Oh yes, Hilary Hughes is no ordinary ribbon seller, and after decades of ‘A-list’ experience, she’s set up shop in her much-loved Staffordshire hometown of Penkridge.
‘Sew Many Things’ is dollshouse tiny, and nestled in a row of individual shops at Stone Cross. Walking in, you step in to a kaleidoscope of colour. Cotton, ribbon, quilt squares, beads, thimbles, measuring tapes, sequins, buttons, trims, appliques — you name it — if it can work with a sewing machine it’s here in a cosy, friendly little shop.
The bell rings every few minutes as people come in. “Do you have any apron tape?”, “Do you make curtains?”, “Do you do prom dress alterations?”; the enquiries go on. I have to admit, I thought these kinds of shops and customers went out in the 70s. It appears not.
“I’d been looking for my own shop for 8 years,” explains Hilary as she serves another customer. “I just couldn’t find the right place, and then my husband had a chance conversation with someone about this shop being available, and within 2 weeks I was opening with a queue of people outside. I couldn’t believe it.” The truth is, few of us these days sew. It is becoming a rare but still much needed skill.
Yes, you can buy ready-made curtains, but the chances are you’ll need them adjusting.
Same with your clothes — especially a special outfit like a prom dress that might need the length or straps altering.
Sometimes you need a professional job — and if you live near Penkridge, this has to be the place to come. As I meet Hilary, there’s a wedding dress carefully wrapped up on the counter. “I was asked to mend the jewelled straps of this gorgeous dress after the bride’s cat had decided to play with it,” she explain . “I ordered in some more Swarovski crystals to sew on, and now it looks as good as new.” Another happy customer.
I wondered how a costume professional, with Hollywood movies on her CV, ends up in a small Staffordshire town? “I grew up here,” says Hilary. “My mum always sewed and when I researched my family tree I discovered that I come from a long line of seamstresses. It’s in the blood. I did art GCSE at Wolgarston High School round the corner from here, and then studied Fashion and Design at Stafford College. A work experience stint at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham in 1991 led to a 17-year career with the BBC where I worked on all sorts of award- winning drama series. I also had a year working with the famous ‘Angels and Bermans’ costumiers in Shaftesbury Avenue in London who supplied the Oscar-winning wardrobe for the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’.
After my daughter, Sophie, was born, I went freelance. In between contracts I found myself doing odd sewing jobs. I was still living in Penkridge and sewing for local market people, boaters and campers. I had a real problem finding materials though. There was nothing in Penkridge, and I was restricted to buying sewing supplies from Stafford and Cannock markets which, of course, were only open on certain days. I remember thinking, if I have trouble getting sewing supplies, then others must as well.
So I knew I wanted to open a shop, and preferably in my home village. I just had to find the right place at the right time.” It was her husband who discovered that this little shop was about to become available. Hilary managed to do all the paperwork and preparations and source all supplies within a fortnight. “We haven’t stopped since our first day,” she smiles. “I remember my first customer, a chap called David, who came in while I was still painting the walls. He wanted leather cuffs for his jumper sleeves to stop them fraying. After just one month of trading I had to use our garage at home as a workshop to cope with demand, and then I had to take on staff to help too. I hear people outside saying “Ooo, that’s a lovely little shop that is”, and I love it.
I’m up at 5.30am every day to start sewing.
Then I stop at 7am to see to my daughter and get her ready for school. I’m in the shop by 9am and I carry on sewing in the evenings to meet demand. I’m altering nine prom dresses at the moment.” While I’m with Hilary, a customer from a local school comes in to buy things for textile classes. Hilary reflects on how sewing taught in schools today isn’t the same. “In my day, we learned the core skills and basics of sewing, which stay with you for life and have enabled me to have the career I have had and the business I have now. We used to have high standards of sewing in this country. M&S used to have their things made in Brierley Hill, and Paul Smith and Vivien Westwood used skilled sewers in Cannock for their designer gear. Today, that’s gone. There’s less focus on detail and skill and more emphasis on glam and design.
It’s a shame. Once a generation loses those skills it’ll be hard to get them back.” Hilary has a point. Maybe that’s why her tiny shop is so busy.
The recent surge in interest in sewing — whether due to the recession or the BBC’s ‘Great British Sewing Bee’, has brought people in to Hilary’s shop asking if she can run sewing courses. She’s already done a few in Penkridge and has more planned. The next one is on July 6 at 10am at the Haling Dene Centre and will cover ‘How to use a Pattern’ for beginners. You do need to book as places are limited.
If you’d like to know more you can contact Hilary Hughes: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07521 010595.