Melanie Lark Ellis has the perfect work-life balance thanks to the shed she transformed into a sewing studio. Sharon Dale reports.
Posh sheds have eclipsed fancy bathrooms and state-of-the art kitchens as property selling points, as few can resist the appeal of a rustic hideaway.
Melanie Lark Ellis was thrilled when she first saw the timber chalet in the garden of the Leeds semi she bought with husband Rob.
It was a shed with potential. Tackling the orange wood stain was top of Melanie’s “to do” list and painting over it with a soft heritage green transformed the “Tango-ed” chalet into a pretty, grown-up Wendy house.
Inside was all about a creating a place where she could work, though she made the classic novice sheddie’s mistake of failing to insulate.
“I loved the look and feel of the wood inside so I moved my sewing machine in there but I was absolutely freezing and in winter, it was damp. In the end my late father-in-law said ‘right this is ridiculous, I’m going to sort it out.’”
He packed the walls and roof with loft insulation and topped it with plywood. That and a new electric heater mean the shed is now cosy and condensation free. It is the perfect HQ for her home-based business, Spring Lark, which specialises in everything from handmade cushions to iPad covers and lavender hearts plus pictures and cards.
The seeds of the venture were sown when she inherited her great aunt’s sewing machine and it now supplies independent shops and fairs as well as her online shop.
“I was taught to sew by my mum and when I had my children, I made practical items like drawstring bags for nappies and pictures and cushions for presents. I started the business four years ago after a friend put in a big order and then a shop asked if I could supply them.
“Now I supply shops in and outside of Yorkshire and I spend six hours a day in the shed working. Having the insulation and heater is crucial,” says Melanie, who studied art and design at Leeds Metropolitan University.
When she’s extra busy, she moves the Janome sewing machine into the house for the evening so she can multi-task and keep an eye on her two sons, Theo, ten, and seven-year-old Kieron.
She and Rob bought the property in 2005 after out-growing their terraced house in Saltaire, Bradford. They were keen to find somewhere bigger with a garden and the semi offered everything that the growing family needed. “It had been modernised but everything was very bland in brown and cream and there were no features whatsoever,” says Melanie.
Taking on a characterless house is a big challenge, but she has worked hard to inject some personality into the property.
She was helped by father-in-law Dave Ellis, a retired surgeon who was a gifted DIYer keen to try new crafts.
“He was brilliant. He loved working with wood and he would try his hand at anything. He had just retired when we bought the house and so he really got stuck in,” says Melanie.
“He made the built-in bookcase, the mirror in the sitting room and the storage unit in the dining room. He was very talented.”
Melanie then added colour and interest to each room. One wall in the sitting room is painted olive and, although there was no fire, it did have a fireplace, which she filled with logs. Her own cushions, hanging hearts and the nick-nacks in the bookcase brighten the room.
Centre stage is an old hand-driven Jones sewing machine, a birthday present from Dave.
It is surrounded with pieces by other designer makers, including a collection of polymer clay mice by Kirsten Miller of Quernus Crafts.
“Buying from makers is becoming much more common now. Yes, you pay more for a handmade cushion than you do for one from Asda or Debenhams but you get something different and something that has taken time to make. It’s special,” says Melanie.
Many of her favourite makers are members of Craft Soup, a group of Yorkshire designer-makers who get together online to chat and swap ideas and information. They also provide much-needed support for each other.
“It’s a lovely community and people are really generous if you have any questions about sourcing or making. Working at home on your own can be quite isolating so it’s a godsend. You can go online and have a chat to someone in the same boat.”
The long, narrow dining room was a “beige box” but now has a lime green feature wall and a supersized photo canvas of Dave and Theo walking in Swaledale. The floor-to-ceiling storage unit is perfect for hiding clutter and also acts as a home office, while the Ikea table is covered with a spotty oilcloth from Dotty Brown (www. dottybrown.com). It’s one of Melanie’s favourite fabric shops, though she also has a vast collection of vintage material to make sure her designs are one-offs.
The kitchen next door was painted duck egg blue and there’s a splash of red from the KitchenAid mixer, which belongs to Rob, a keen cook.
Upstairs, Melanie livened the walls with framed pictures and greetings cards made by fellow artists and makers, along with her own work.
She’s a compulsive sewer and when she’s not at the machine, she grabs a needle and thread so she can hand sew just about anywhere.
“I often sew my brooches in bed at night while watching TV and I even took some sewing to my children’s sports day,” she says. “I stitched in between their races.”