How the Sewing Bee Effect is thriving at Altrincham’s Sew Creative
- Credit: Donna Clifton
Whether it’s a matter of style or sustainability, making your own clothes is seriously back in fashion - meet the women who have it all sewn up.
The North West has been synonymous with the cotton trade for hundreds of years, its giant mills the industrial titans of their day.
Cottonopolis may have died along with those dark Satanic mills of William Blake's Jerusalem, but there's a very modern material industry beginning to flourish once more in the region - albeit of more modest proportions.
You can see it on the shop floor of Altrincham's Sew Creative, a material-shop-cum-sewing-studio, where its six sewing machines are all occupied; absorbed-looking faces, studiously inspecting their work.
Here owner Kate Proctor, 33, holds up to four adult sewing classes a day and more for children and teens. Her students range from six to 60-plus and business is, now, booming.
It started three years ago when she began advertising her sewing services from a table in a local Hobbycraft store. 'I sat there for five weeks and nobody turned up. Eventually a lady wandered up to me and asked if I taught adults. She knew how to sew but she wanted to learn how to make her own patterns. She was my first customer - and is still one now,' says Kate.
She's now far from the only one. Fast forward to May last year and there was enough custom to warrant opening a dedicated shop-and-studio. Meanwhile, back at Kate's first testing ground, Hobbycraft, sales of sewing machines have increased by 48% year on year with fabric sales up another 20%. The Great British Sewing Bee, BBC 2's dressmaking equivalent of ...Bake Off, had audiences of up to four million for its 2019 return. In the last year Kate has had to increase her offering exponentially to meet demand - and she's seen a change in her customer base. 'When I first started teaching privately back in 2016, people laughed and said I'd be teaching just grannies. And I don't mind, that would have been fine. But it's certainly not been the case in the last year.' She believes her increasingly younger customer base is down to more than the so-called Sewing Bee Effect.
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'I think sewing is incredibly therapeutic. It's better than meditation,' says Kate. 'And I think in these days where we're continuously stimulated by work and technology, it's a real hands-on, creative way to disconnect.'
She also acknowledges our growing awareness around fast fashion and its impact on the environment. 'I definitely have people calling up saying they want to be more sustainable with their choices. It's certainly motivating people to make their own clothes from scratch or reuse fabrics or repair things they would have just thrown away before,' says Kate.
'Besides,' she adds. 'I do think people are getting a bit tired of the high street and the quality that's often on offer. Something made to blanket size-12 measurements will never fit you the way something you've made yourself for your own body will.'
That's certainly how Rachel Adati-Kumni, 28, who's been going to Kate's classes for over a year, feels.
'There have been times when I've not found clothes I want in shops and sometimes I like things that are out of my budget', she says. 'Being able to sew allows me to replicate or create clothes that fit better.'
Rachel had grown up watching her father sew, altering pairs of trousers that might not have fit perfectly. 'We'd always had a sewing machine, but I'd never learnt to use it,' she says. As an adult, thinking more about the kind of clothes she really wanted to wear, she began to sketch outfit ideas. 'The more I sketched, the more I wanted to be able to make the clothes,' she says.
So when a colleague told her about Sew Creative's classes - where you can do exactly what you want with hands-on tuition, rather than following a syllabus or set theme - she decided to give it a go.
She started with a cushion cover and has moved on to skirts, holiday shorts and dresses.'My long-term goal is to be able to freehand sew anything I want without a commercial pattern,' she adds.
She agrees with Kate that her new hobby brings its own mental health benefits. 'It's taught me to be a lot more patient and not overly critical', she adds. 'I'm a perfectionist who notices things like a stitch not being right. But once something is ironed and on the hanger, you just don't see those imperfections. In a way it's taught me a lot about not stressing over minor things.'
Further west in Warrington, Linsey Williams had her own reasons for opening her business, Dolly's Sewing School and Haberdashery.
'It's five years ago now and the disaster in Dhaka [where a garment factory collapsed killing more than 1000 people] had just happened and I began to feel more and more strongly that fast fashion wasn't right from a human perspective.'
She had sewn as a hobby from a young age and says she had not owned a shop-bought dress until she was 13. 'I have a really creative family so knitting, sewing and crochet have always been in my life,' Linsey says.
'I started making clothes because I don't want to look like everyone else and as I got older I started to want to know where my clothes come from,' she says.
Such was her passion that at almost 40 she abandoned her career in hairdressing and ploughed everything she had into her business, selling her car to help fund renting the premises.. The business is now clearly thriving and is open six days a week with classes for children to adults. Last year she won Best Independent Retailer in the 2018 National Sewing Award and as I visit on a busy Thursday afternoon, there are three women at their sewing machines, all working on individual patterns for skirts (the theme of today's session), the room quiet as they concentrate on their tasks.
Her customers range from 'flamboyant men making clothes for their drag shows, to new mums making clothes for their newborn babies.'
They also include Nadine Thompson, 41, who moved from Oxford to Warrington in December last year. She works part-time as a quantity surveyor and has two children, aged four and six.
'I'd done a few bits and pieces of sewing before this, but nothing continuously,' she says. Acutely aware of how quickly her children outgrow their clothes, she hopes to be confident enough to create a respectable wardrobe for them some time in the future. But this isn't all about function.
She describes it as 'like a hobby, something for me that doesn't involve the kids or work.'
'It's helped me to get to know new people and form friendships, too and expand my social network' she adds.
Linsey's thrilled when she hears Nadine say this - the social element of her school is a huge part of her vision. Most of her trade is 'by word of mouth. People don't just come once, they make friends and come back again, there's a community. If someone comes for the classes here, I can guarantee they always come back,' she says.
'We've had people who have just lost their jobs and don't know what to do and new mothers struggling with breastfeeding. They get a lot more out of it other than just learning to sew,' she explains. 'Friendships have formed and we've had nights out. It's helped some people feel less isolated or has been a distraction from their issues.'
It's an echo of the bigger community growing around sewing and dress making. You only have to look on social media to see it. On Instagram, the perfect platform for sewers and crafters to display the evidence of their creations, the hashtag #sewing has been used almost 10 million times. There are bona fide stars of the sewing world; some of the UK's most prolific accounts have close to 150,000 followers and their comments sections contain hundreds of messages - compliments and questions, people looking for tips and inspiration.
Linsey says around 80% of Dolly's new custom comes from Facebook and she agrees with Kate and Nadine that awareness over sustainability is driving people to her page. Unlike most of us, and our unthinking splurges on the highs street, Linsey has always had this mentality. In fact it's sewn right into her DNA.
Looking back to her childhood as one of five children, she says she learned to 'rock the jumble sale look', which later formed the ethos of her business by repurposing fabrics into new designs. 'Until recently we didn't realise fast fashion was polluting the earth and the issues around plastic. It's not enough to be churning out thousands of garments that are almost disposable,' she adds.
That old adage about quality over quantity? It's never been more relevant.