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Eco Sewing with Fabrications founder Barley Massey

The Fashion Revolution Week campaign was in full swing last night at Fabrications, the eco sewing studio and shop on Broadway Market in East London. Founder Barley Massey, Offset Warehouse’s Charlie Ross, Stichless TV’s Tree and Threadworks’ Lydia invited sewing fans to the shop for an eco sewing party….

Running a bit late, I walk into a hive of activity. Every inch of the shop is being used by party goers to cut fabrics in graphic prints, queues are forming for the sewing machines and the familiar whizz of their motors is filling the air. I make my way downstairs and meet a similar scene with every sewing machine and work surface being used. The eco sewing party is in full swing and I feel like I have been whisked back in time to the rag trade of old East End without the sweat and steam.

I manage to find Barley cutting lengths of printed jersey from a selection of Offset Warehouse’s fabric that is sold in the shop. Charlie from Offset Warehouse and Barley hosted the evening in support of Fashion Revolution Week. As a fashion designer, Charlie was frustrated with trying to find fabrics from an ethical source, leading her to set up her own ethical fabric business. I discovered this amazing business from the Making Good podcast, which gives an interesting insight into Charlie’s inspiration and ethos. I select a petrol blue jersey with a tonal bird print and start cutting a pattern on Barley’s genius drop down cutting table (I definitely need one of these!). Shorts are being sewn upstairs overseen by Threadworks London founder Lydia Higginson, downstairs Tree from Stitchless TV is showing everyone how to make T-shirts.

A few weeks before the party I caught up with super-crafter Barley Massey the founder of Fabrications, over a cuppa sharing our passion for charity shops and the re-purposing old clothes. I interrupted Barley mid-sewing session in her bright basement studio cutting a length of denim fabric. She is busy making ra-ra skirts from remnants of men’s shirts that had already been used on another project, stitching them to denim fabric that someone had given her.

photo copyright of Fabrications

‘I don’t buy new clothes any more’ Barley replies when I admire her belted top. She had constructed it from two shirts that she found in a charity shop. ‘I make things myself, people give me clothes and I find jeans in charity shops like these black Lee Cooper ones from the Woolworth Road. They had their original packing on them and everything’. I’ve brought cake and Barley switches on a 1970’s kettle that she inherited from her Nan. It fits perfectly into the studio created from reclaimed items. My favourite is the curtains stitched together from old ties that act as kitchen cupboards.

I first met Barley when I joined her ‘Refresh your wardrobe‘ class last year. She teaches people how to mend their clothes, cutting and restyling to give them a new lease of life. I ask Barley where she got the inspiration to build her eco-sewing school and studio. ‘The shop side is an evolution’. Barley explains she was looking for a studio space and Hackney council wanted to update Broadway Market and offered her the lease on this shop eighteen years ago. ‘I thought a window on the world would be good as well as a studio. At each stage we introduced new elements. Sustainable, recycling and upcycling seemed obvious to me. My nan’s generation taught me a lot of craft skills at a young age and I want to pass on those values. I grew up in Wales and we lived very resourcefully from growing our own veg to making our own clothes. When I was setting up my own business, it made sense to continue with my family ways’.

Barley started her career in fashion and sewing making costumes for TV, including working for Sands films. ‘They were already good at reusing things but it depended on the production. Some customers required new cloth but they sourced old fabrics, collected old patchwork and lace and reused it. I learnt how to make things out of scraps but it looked like original Elizabethan embroidery, really inventive.’

‘Once I started working with waste fabrics I became more aware of the fashion waste problem. I have access to textile recycling centres and it is such an eye opener. The volume of textile waste that comes in and that is only from within the M25’. Barley goes on to explain that many of the products are cheap clothing with their labels still intact ‘People have lost the value for things because it is so cheap. Some people need affordable clothing but it can become wasteful and over consuming’. Barley tells me she has always had a passion for second hand and vintage shopping. ‘I don’t buy any new things now. Lots of people want to step away from fast fashion’

Love Your Clothes and Recycle for London commission Barley to teach sewing repair workshops to a variety of community groups and fashion fans, linking up with various charity shops such as Traid. Barley met a woman from Thailand at one of the events who explained their is not a culture of waste in her home country ‘the concept of charity shops doesn’t exist. Even when the item is threadbare it is used as rags for cleaning’. We both agree that small actions help to create change and people learning to sew helps adapt their behaviour and attitude to buying new clothes. ‘I bring along lots of examples to get people inspired’. Barley hosts a monthly craft club in her studio and sewing enthusiast Piere has managed to re-fit an old coat to his size by removing the sleeves with Barley’s help.

‘If you are trying to save money, it is expensive to get a repair done. Being creative, seeing potential in things they might not have thought was possible. Repairing clothes is good for environment but also if someone loves something it has a longer use. Barley has taken this passion further and now offers a customised sewing service called ‘Remember Me‘. ‘It is a service for someone who has lost a love one and they have kept their clothes. I make a special memorial item or help them to make it themselves. It is healing for that person and it can really help someone through a difficult time to have something tangible to remember their loved one by. One customer came with his wife’s clothes and we chatted through what he would like. His wife had died just after childbirth and their daughter didn’t know her mum. So he wanted to do something special, he had kept the clothes for a long time, so we made a quilt from them for his daughter. I could see he was very happy, a kind of poetic upcycling’.

The idea came to Barley when a customer saw some pieces she had made in a magazine. ‘It took her two years to visit the shop after she had lost her husband, she needed time to be ready. She arrived with a big yellow suitcase full of clothes and I made about ten cushions. All different, one for each child. She thought carefully about which garment was significant for each of them. That is how the service was born. It had such a positive impact on that family I wanted to offer it to more people.’

The sewers at the eco sewing party are starting to show off their handy work and I haven’t even begun to piece my shorts together yet. I’ve been too busy chatting to a group of women who all make their clothes such as Sasha who knitted this gorgeous linen mix jumper and Fiona who made this fun zebra print blouse. Fiona makes us laugh by telling us she often  has a queue of people at her corporate office desk asking for repairs including a man who had split his trousers! We share ideas on our about favourite patterns, fabric shops and workshops.

Barley gathers us all together to pick the raffle prizes and the winners are suitably excited. It has been fun evening supporting Fashion Revolution Week. I’ve enjoyed meeting  like minded people who want to influence a positive change to the fashion industry after the tragedy of the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh. This is the second year Barley and Charlie have hosted the eco sewing party and I’m sure they will continue next year after the success of this evening. I’ve made a start by overlocking my shorts together but they are going to have to be a home project as everyone is packing up and the temporary sewing hive returns to a shop and workshop.

There is still time to get involved – on Saturday Fabrications are hosting a Hackathon with some fantastic prizes to be won for the best re-fashions on the day.

Barley, Tree and Charlie