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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
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Vintage Stories: When the stars align

Louise from Shoreditch Design Rooms shares her vintage story with Olive Road.

Gliding seamlessly from studying astro physics to setting up a successful upholstery school isn’t the most obvious of career paths but Louise from the Shoreditch Design Rooms did just that. Louise lived on Gower street in central London, a pebbles throw from the beautiful university buildings of University College London (UCL) where she was studying. Twenty years later and a further few miles to the east, Louise was building a different type of school. The Shoreditch Design Rooms on Hackney Road teaches around 70 students in upholstery and soft furnishings from beginners to professional upholsterers. The college is renowned for having small classes so students can learn on a one to one basis, pick up tips from each other and learn from the commercial workshop attached to the school. 

I bumped into Louise whilst she was demonstrating her skills at Sew Amazing on Roman Road. Owner Robb helped Louise source the industrial machines she needed for the college and he continues to service the machines ‘A sewing machine is so important and I can rely on Robb to look after it really well’ Louise she tells me.  We share our excitement of transforming a much loved old piece of furniture or fabric into a brand new object when Louise tells me the most wonderful coincidence that happened to her whilst she was in the midst of building the school. ‘I was looking for something that would work as a good cutting table. The right height so students didn’t have to bend down but long and wide enough to hold a length of upholstery fabric’. She came across some benches outside a reclamation yard, discared on the street, left to fend against the elements. The benches are solid mahogany oak and from inspecting the detail, Louise could see they were obviously hand made. Each of the drawers underneath the bench are numbered as they only fit in that custom made home. Sadly Louise only had room for five benches out of the 250 available and the rest were probably damaged beyond repair from being left in the rain. There was something familiar about the benches, when Louise asked the trader it turns out he had acquired them from UCL. Not only the same university Louise attended but from the same science labs. ‘I knew they were the same as when I sit up at them I can’t get my legs underneath and I remember that from being at college. It felt like such a good omen’.

The Shoreditch Design Rooms offer AMUSF accredited courses or taster evening classes for upholstery and soft furnishings. Full details on their website

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Clerkenwell Vintage Fair Celebrate their Eighth Year

Olive Road talks to fair organiser Savitri Coleman to discover the secret to the fair’s success and her top tips for vintage shopping.

Weekends were made for shopping. I don’t mean heading to a shopping mall, wandering around aimlessly seeing the same styles in the same stores but with different names. I mean a relaxed day out, chatting with your friend, hunting through rails and antique suitcases with excited anticipation on what you might find. Then when your feet start to ache, the luxury of being able to stop for a coffee or cocktail and listen to live music. My day at the The Clerkenwell Vintage Fair last month was one of those perfect shopping days. A stones throw from Columbia Market in their new home, the Shoreditch Courthouse Hotel, the fair celebrated their eighth birthday with live band The Volstead Orchestra playing in the jewel coloured cocktail bar of the hotel. I was meeting with the fair’s founder and organiser Savitri Coleman to discover the secret of eight successful years of the popular vintage fair. Whilst I was waiting for Savitri to finish with a customer, I spotted a dapper looking couple enjoying the music. Moira and Chris and were on holiday from New York, they had spent most of their trip in Glasgow visiting family and had booked a trip to London, choosing to stay at the Courthouse Hotel so they could be near today’s vintage fair. 


Not long after I’ve said goodbye to Chris and Moira, Savitri flurries in wearing a long cream and red printed vintage maxi dress, the print being based on filigree jewellery from Portugal with matching drop earrings and cork wedges. Savitri is excited as she has just helped a bride find her perfect vintage wedding dress at the fair. She explains that personal shopping with customers around the fair is what she enjoys the most but she doesn’t always get the time on the day as she organises the fair on her own. Savitri leads me down a large wooden staircase into the hotel’s chambers which has been transformed into a sea of bright graphic prints, long delicate bias cut dresses, feathers on hats, tiny buttons on gloves and boxy shaped jackets glittered with sequins. I spotted a colbolt silk paisley scarf priced at £5 and a chocolate silk Dior dress coat at £175. As I delved deeper I discovered a WWII nurse’s woollen cape, 1950’s swimsuits and sundresses covered in cartoon style prints and an Edwardian Lawn lace dress, in the photograph below from Cabinet 49.

