How Ilkley has become the sewing capital of Yorkshire

If you have been riveted by series five of the Great British Sewing Bee and want to get sewing yourself you might like to know that tucked away inside an eau de nil-painted corrugated iron hut in the centre of Ilkley, is a hive of sewing, textile and design expertise in the form of EME Cloth & Yarn - a shop run by designer Emma Garry.

Emma Garry helps a pupil at her sewing class in Ilkley

With a background in graphic design, Emma has spent the last ten years designing brilliantly simple sewing patterns and craft packs. They’re quick, easy makes and look great in the fabric which she cherry picks for the shop.

Her classic, simple patterns for clothes, bags and hats are firm favourites with sewers new and old and sell like hot cakes at sewing shows. Items which can be useful and look beautiful.

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Emma and her talented staff, Beverley Atkins and Janette Ward, dispense advice on the best fabric to use for a garment, offer help with sewing techniques and give generously of their time. All because they want customers to be as enthusiastic about sewing as they are. EME runs two-hour sewing classes in the shop daily and Emma teaches sewing evening classes at Prince Henry’s Grammar School, in Otley, during term time.

The classes cater for all abilities, from beginners to advanced sewers

After graduating, Emma notched up 20 years’ experience working as a packaging brand specialist with major corporate clients seeing projects from initial ideas to finished product. She has worked for big brands such as M&S, ASDA and, Holland and Barrett. When the recession hit in 2009 Emma went freelance to work around her daughter, Molly, and then decided to change direction, turning her passion for textiles and sewing into a career.

“Because of my experience I was able to design my own website to sell the fabric. I then progressed to designing a collection of sewing patterns to work with the graphic patterned fabrics I loved.

“Starting with simple reversible pinny designs these patterns now number 15 different items which include clothes, bags and hats.

“I’ve also enjoyed supporting a new generation of modern pattern designers, who have also realised that people want simple designs. Patterns that could be made up into everyday wearable clothes in beautiful fabrics.”

Emma Garry

This was a great beginning for Emma but she soon found interacting with people face-to-face was the way forward.

“Customers like to see the fabric and how it is made up into garments. I took stands at The Knit and Stitch shows and local craft shows such as the Saltaire Festival and discovered there was a growing number of people who wanted to sew but had never been taught.”

There’s also been a lot of interest in sewing generated by BBC2’s TV show the Great British Sewing Bee.

The next step for Emma was to open a shop so she set up EME Cloth & Yarn, in the centre of Ilkley.

“Here in my little green hut (one of the last storage sheds in Ilkley) I could expand the ranges of fabrics, notions and sewing patterns.”

She loves supporting local designers as well as West Yorkshire’s wool and fabrics.

As part of her business, Emma also runs sewing classes. I asked her how she made the move into teaching.

“I ran a sewing bee at Outside the Box, the vibrant café-cum-community hub in Ilkley. For the price of a cup of tea and a piece of cake people could bring their sewing machine along and I would teach them to sew, give them ideas about what to make and which fabrics to use. I met the head of textiles at Prince Henry’s Grammar School, whilst exhibiting at Harrogate Knit and Stitch show, she asked me if I would design a couple of patterns for the pupils. I provided the fabric and designed a hat and a pair of shorts which the kids loved and this led to me starting the evening sewing classes for adults at the school.”

These beginners’ evening classes run for two ten-week terms and I went along to a class to find out more. The first person I met was 11-year-old Charlotte Rose, from Silsden, accompanied by dad Nick reading in the corner. Charlotte was busy making a top from a stretchy jersey fabric. She was wearing a denim pinafore dress which I suspected she had made herself. Did she? “Yes I did. It only cost me £14 and I wear it a lot.” Charlotte is bright, articulate and oozes enthusiasm.

What got her into sewing? “My nanna taught me to hand sew when I was about seven.” It turns out sewing runs in her family. “My great-grandma was a seamstress and my great uncle designed clothes for TV shows including Doctor Who. He had a portfolio of his work which I looked through and thought I would have a go at making something myself.”

Charlotte is even thinking about this as a possible future career.

Next I met Richard Currie, a retired nurse tutor who was making an Audrey Hepburn-style boat neck fleece top for his wife. I ask him what he gets out of sewing? “I was surprised at how rewarding it is to produce something from scratch. I listen to podcasts while I am sewing and find myself in a different world. Before coming to the class I had only ever taken up trousers, or sewed on buttons but now I feel confident enough to adapt a pattern and customise it.”

Everyone in the beginners’ class has made four of Emma’s patterns, a reversible hat, pyjama bottoms, the duffle bag and a fisherman-style top and they all turn out different because each student chooses their own fabric and adapts the garment to fit them.

I ask Richard what it’s like to be the only man in the class. “I am used to that because as a nurse I was the only man in the class, working in a female dominated profession. The atmosphere here is wonderful. If I get stuck and Emma is busy I ask Charlotte to help. She is way ahead of the rest of us.”

People come to the sewing class for many reasons. Thirty-year-old Amy Harrison tells me she came to the sewing class after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “If I was not feeling well after chemotherapy I sat and sewed. The lovely thing about sewing is everybody can do it. You don’t have to be a super-sewer and you can make something that you like and is unique to you. It has really helped me to manage and I have made some lovely things for my three young children.”

I move around the class and meet Kate Hobson, who has a day job working on the tills at Sainsbury’s. “I love making clothes because I am a larger size and I can make clothes that fit. I love choosing fabric and I feel proud of myself.”

June Thornton lives on a farm in Arthington. “I look after a flock of Ryeland sheep and sew during the winter when the sheep don’t need me so much. Prior to sewing I had the wool spun up from my sheep and I did crocheting. But I do prefer sewing because it grows quicker and you feel more creative.”

June has put her new-found sewing skills to good use. “I helped raise funds for my son’s Irish rugby tour. I made travel bags as prizes for the raffle from Laura Ashley sample books”.

I also talked to Alexis Woodhouse, from Burley-in-Wharfedale who works as an intelligence officer for North Yorkshire Police. “This is so different from my day job. I can switch off completely. There is nothing better than coming home in the evening and cutting up pieces of fabric to make something.” Alexis decided to learn how to sew curtains when she found out how much they cost to have made up professionally. She estimated she saved £300.

The advanced class sewing gets more ambitious and the garments look like something you would buy in an expensive high street shop.

Back at EME in Ilkley, I meet Beverley, a talented dressmaker who works with Emma. She is wearing a complete outfit she has made herself and is all for the DIY approach to fashion. “I don’t bother to go shopping for clothes anymore when I can get such great patterns and material myself.”

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