Merchant and Mills owner Carolyn Denham discusses with Lucy Bryant why ‘seamstresses should have a much higher gravitas than they do’.
After being repeatedly stopped in the streets and by ‘strangers on trains’ asking ‘where did you get that from?’ about her handmade clothes, Carolyn Denham decided it was time to start making her coveted designs available to the public.
But rather than producing the items herself, Carolyn decided to go about it in a different way.
“I just thought people are sewing again, why don’t I make the patterns?” she reveals.
The idea was initially conceived in 2000 after Carolyn moved back to the UK after working in fashion design in New York and Italy.
“I had this idea of doing dress patterns and selling fabric and people could make it themselves,” she says.
“Everybody was like ‘oh that’s such a stupid idea, nobody sews anymore’.
“So I thought, that’s true, I sew but I don’t know that anybody else does”.
However, after noticing a resurgence in sewing in 2010 Carolyn founded Merchant and Mills.
Upon announcing that she was going to set up her business, Carolyn says she ‘got the maximum amount of discouragement you could possibly get from everybody’ with people saying it was a ‘terrible idea’, ‘was never going to work’ and that she would ‘spend too much money on it’.
However, with some invaluable advice from a previous boss, who said ‘Carolyn, if it doesn’t work, you’ll just do something else’, she and her partner Roderick, a photographer, decided to go for it.
“I give Roderick a set of ideas, fonts, layouts, inspiration, then he works his magic on them to produce the amazing packaging,” she explains.
The packaging reflects the Merchant and Mills look, which is modern but traditional, clean and practical. Something which Carolyn recognises as ‘her style’ adding ‘I’ve always had that utilitarian, no-fuss vibe’.
Carolyn designed the company for herself, with the hope that other people would understand and like that style, which has proved to be a great success.
As well as her style, she ‘wanted to sell [her] own experience of making clothes’.
“It’s really satisfying and removes you from your everyday,” she smiles.
“You can get lost in making something. You don’t have to think about your job, your emails.”
Carolyn’s passion saw her want to create a range of quality and practical sewing tools to go with an array of interesting fabrics and desireable dress patterns.
She initially found that what was already available was either ‘not very good quality’ or came in pink.
“I didn’t want anything pink in my workshop,” she reveals.
“I want to have things that are real, things that are used in industry.”
Merchant and Mills tools are all of industry standard, meaning you’re using what manufacturers and design houses would.
In comparison to other industries, Carolyn says: “If a man takes up carpentry, he’ll go and buy the best tools that are available and yet we’re like, ‘what about these plastic handled scissors’, and it’s like no, we need to approach it with the same, exacting mentality that other trades would.”
“Sewing is probably the most common manufacturing process in the world,” she exclaims.
“If you think about car seats, sails for boats, so many things are sewn.
“Somehow, the skill and craft of sewing is not as honourable as a cabinet maker, and why? It is equally as difficult, why does it not have the gravitas it should have?”
Merchant and Mills have recently launched a ready-to-wear collection ‘because [they] got asked so many times if people could buy the finished dress’.
The collection has proved successful, and means that even if you don’t sew, you’re able to ‘buy into the brand’.
Although a lot of stock is sourced from the UK, Carolyn says their ethos is to ‘buy the product from the place that does it best’, remaining true to the origins of linen, block prints and technical wovens.
“Every country has its own personality in fabric so why try to replicate that when you can have the real thing?” she explains.
When asked whether another store was on the cards Carolyn says ‘never say never’.
“We always say ‘oh maybe we should open a shop in London or Paris’,” she adds, “but then we would all have to go and live in London.”
It seems Carolyn and Roderick are more than happy to continue trading from their warehouse store in Rye, seeing as it’s ‘a great location, a charming little town, beautiful countryside and the beach is right there’.
“At the end of the day, success is about having the lifestyle you want, not just about how much money you generate,” smiles Carolyn.
What more could you want?
You can find Merchant and Mills stock in Liberty’s, the V&A and other stores across the UK, Japan, Australia and America.
To see the collection in full, head down to the Merchant and Mills’ warehouse store in Rye.
Or visit the website, merchantandmills.com
Pictures: Roderick Field