As Savitri guides me around the busy room I ask her why she thinks the fair has been so successful for the past eight years.         ‘We offer an eclectic mix of good quality vintage at affordable prices. We are the go-to fair for fashion designers looking for inspiration. Designers can find interesting prints, embroidery, embellishment and tailoring from different era’s to draw ideas from for future collections. Stylists can pick up quirky one-off pieces for fashion shoots and celebrity red carpet dresses whilst seasoned vintage lovers come along to source pieces from their trusted vintage dealer and a fun filled day out. There is a price point for every pocket’. She goes on to tell me that she set up the fair in May 2009 as the recession was hitting vintage traders and many stores had started to close down. ‘I wanted to offer a good quality vintage event to support traders who had lost their shops and were paying extortionate fees for stands at other fairs. I wanted to create a fashion led event and make it a shopping experience with vibrant live music, a diverse range of vintage apparel and a specialist alterations team’. The alterations team is unique to the Clerkenwell Vintage Fair as they can alter items whilst you wait in the bar with a cocktail or carry on shopping. ‘Our alterations team understand fashion from different periods so you are rest assured your garment is in good hands and will fit perfectly whilst ensuring the shape of the garment still speaks of the era. A mistake that is commonly made in dry cleaners or local menders’

Squeezing our way through a cluster of customers eagerly searching each rail for that perfect vintage item I ask Savitri why she thinks vintage style is still popular ‘When you wear vintage, your individuality shines through. TV shows such as Sex and the City certainly whet peoples appetite for vintage and more recently Downtown Abbey have also inspired people to put vintage pieces back in their wardrobe’.  I wonder when Savitri first started her passion for vintage shopping. ‘I was raised on second hand clothes. We would traul charity shops and car boots at the weekends and had to make-do-and-mend anything that had fallen apart. I would turn up to school discos in a range of items from my mum’s wardrobe and pieces I had swapped with friends and everyone would always comment on how cool it looked. During the 1980’s I used to shop at Kensington Market and hang out at Mud club with the likes of Boy George, Marilyn and Philip Salon. It was all about being different, anti-establishment views and individuality. We would spend all week getting our ‘look’ together for one night. Hours of painstakingly customizing pieces to stand out from the crowd.’

Savitri’s Top Ten Tips for Vintage Shopping

  1. If you’re shopping for vintage for you it’s really useful to know what era suits you and your body shape. This will save a lot of time at fairs when browsing so you know which periods are just not you and even if the print or fabric is fabulous it just won’t do you any justice.
  2. Keep an open mind when shopping for vintage at fairs or markets as you are unlikely to find exactly what you are looking for but you will find other interesting things.
  3. Try on garments and photograph yourself in them so you can see how you really look rather than how you think you look in a mirror.
  4. If an item fits then it’s meant to be. If you love it – buy it. You won’t find it again
  5. Google vintage fairs and markets to find out what fairs are on and when.
  6. Instagram is a good resource to search for vintage traders and vintage apparel
  7. Check the width of hems to know whether it is a 50’s dress instead of 80’s. Some 1980’s copies are great and sometimes they have used 50’s fabric but the hems are usually really thin and overlocked.
  8. If you are unsure of the price or worth of a vintage garment you can always get a second opinion by speaking to other traders or contacting auction houses to see what similar pieces have sold for.
  9. Earlier pieces like 20’s and 30’s can be expensive as they are harder to come by in good condition especially beaded or with embellishment (Check under the arms on chiffon dresses for tares, check the seams are in tact or you won’t have much ware out of it and lastly for moth holes)
  10. Lastly always get a receipt so if you have any queries you can always contact the trader

Half way round the fair, Savitri is called to reception as a customer wants to shop at the fair with a small dog. She hugs me goodbye and rushes off whilst I wonder how she manages to run around all day in those high wedge heels and still look a picture of vintage glamour. The Clerkenwell Vintage Fair is back at the Courtyard hotel on the 25th June 2017, you can win two tickets for free entry to their summer fair by signing up for the Olive Road newsletter or commenting on the Facebook post in this link. Good Luck!