Women’s Shed vice-president Robyn Sanders says some people imagine shedders might all be earthy types. “Oh gosh, no,” she says, giggling. “When you see some of the gorgeous women picking up the tools … ”

Some new shedders arrive with trepidation, others with unbridled excitement. Sharon was initially scared stiff of the electric saws at the Robertson shed. But her patient mentors wrought a transformation. “I feel as though I’ve got the power,” she says.

Despite an impressive project list, Angela hasn’t entirely shaken her nervousness.

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“I’m trying to master one tool at a time,” she says. “I am learning the scroll saw. I want to perfect it. Then I want to learn the router because you can do so many nice things with it. The big blade tools still scare me a little bit. Being menopausal, I feel my concentration isn’t as good as it was. It worries me I will lose focus.”

Activities at women’s sheds are beholden to circ*mstances. Sheds with small premises trying to cater to large memberships are sometimes limited to single-topic workshops. Bayswater Women’s Hub in Perth has around 150 members but can only fit seven or eight in its shed. It lacks the space and dust-extraction system for advanced work. The hub is itching to extend, so that members can work on more complex individual projects.

But at large, well-equipped spaces, like the Central Coast Community Shed in Ulverstone on Tasmania’s north coast, the women don’t hold back.

When retired teacher Liz Clemons moved to Ulverstone, her house was half furnished and heritage listed.

“So it’s made a few requests of me,” she chuckles. “I’ve made two bespoke blackwood tables. I refurbished a chest of drawers. When I took it to the shed, they fell about laughing and said, ‘Did you pay money for this?’ And then set about helping me refurbish it.”

Social livewire Liz wasn’t going to struggle to meet new people. But shed-mate June Peebles, 73, has seen Tasmania’s north-coast hinterland change. She and her husband still farm beef cattle. “He’ll be doing it till he dies,” she says. But June has seen friends move away, and lush farmland sold to forestry or tree changers.

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The shed at the Ulverstone showgrounds, where the Leven River ebbs into the Bass Strait, is a natural focus for the farming community, and shed sessions breathe weekly life into the venue. June brought a longstanding grounding in tools from her farming life and a new urge to meet people.

You sense the talents and twinkles of personality beneath her sensible jumper and no-nonsense haircut. She ticks off her shed projects almost dismissively – coffee tables, jewel boxes, stools and a renovated sideboard. But she says, “I’ve always wanted to do wood-scrolling work. The first time I came, a man showed me how to do some scrolling. And he said, ‘You’re a natural. You’ll be able to do anything’.”

Liz interjects: “June’s scrolling looks like lace. It’s beautiful.”

Liz was a tool newbie when she joined. “I was always interested but I had a very handy man in the house who could do anything. And my dad would never let me do anything. I suppose I had this latent desire to get my hands on the hammer. And one of the first things I have done is buy a chainsaw – that’s empowering.”

Ah, that she-shed buzzword. Bayswater chairperson, Brighita Algeri, says ‘empowering’ means “not having to wait around for someone else to do something for you. These are critical life skills that should be taught in school. Everybody should know how to change a tyre. I wouldn’t want any other woman having to sit around waiting for someone else to do something for them – and something that actually is so easy. Once you know how to do it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, why did I spend 40 years of my life not knowing how to do this?’ I have a three-year-old boy. I don’t want him to think only men can do this sort of thing. I don’t want him to think I don’t know how to change a tyre or fix a leaking tap.”

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Shedders also mention the difficulty of engaging tradies and the risk of being ripped off, especially for single women. Many sheds undertake community projects, helping members feel they’re contributing while also showcasing their skills. Sharon and Angela both say their shed membership drew them out of their comfort zones and gave them a new sense of autonomy.

“I’d save all these gardening magazines that had beautiful birdhouses and garden benches,” says Angela. “I’ve kept them for, like, 30 years. Now I can make everything that’s in there. It’s like I kept them for a reason.”

Without hesitation, both Angela and Sharon say they would have chosen different careers if they had acquired their new skills earlier in life. Sharon – who ironically worked an office job for Mitre 10 – would have been a carpenter. Angela would have indulged her fascination with houses by becoming a builder.

Male reactions to tool-wielding women are, predictably, varied. Robertson and Central Coast owe their large, well-equipped, sustainable premises to sharing arrangements with men’s groups where the odd dissenter was swept along by more enlightened males.

The Blue Mountains has had patchwork dealings with several men’s sheds. Its current hotchpotch of premises includes a day at the Central Mountains Men’s Shed. All these sheds operate separate days for women, albeit with men sometimes present as mentors.

Noosa Women’s Shed is erecting its own building on the same site as the men’s shed, which has around 250 members. Reactions have been mixed but, says Robyn, “their president has been fabulous. He’s calmed the troops, assured them we will only come when we’re invited. A lot of their members have been generous with their time. Some of the ex-tradies originally helped us with our workshops. You could see they loved it. They enjoyed supporting, helping, and giving up their knowledge. A lot of them are old TAFE teachers or tradies who have trained apprentices.”

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Bayswater only offers women-led workshops, thanks to a combination of female tradies who volunteer their time and members who have upskilled.

All the sheshedders who speak to The Weekly insist they don’t want to invade the male space that the men’s shed movement was designed to foster. But with no designated national funding or peak body, the burden on volunteers to unearth grants, run sheds and conjure up premises is backbreaking.

In 2021 desperate Blue Mountains president Karen Stevenson even invited Network Ten’s The Living Room to refurbish the tiny shed she had begged from the Blue Mountains City Council.

“They were hilarious,” she says, “and the whole crew, very supportive. Barry [Du Bois] is a big advocate for women’s projects.”

The shed was carrying some structural damage, however. “They patched it up and made it look pretty.” But then the roof started leaking, a council worker almost fell through the ceiling and it was clear the whole shed needed to be replaced.

“You live and learn,” she adds. “The program was a big boost for women’s sheds. We were hammered the next day with phone calls – people wanting memberships. So 100 per cent we’d do it again, but we’re more mindful now.”

Former Bayswater chair Michelle Slater hopes to put she sheds on firmer foundations by starting the Australian Women’s Shed Association and creating an invaluable national directory of women’s sheds. But reliable funding is the Holy Grail.

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The Australian Men’s Shed Association administers the Australian Government National Shed Development Programme on behalf of the Department of Health and Aged Care, which has provided $1 million in funding to men’s sheds in the current financial year.

“Each year the Bayswater Women’s Hub would apply to that program,” says Michelle. “And we were told, because we were not men, we were not eligible. And that’s fine. We don’t want to take a slice of the pie. We want to grow the pie.”

The pie might come courtesy of the Department of Health or, Michelle believes, through community resilience funding. Bayswater is one of a few sheds operating a tool library. This, combined with skilled shedders, could be invaluable in the wake of natural disasters.

Bayswater has already given generously to its community. Michelle was involved in launching its outreach program, taking tool workshops to women’s refuges, aiming to give women a sense of ownership of their future home and avoid them having to invite a man in to do basic repairs.

“Ostensibly it’s about teaching tool skills,” she says. “But something magic happens when you pass a woman a drill. It feels taboo. You’re doing something you’ve been told you can’t do. It feels so great. And then you start thinking, ‘If I’ve been telling myself I can’t do this, what else have I been telling myself I can’t do?’”

AuthorThe Australian Women's Weekly

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Women's sheds are helping women change their lives | AWW (2024)
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