Our lives are so head-based, with so much time spent on our computers, that it’s good for us to create things. It’s what makes us human,” says fashion designer Carolyn Denham (pictured) in reference to sewing – the activity her shop Merchant & Mills in Rye, East Sussex, is designed to inspire. This establishment (“Merchant stands for trading, Mills for making,” she explains), which she co-founded in 2012 with photographer and writer Roderick Field (also pictured), brims with high-quality fabrics and stylish specialist sewing accoutrements. “Sewing has made a huge comeback, along with all things handmade,” says Denham. “It ties in with people’s growing interest in provenance and craftsmanship. A shop like ours couldn’t have existed six years ago.”
Occupying an atmospheric former warehouse, Merchant & Mills has a decidedly 1940s-inspired aesthetic; its co-owners describe it as “a cross between a wartime hardware shop, a cloth mill and a crafter’s paradise”. However, they are not peddling pure nostalgia, says Denham. “We want our products to be traditional yet contemporary, utilitarian not pretty-pretty.” The elegantly minimal packaging, designed by Field, is a case in point, combining retro typefaces with cutting-edge contemporary graphics.
The store’s focal point is a large table supported by reclaimed sewing-machine legs, piled high with bolts of fine fabrics, including an Irish oiled linen (£17 per m), rolls of heavy European linen (£15 per m), hand-loomed Indian cottons and denim (from £8 per m), and sumptuous mohair and wool cloths from Somerset-based Fox Brothers (from £25 per m). “We scour the world for materials and stock a carefully curated collection,” says Denham. “Young designers often come here, as they know that many of our fabrics can’t be found anywhere else.”
There is also a cabinet filled with scissors – such as side-bent tailor’s shears (£48) – that are sought-after by Savile Row tailors and one who works for Alexander McQueen, all regular customers. “Tailors can buy equipment from catalogues, but a major attraction of the shop is to be able to feel the weight of a pair of scissors or try on a thimble,” says Denham. “Amateur sewers come in, too, because they know they will find what they need to make something really beautiful.”
To encourage aspiring craftspeople, the shop stocks kits to make items such as totes (£48), as well as 11 own-brand dress patterns (from £13) that also exist as samples that customers can try on. Part of the shop’s charm lies in chancing upon the quirky, esoteric vocabulary of home-sewing, with products such as superfine entomology pins – usually associated with butterfly collections – that are good for silk and antique cloth (£6 for 100). A nod to the modern era comes in the form of an iPad case (from £32) in distressed canvas – one of Denham and Field’s own designs.
“Our shop is dedicated to elevating sewing to its proper place in the creative world,” says Denham. “We want to equip people with the tools to make items of outstanding quality.”