C: We are under stress much of the time in our daily lives. If we can take or make the time to make, we will be healthier. And we will consume more responsibly.
For the five day four night sewing retreat, the students stay in a contemporary character house located a few miles away from Rye. The house is called the St John’s Rye, which is a former ambulance station located in the town center. It has a beautiful garden planted with olive trees and wildflowers, and it is equipped with a kitchen. At the end of a busy day, students can cook, take a rest, or explore the eateries of Rye. The endless expanse of beach in Camber is just a five-minute walk away.
Having to go to the headquarters in Rye, the quintessentially English town, every day, the students have a chance to wander the cobbled streets that are flanked by Tudor buildings, Georgian facades, quirky independent shops, and an array of old pubs.
In the sewing studio upstairs from the shop floor, the students are surrounded by beautiful fabrics which they can use and try on all pattern samples. With only six students in each course at a time, there is no rush and no time limits. The experienced teachers, Chrissie and Katie, patiently guide the students to select suitable patterns in a relaxed, light-hearted and yet focused manner.
Other than making clothes, students can enjoy the locally sourced wholesome lunch, and unlimited delicious cakes, tea, and coffee. For a breather, there are afternoon outings to inspiring locations, such as Great Dixter | House & Gardens, or a wine tasting at a local vineyard. It’s a great opportunity to get a short break and some fresh country air, and a chance to discover the broader context of Rye.
C: The week finishes with a whole group dinner together at one of our favourite artisan spots, like the Tillingham Winery, 8 The Street, or The Whitehouse in Rye. The students proudly wear their newly made garments and along with them we all feel a little proud, even a little bit smug! We stick to our slogan of KEEP IT SIMPLE AND DO IT WELL.
T: Nowadays no one lacks clothing, what we need is to relearn how clothes are made, to restore our mind and reconnect with our hands through the process.
C: Yes, we already have too many clothes. All of us do. The relentless cycle of fashion offers little or fleeting reward to most consumers. So, for Merchant & Mills, it is about making a different relationship with what we wear. It’s not about a wardrobe bursting with garments, nor is it about trailing around the shops every Saturday to find the elusive dress that will change our lives. It’s about spending time with yourself, choosing a pattern and fabric that you really love and while you are immersed in the process of making, you will be thinking of nothing else. Your mind will quiet and all that will matter is the straightness of your topstitch.
At the same time, the aim is to build a stylish, timeless wardrobe of things you really love. You can find a pattern that suits you and transform it with different fabric choices each time you make it. Your clothes will truly be your own!
T: Having worked on fashion design in New York, Italy and London, what triggered you to leave the commercial fashion world and go back to the origin of clothes making?
C: After working in the fashion industry, I knew it wasn’t for me. Although I called myself as a designer, I knew myself to be firstly a maker. I have always made my own clothes, no matter which designer I was working for. I always felt more comfortable in something I had made myself. When it came to move on from the design world, I thought I might make a small collection of dresses.
I would often get stopped on the street and asked where I got my dress from, so there seemed to be a potential market. Then I stopped and thought: What if others could get the pleasure I do from making it themselves? I toyed with the idea of a small pattern range, and ….I was actively discouraged by almost everyone around me. I didn’t care if I failed. Even if I lost everything on this venture, I truly believed.
T: And….it’s already 10 years, how did you come through this journey?
C: Merchant & Mills started 10 years ago with the view to bring contemporary sewing patterns to an emerging craft community. We started with simple, easy to make styles that were achievable for any level.
Alongside this we brought to market a curated selection of finest quality sewing tools to reflect the gravity of our intent; to elevate sewing to its proper place. We started with high quality, industry-standard cardboard patterns that were individually sized and ready to use. However, as we grew, it became commercially unviable to stock and ship this range, so we moved to paper patterns, printed in the US in the traditional style. This opened up the wholesale market to us. Our patterns are now stocked by independent retailers all over the world.
C: The second organic developments stage that Merchant & Mills has seen was our move into trading cloth. We travelled to Europe and the rest of the world to source beautiful natural fabrics that complimented our range of patterns. This is an area that continues to grow. We are now working with various mills developing our own cloth and colourways.
Our current focus has naturally shifted to sustainable cloth. We have recently joined BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) in order to have our cotton and cotton blends sustainably sourced where possible. We have developed new hemp blends and continue to work with mills that are run on green energy.
C: It’s an alternative to the high street, and it’s an alternative to just general crafting. It’s something more like a different lifestyle choice. It’s like you’re choosing to make your own clothes rather than to buy them. And you can make everything if you want to.
“It’s much more about being present in the present, experiencing life instead of just blind and closing your eyes and get your credit card out in a shopping centre.” Roderick Field, another founder said.