Creative Women at Work: Carolyn Denham, the maker-designer behind Merchant & Mills

— by Tessa Boase

Carolyn Denham. All photos courtesy of Merchant & Mills


‘An antidote to modern life.’ That’s how Carolyn Denham, 59, describes the haberdashery business that’s captured the zeitgeist with its workwear-inspired clothing patterns, its gorgeous array of natural fabrics, and the message that sewing is serious. Not frivolous. Since Merchant & Mills launched 14 years ago, Carolyn has been on a mission to bring style, purpose and gravitas to this overlooked craft. The message is clearly getting through, because lockdown’s unlikely bestseller was The Foreman: a men’s jacket (currently out of stock).

The shop-studio headquarters is tucked away on a cobbled street in Rye, East Sussex. Carolyn, a warm, purposeful northerner, greets me with a hug.


Merchant & Mills in Rye


Why is the Rye Store important, when most of your business is online?

We like people to just come in and feel. We’ve got all our fabrics here, from corduroy to sanded twill, Italian linen jersey to a beautifully soft Japanese wool and linen blend. They might not think they’re into sewing, but as soon as they touch a roll of fabric, or pick up a pair of scissors or a box of pins, I’m reeling them in. I want to get everybody sewing.


Where did you first get the sewing bug?

My mother was a brilliant seamstress. She was born in 1928, and she made everything in our home. I grew up in a South Yorkshire village, and by 16 had a side hustle making school uniforms, Bowie trousers and doing haircuts. I was basically styling the school. The mid-eighties was a brilliant blip when there was complete freedom of style, the crazier the better. I went on to study Fashion Design at Newcastle Polytechnic and ended up working in a design studio in Italy. But I hated it. I’m not a designer – I’m a maker who designs.


You started the business in 2010, age 46. How long was the idea germinating?

I had what I thought was an absolutely brilliant idea in 2000. I was going to create these sewing patterns and sell the cloth, and customers could either buy the finished dress or make it themselves. I had plenty of experience under my belt from living in foreign countries, thinking differently, working in practical environments and studios. I knew what worked, how to ask questions and how to source things. You only really have that set of skills with age. But everyone thought I was mad. People said, ‘Nobody sews, Carolyn. You do, but nobody else does.’


The Ellsworth Shirt and Shepherd Skirt


What was the catalyst?

When I was 43, I had a brain haemorrhage. As I lay on the operating table, a nurse told me I had a 30 per cent chance of dying, a 30 per cent chance of brain damage, and a 30 per cent chance of being fine. Those were the odds. And I thought if I pull through, I am going to shine. I’m going to do something radically different of my own. I do not care if I lose everything; I’m going to do this.

I recovered – and everyone said for a second time, ‘This is a ridiculous idea. Don’t spend too much time or money on it, Carolyn.’ And I thought, feel free, everyone, to tell me how stupid my idea is. I really don’t care.

That illness was a strange gift. What are we so afraid of?


There’s a mindfulness movement around sewing today. How can it help mental health?

At around 40, when I was living on my own in London, I had a period of terrible depression. I was in a very dark place. I tried pills, I tried self-help books, but nothing worked. Eventually, I started sewing. And it really got me through. I would start with my cloth in the morning, and by the end of the day I’d made something that I really loved. Sewing has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a whole project. The next day, I’d do it all over again. It literally changed my life. You can sit down at your sewing machine, and that’s all you’re thinking about. The process is healing because it takes you somewhere else.


You must hear some interesting stories from customers…

A woman in her mid-sixties once came up to me at a trade show. She’d bought a pattern from us the year before, and it was the first time that she’d let herself make something since becoming a feminist in the 70s. ‘You’ve allowed me to sew again,’ she said. ‘You’ve presented it as cool and serious, not a frivolous nonsense. I’m so grateful to you.’ She was almost in tears! I thought yes, you’re my customer.


The Merchant & Mills house


Your latest venture, sewing retreats at The Grove in Rye, are sold out a year in advance. Who goes?

Women seeking a calm antidote from their stressful jobs: architects, lawyers, university lecturers, doctors. They cocoon themselves in Merchant & Mills inspiration in a beautiful Victorian house, while spending the day sewing at the workshop where they’re guided by tutors Katie and Elwen to make something that will stretch their skills, but is ultimately achievable.


