Having cut her teeth in the fashion industry, designer Carolyn Denham found herself in search of something more hands-on, so set her sights of bringing together a new vanguard of doers and makers. The result was haberdashery and sewing brand Merchant & Mills, which she founded in 2010 with her partner, photographer Roderick Field. With a sharp focus on high-quality materials and timeless pattern designs, Merchant & Mills has become a go-to for seasoned stitchers and keen crafters, as well as those simply looking to put a personal spin on their wardrobes. Based the idyllic coastal town of Rye, the shop is a sight to behold – a cavernous sewers paradise where every nook is crammed with fabric roles, tools and helpful trinkets. Keen to pay a visit, we stopped by with Carolyn’s favourite Liberty London fabrics, and watched in awe as she and her team whipped them up into three of their best-loved designs.
On Founding Merchant & MillsI practically made everyone’s uniform in sixth form. In those days you couldn’t buy the things you wanted to wear - not in Sheffield anyway! I worked in fashion out in Italy for 12 years but I really didn’t enjoy it.Shop now
When I came back to the UK I decided I wanted to do something with my hands - to make things. I came up with the idea for Merchant & Mills in 2000. I thought I would start the company and sell fabric and patterns to make the clothes. Everybody thought I was crazy and said, ‘nobody sews!’. At the time no-one really was sewing, so I didn’t do it. Then, in 2009, I thought ‘I’m just going to do it and I don’t care if no one buys it’. It was something I felt I needed to do.Shop now
On Sewing Today:The popularity of sewing has grown since I started. You do have to become competent with a sewing machine, just as you would do with a car or a keyboard – but once you’re there you can do anything. You just have to take your time and enjoy the experience. We’re all still learning every single day – we learn from each other.Shop now
Our customer base is largely successful professional women; barristers, lawyers, doctors, solicitors and university professors. They are looking for mindfulness, looking for something that isn’t so head or computer-based. They want to make things specific to them. That’s what it’s about - getting out of your everyday world and into a world where you don’t have to think about anything aside from making something lovely. It’s less about fashion, more about making something you can really wear in fabrics that your wardrobe is already made out of.Shop now
On Liberty London Fabrics Liberty London does great fabric. The Tana Lawn is perfect for patterns. It’s kind of silky but easy to use. It makes up really nicely. My mum always told me to buy the most expensive fabric I can because the work level is the same. Love the fabric that you’re going to make something with because that’s what it’s all about.Shop now
On The Ellis and Hattie Dresses: I had an idea to make a style of dress that was easy fitting and slightly ‘80s in its inspiration. Big wide waist with a gathered skirt, patch pockets - that kind of thing. Slightly fitted at the top so it doesn’t make you look big all over. I also thought I’d like one with a drop waist so we made the second pattern. The skirt is exactly the same but we made it sleeveless with a long top. Very simply, two dresses in one.Shop now
The Ellis Dress can look quite architectural if you make it in a tightly woven cotton but can look relaxed in a linen or a soft wool.
I started this one on the stand. I put a piece of calico on it and then looked at where I wanted the darts. I pinned out the darts at the neck and mocked it up with the sleeve and the length of the waist and made the pattern. The nice thing about darts is that it breaks up the pattern.
The print on the Pointillism Tana Lawn fabric is lovely and subtle, you could wear this dress in the day or the night.
You could wear it anywhere in that pattern actually – even to a wedding if you dressed it up.
On The 101 TrouserI wanted something simple, drawstring, easy to wear, easy to make. People are quite intimidated by making trousers but actually, once you get your head around how the legs go together, that’s it! We made three variations of The 101 Trouser, one that’s tapered and cropped, one that’s full length and one that you can cut off for a pair of shorts. It’s a real beginners pattern so nothing complicated - but they look great.
The trickiest thing about making trousers is the fit. They are the hardest thing to fit because we have quite different shaped bums, hips, waists and leg lengths, so you need to make sure it’s right.
It’s best to make a toile so you can alter the pattern to fit you. You can make the toile really quickly before you cut into some nice fabric. Just make sure you’re happy with the size. If the trouser fit is wrong, there’s not a lot you can do about it.
I thought the Earthly Delights Silk Satin was really autumnal looking. A patterned trouser is quite luxurious paired with a T-shirt.
On The Rugby DressThe Rugby Dress is based on a rugby shirt. It’s a bit of a sporting classic and a dress that will go on giving for years and years. It’s a little more complicated than some of our other dresses because of the button placket and buttonholes, but it’s one that will last forever.
This is the first time we’ve made it up in a patterned fabric – the Message in a Bottle Saville Poplin looks great and fun. The nice thing is that you can make it in a linen or a cotton for the summer, or something heavier for the winter. If you do that you can make the placket in something lighter so you’re not dealing with loads of bulk.Shop now
You don’t have to put a contrast collar on it. It is a bit more challenging if you do. You can see Chrissie’s matched it up perfectly.
Basing things on sporting or iconic garments is quite a nice way to add longevity to your design. They’re classics and they’re easy to put your own mark on.