How sewing helped me through cancer

A love of textiles has helped a Yorkshire mum through her cancer battle and into a growing business. Sophie McCandlish reports.

Charlotte Meek surrounded by some of her designs  in her studio at Salts Mill, Saltaire
Charlotte Meek surrounded by some of her designs in her studio at Salts Mill, Saltaire

When crafter Charlotte Meek made herself a work apron she had no idea that practical piece of clothing would not only become a full time business, but bring her to the attention of textile ‘bible’ Selvedge. Charlotte’s company The Stitch Society, which is based in Salts Mill, Saltaire, came into being two years after she recovered from cancer.

The mother of two young children, Betty and Harvey, now ten and 15, when she found herself battling the disease, Charlotte said it made her reassess her life.

Having learnt to sew at an early age, Charlotte had a life-long passion for fabrics, leading to a degree in textile marketing and a career teaching crafts. Her passion also became a focus for her recovery.

An apron by The Stitch Society

“I asked my dad if he thought it would be daft to get a studio,” Charlotte said.

“He said ‘do it’ and I used to go for an hour a day to try and forget everything that was going on and it really helped. I would do crochet and produced a blanket we call the sick blanket.”

Charlotte, 50, has now been in remission for five years and her aprons, which came out of her teaching, are much sought after and not just among crafters - one of her clients makes plastic eyeballs for surgeons. Its origins came from the need for a practical ‘uniform’ Charlotte could wear as she taught crafts.

“I needed to be able to store things,” she said. “I bought aprons but the pockets were not big enough and as I trained in sewing I developed my own design.

The dressmaker's dummy owned by Charlotte Meek's grandmother in her studio at Salts Mill, Saltaire.

Her apron was quickly noticed by others and she had so many people asking about it she realised there was a market for them. Taking a big step and exhibiting her aprons at Yarndale Festival in Skipton gave Charlotte a taste of just how popular her designs were going to be.

“I had gone with the idea we would ‘see how we go’ and sold out. I was really surprised,” she said.

The fesival response was so good she was soon selling the aprons and patterns online to what is becoming an increasingly long client list.

“We have a lot of ‘rooky’ purchasers and others who have bought one apron and come back for another. When people say they love the apron it is really satisfying and feels that I am giving something of my design back.

An apron by The Stitch Society

Charlotte’s aprons are unique not only in the details of their design but the materials she uses. A life long love of textiles, over the years Charlotte had been collecting mill ends as the area’s once thriving mill industry closed down. There is also vintage material from other sources such Charlotte’s grandmother who initially taught Charlotte how to sew and whose dressmaker’s dummy can be found in the Salts Mill studio.

“We are also given a lot of fabric,” Charlotte explained.

“One elderly lady gave us fabric that had belonged to her father and she didn’t want it to go to waste. To say thank you we used some of it to make her an apron.

“I love taking a flat piece of fabric and turning it into something you can wear.”

The dressmaker's dummy owned by Charlotte Meek's grandmother in her studio at Salts Mill, Saltaire.

It was the quality of Charlotte’s pieces which caught the eye of Polly Leonard, founder of the prestigious Selvedge magazine. Since its launch in 2003, the Selvedge brand, has become a springboard for makers and artisans, as well as having its own bricks and mortar and online store. This year it will be holding its inaugural Advent Festival in London, a week long event with textile inspired events, festive workshops, fabrics and hand-made gifts.

The Stitch Society is the only Yorkshire firm to be picked to take part and will join a selection of established and emerging designers taking part in the Maker’s Fair on December 3 which marks the event’s finale.

Their invitation to join the Festival came after Polly Leonard’s began searching for an apron to protect her clothes. Originally from Yorkshire herself, the textile maven said: “In 2013 Vivienne Westwood said: ‘Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality not quantity. Everybody is buying far too many clothes.’ This is something I try to live by.

“So in order to make my few precious clothes last longer the need for an apron has become apparent. In searching for the perfect pinny I discovered The Stitch Society. Their aprons, in good fabrics and simple shapes, fit the bill. What is even better is that they sell their patterns so you can make your own.”

Charlotte said is really looking forward to taking part in the fair.

“I always read Selvedge and when I started out that was my target market. To be picked is a really big deal, especially being the only Yorkshire company exhibiting at the Maker’s Fair. Every event is such an opportunity to meet other crafters and find people to collaborate or do new things with. It is a new audience for us and I am really looking forward to seeing what happens.”

Charlotte also has another exciting project in the pipeline, working with Keighley College to launch the Textile apprenticeship scheme.

“There is a real resurgence in the industry but no skilled workforce. It is lovely that this work is coming back to the UK as companies realise that to get a quick turnaround manufacturing needs to be based here.”

With plans to extend The Stitch Society’s range Charlotte said she is looking forward to the future.

“I am just letting the business grow organically really. It is so exciting I love what I’m doing and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.