One day, nearly fifteen years ago, Fine Fabrics owner Sandra Browne was in the shop as a customer buying material for a wedding dress. She was so taken with the business she joked with the owner about calling her if she ever wanted to sell it. Two years on, completely out of the blue, Sandra got that call.
She reflects on the life-changing moment: “I was planning on making a wedding dress and I’d gone in to look at material. I made what was really just a glib comment about buying the business and left my card. Then the call came and I thought about it. My work in medical sales meant I was in Europe a lot and that just didn’t fit in with family life. I needed to be at home and so I took a punt on it.”
Some 12 years on and the Fine Fabrics shop on Skipton Road is awash with colour. Rolls of bright and patterned fabrics lying on angled shelving dominate the interior; wool from a firm in Bradford, cotton from the US and Germany, linen and silk from Italy and polyester from the Far East. Displays of threads and clothes patterns stand next to finished dresses on limbless dress dummies while packets of needles and hooks and all the other intricate paraphernalia in the enthusiastic dressmaker’s sewing box are hung on the wall behind the till.
While the tools of the trade haven’t changed much over the years, the business and the customers and their tastes in fashion have. Sandra elaborates: “Customers are getting younger and that’s brilliant. They get confident and you can see their progress.”
“When I first took over, there was an affluence and older people would come in for linen even though it was winter because they were going on a cruise.
“I lost the corporate side when women bought dress fabrics for corporate dos. It’s a generational thing, there’s no affluence now and women in their thirties and forties didn’t learn how to sew.”
The recession hit Fine Fabrics as people made difficult choices on how to spend their income when budgets were tight. According to Sandra, the economic downturn meant they “had to dig in to keep going”. Rescue came from an unexpected source; a TV programme called The Great British Sewing Bee in which amateur dressmakers competed to make clothes from patterns, produce made-to-measure clothes and carry out alterations.
The Great British Sewing Bee, with its audience of around two million viewers, started the trend of younger customers getting into sewing and making their own clothes, and also led to a rise in the number of male customers. Sandra noted an unexpected psychological impact which also brought more people through the door.
She explains: “People had seen the programme and said to themselves ‘I could do better than that’. And people learnt to trust their own abilities, it gave them confidence. They’d come in with a pattern and say ‘show me how to do this’.”
Another way in which the gentle art of sitting and sewing has a subtle impact on the human psyche has also been seen by Sandra. Down the stairs at Fine Fabrics is a room containing a large clear flat surface made by putting tables together. Sewing groups meet there regularly and she mentions one group in particular.
“It’s about wellbeing,” she says. “All the ladies meet on a particular day and they help each other and not just with sewing but they support each other through other things such as bereavement. It’s somewhere where they’re not judged, they’re here to sew. It’s a sanctuary, they don’t have to think about what they are having to deal with.”
She loves the business and the creativity involved. After she took over, she went to night school at Harrogate College to do a City and Guilds in Dressmaking. And customers respond, always letting her know how they’re getting on. A notice board is up on a wall crammed with pictures sent in by customers wearing what they’ve made from the patterns and material bought in the shop.
Sandra is hugely positive about the future too because of young people taking an interest in dressmaking and involving social media. She says: “The younger generation makes their own stuff and then puts it straight on Instagram. They do everything, shirts, jump suits.”
The bad thing about making a glib comment is that it’s a glib comment. The good thing about a glib comment is it can set you on your next adventure such as owning business you love.
Find the Fine Fabrics website here: www.finefabricsofharrogate.co.uk
Find them on Instagram here: @fine_fabrics_of_harrogate
Or on Facebook here.