Is Merchant & Mills riding the zeitgeist, or did you lead the way?

I was just waiting for everyone else to catch up! Creating something tangible with your hands is, to me, fundamentally what it means to be human. But we are also about wardrobe building and longevity, and I subscribe to Margaret Howell’s mantra of fewer, better things. Many designers seem to have arrived at the same place, at the same time.


The Francine Top and Shepherd Skirt


How did you go about elevating the humble sewing box?

It was important to find the best quality tools. If a bloke is going to be a cabinetmaker they’re going to want the best of everything. Why does sewing stuff have to come in a pink plastic box? I wanted to give the tools and packaging the same, considered attention as if it were a design project for Harvey Nichols. It’s just as complicated as cabinet making, but we think of sewing as kind of demeaning, a bit Mothers’ Union. Yet if we look at the skill involved, there’s nothing demeaning about it. You have to be clever to do this.


Tell us about your own tools

The Bernina 1008 Classic is my favourite sewing machine. It doesn’t do anything fancy; there’s no digital screen. I also like the vintage machines: the Frister Rossmanns and Singers. My sewing box is inherited from my mother and made by my granddad. It’s full of her knitting needles, yarns, eyelets, her little brass needle case. It still smells of her.


Your partner, the photographer Roderick Field, has been instrumental in creating the brand’s cool vibe. How do you work together?

Part of our courtship was spent doing the graphics for my new business. I was struggling and he said, just hand it to me. So I gave him all the elements, and boom. He was very, very good. And a photographer too!

Today it’s definitely my business, but without Roderick it would not be the same. He needs an idea to kick against, then he’ll do something really brilliant. We do argue quite a lot, which is tetchy for the rest of the staff. He’s just awkward. But he’s quite a genius.


The Edie Dress


Who else is on the team?

We employ 26, four of them men. It’s a hugely loyal team. Some started in fulfilment and have risen to become directors and retail and wholesale managers. The young ones bring the politics in, definitely, and I listen and learn. I have a lot of faith in the younger generation. They’re born into a tough world, where it looks quite bleak. They come to work for us because they think it’s a good, sustainable brand. We’ve become, de facto, political.


What’s been the biggest surprise on the Merchant & Mills journey? 

I didn’t want to be political when I first started. I didn’t want to draw any kind of outside conversation into the sewing world, because this is a safe place where you are just making. But as we got into selling more cloth we had to make choices – and when you are making these choices, you have to become part of the sustainability conversation.

Surprisingly, fabric has become the most significant part of our business. Once you get to the stage where you can commission specific quantities, you can also decide how your fabric is made. We’ve moved all our cotton collection over to organic. If we can’t buy from UK mills we buy from Europe, and if not Europe then India and Japan. I’ve been to the mills and met the owners. I know about the dyes they use, how they recycle things, what their water cleaning system is. All these things are part of my responsibility to have the least amount of impact.

During the pandemic Merchant & Mills single-handedly kept mills rolling as people turned to their old sewing machines and got making. This is when we began to design our own fabrics.


The Denham Jacket


Keep it simple


What’s your advice to absolute beginners?

Do not be afraid. Start with something very simple, like the Orton bag, because it’s important to get a win. Then you’ll be inspired to do more. Our best-selling pattern is still my very first, the Trapeze dress. It’s super simple. I love that you can make a design unique to you by choosing your own fabric, buttons, length and sleeve options. There are multiple possibilities. From just a couple of patterns, you can make a whole wardrobe.


Is there a silhouette of the moment?

It has been gathers, with a nod to Little House on the Prairie/Laura Ashley (see The Etta, Mathilde, Omilie, Ellis & Hattie patterns). But I feel we are moving to an Annie Hall look: a bit androgynous. Shirt and tie is going to be a big look (The Denham, The Ellsworth).


What’s next?

We’ve just launched our first campaign, Clothes Not Fashion. The message is that we probably have all the clothes we want already. So we’re going to look back at the hundreds of samples we’ve amassed over the years and restyle them all together. I want to show you a ten-year-old wardrobe, which probably still looks pretty cool, and mix it up with accessories, bags, layers. Make you see it anew. Can we all start thinking like this?


Carolyn Denham, founder of Merchant & Mills


Journalist, author and social historian Tessa Boase lives in Hastings with her family.



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