New Zealander Melanie Commins from Beledien Handmade might be a long way from home, but when she moved to the little market town of Horsham in West Sussex she brought a small piece of her family history with her – taking pride of place in her studio is her great grandmother’s set of wooden blue Sylko cotton drawers, complete with original cottons. She might be a self-taught sewer, but with a talented seamstress as her mother and a grandmother who collected reels of ‘parrot blue’ and ‘gladioli red’ cotton, sewing is obviously in Melanie’s blood…
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Melanie Commins and I’m a New Zealander who moved to the UK about eight years ago. I used to work in a very dull office job but now I get to spend my days immersed in piles of fabric, jars of buttons and spools of ribbon… bliss!
Have you always been creative?
I’ve always been a bit of a creative dabbler, having a go at various things from knitting to chocolate making to beading. I only started creating on a daily basis when I discovered how much I liked to sew. Now I get creative withdrawal symptoms when I’m away from my sewing machine for too long.
How and when did you learn to sew?
I’ve been sewing for about four years, mostly self-taught using tips I scavenged online, along with a hefty dose of trial and error – a process that still very much continues today. My mum is a talented dressmaker so perhaps I inherited some innate desire to apply thread to fabric that I didn’t know I had until a few years ago.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
A bit of a muddle! I have a tendency to make whatever takes my fancy and don’t adhere to any particular style. My items are quite simple, so I like to combine unusual fabrics or interesting textures to make them special.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I’m an inveterate fabric fancier, so I get a lot of inspiration just by browsing all of the lovely textiles out there and imagining all of the wonderful things I can make with them. I probably spend too many evenings browsing around the internet for interesting fabrics and notions to add to my stash!
How do you decide what to make?
It varies quite a lot. Sometimes I have ideas for things while lying in bed at night and start working on them as soon as I get up the next morning. Other days I will be remaking (or making new variations of) more popular items like passport covers and Kindle sleeves.
Can you talk us through a piece from initial idea to finished product?
The idea for making cinnamon stick Christmas trees started a couple of years ago. I wanted to create decorations that had rustic elements but could also be made in a variety of fabric colours and patterns. I first thought about using small branches or twigs for tree trunks but couldn’t figure out where I could easily source the right wood. Searching online brought up cinnamon sticks and I realised immediately that they would be perfect for making little trees with a lovely natural fragrance. I buy the sticks by the kilo and they need to be cut down to the right size, so the first step involves a hacksaw and a considerable amount of cinnamon dust. The fabric and ribbon sections are sewn together by machine. The final stage of stuffing and stitching in the trunk is all done by hand. I make them in batches of 20 to 30, so the last step usually takes place on the couch, in front of the telly!
Can you describe your workspace or studio?
Small but perfectly formed, is probably the best way to describe it. I have a little corner in the spare room where all of the cutting and sewing happens. The nice thing about small workspaces is that everything comes easily to hand! The majority of my fabric is stored in a big set of shelves with see-through drawers which are sorted by colour so I can quickly find what I need. The most special object in my little sewing corner is a small set of blue wooden Sylko cotton drawers that once belonged to my great-grandmother. I lugged it back from New Zealand with me after my last visit and now it has pride of place on my sewing table. It still has many of the original cottons inside; some of which have fabulous names like ‘parrot blue’ and ‘gladioli red’.
Which three tools couldn’t you live without?
First would have to be my sewing machine, a basic Elna model that I’ve had for a couple of years now. Second would be the walking foot for my sewing machine as it has saved me endless hours of frustration and unpicking. And the third, hmm, probably a lint roller because without it I’d spend half my time picking little bits of thread and fluff from finished products (and myself).
What’s the best thing about being a designer/maker?
There are so many rewarding aspects to this business it’s hard to choose one that’s the best, but probably knowing that I can make a living doing something that I love. That’s a pretty special thing.
How will you be spending Christmas this year?
We will be in the UK this year so it will be a quiet Christmas as our families are all in New Zealand. It will probably involve food, wine and a fair amount of time chatting to everyone on Skype.
Can you tell us something people might not know about you?
I’m a total history nerd. The books on my nightstand are usually old journals, memoirs or collections of letters and I have a tendency to watch my favourite period dramas over and over again.