Judith Staley Founder of SewOver50 – 10 Questions

From left to right –

The Edie Top in Euphoria Tencel/Linen (out of stock | The Unfolding Jacket in Ahoy Jacquard Cotton and The Ellis Dress in Lollipop (out of stock) | Lb Pullover and the Saltmarsh skirt both in Markwick (out of stock) | The September coat and The Jack Tar bag | The Ottoline jacket in Hazel Check Wool Coating (out of stock) | The Ellis Dress in Scenery Autumn.

First of all can you tell us why you decided to come to a M&M sewing retreat, what you made and what you got out of the week?

As soon as I heard that M&M were holding sewing retreats I was hooked. I live in Edinburgh but have managed to visit the shop every couple of years, to feel the beautiful fabric and check out the notions, falling in love with the town too, so to spend time sewing there – well it just all added up. A friend and I booked a retreat for summer 2020, which was sadly cancelled due to covid, but it meant that when we did manage to make it to a retreat, we had the added bonus of staying in the beautiful M&M house. I loved the atmosphere of the retreat, the peaceful setting, the calm pace, the simplicity of sewing with skilled help at hand – and lots of time to wander amongst the fabric and make informed choices about future purchases. I chose to make the Heroine jeans, a more complicated make. I felt nervous about attempting fitting and sewing jeans, but I was able to try shop samples on for size, which was a great starting point. Katie and Elwen are so skilled and helpful, and they know the patterns inside out. I learned to go back to basics, to be precise and the jeans came together beautifully. I found being totally focussed on sewing with no distractions (food and drink was provided, we didn’t have to lift a finger, and I managed to switch off from social media) better than any spa retreat.

Can you tell us about your sewing journey?

My mother sewed all our clothes (and my father knitted our jumpers and cardigans on a knitting machine) but, having seven children, did not have time to teach me. I think I absorbed the interest in clothes, textiles and sewing from her. In school I squeezed in Needlework O level as an extra subject in sixth form and never looked back. I sewed many of my clothes, and then my children’s clothes, for the next 25 years.  During this time sewing was something I did alone, something I enjoyed, but didn’t share with anyone else. With the advent of the Great British Sewing Bee on BBC in 2013 my passion was rekindled and this time it is different as, through social media, I know many other folk who share that passion and speak the same sewing language. I feel validated, that sewing is more than just sewing – it’s a creative outlet. Working with textiles, having a needle and thread in my hand, imagining, and creating garments for myself that give me joy and confidence, is something I would find hard to do without.

If you don’t sew all of your clothes are there certain places you decide to shop and does being a sewer influence how and where you choose to shop?

Since returning to sewing I buy very few clothes, and don’t shop in the way I used to. When I find myself passing through a clothes department, I’m usually very disappointed in the fabric, although the designs can be inspiring. Toast is really the only shop I choose to visit – I have taken part in their Toast Circle, where you can swap items of Toast clothing for others on their Circle rail – and I have acquired a favourite skirt this way. I love their approach to mending too. Their aesthetic is very similar to M&M, which could explain the appeal.

What is SewOver50 and how can people take part?

SewOver50 is a community account on Instagram that I started in August 2018. It’s easy to take part – follow the @SewOver50 account, use the hashtag #SewOver50 in your posts, search for others who use the hashtag, and comment on their posts. This way you will start to make connections with others and will find inspiration. And you don’t have to be 50 to join in or use our hashtag. It is really lovely when under 50s tell us that they find the community inspiring and that they are now looking forward to hitting the big 5 0 instead of dreading it.

Was there a catalyst to starting SewOver50?

I was over 60 when I started the account. I had been through a period, after turning 50, where I felt very despondent whenever I went shopping for clothes. Suddenly nothing seemed right. Nothing seemed to be for me. This was reflected in the media where suddenly I felt either invisible or was being told what I should or shouldn’t wear.  I lost a lot of confidence. When I began sewing again in 2013, I initially felt inspired, but then let down again as I didn’t see myself represented in the images on patterns and on social media and didn’t feel acknowledged by brands when I tagged them. I had noticed older fashion influencers popping up on Instagram and thought there was a need for this amongst the sewing community, yet I did not want to do that myself – I had no desire to be an ‘influencer’ and indeed did not have the style to inspire others.  Another community account, Sewcialists, had encouraged people to start accounts serving niche corners of the sewing community and the over 50s was one they suggested. This was the catalyst I needed to do something about it, to celebrate women and men over 50, and to encourage them to inspire and acknowledge and find each other.

Do you think SewOver50 has helped push for change within the sewing pattern industry or is there still a way to go?

A few months after starting the account, and being joined by Sandy Bach as a fellow editor, we launched our challenge So50Visible. The idea was to sew a garment where the image on the pattern was someone over 50 and so celebrating those brands that did acknowledge us. We ran this challenge again about a year later. The number of patterns to choose from was abysmal – and this was the point of the challenge, to raise awareness and to start pushing for change. In March this year we ran the challenge a third time – now renamed SewOverAgeism – and I am happy to say that the choice of patterns is much much better. The push for better representation of age has coincided with the push for more diverse representation across the board, and although it is much improved, we feel that many pattern brands, with noticeable exceptions, are still not getting the age message. We are a huge community – some say around 50% of those who sew are over 50, so it does not make sense to ignore us.

What can Merchant & Mills do better in terms of representation? 

Continue to feature a variety of models on your website. It’s really useful to know model’s height and what size they are wearing. We also find it inspiring to see makers in their finished garments. Although we can see these by checking the relevant tags, it would be good to see a greater diversity of these in your stories.

Do you have a TNT pattern?

Just one? I have a few – the top one being the Paper Theory LB Pullover of which I have made many, and my favourites use M&M linen. This is now closely followed by the September and the Florence. I have made two wool versions of the September and a short lightweight mac, with plans for another mac and a linen or twill version.   I wasn’t sure of the Florence until I tried it on when I was on the retreat. I fell in love with it and have since made two dresses and a top, with a couple of spring/summer tops in my plans. 

What gets you excited about sewing?

Putting together a pattern or style and fabric and creating something I will love to wear.  I enjoy the process, and am getting better at controlling my imperfectionist tendencies, but am definitely motivated by planning and wearing my memades.

What do you see for the future of Sew Over 50?

As I write this SewOver50 is in a state of flux. After more than four years it feels time for me to step back from the account and follow up some other interests. I am getting more involved in local community projects, including a Repair Cafe, community market garden and nature conservation.  We are currently thinking about ways forward, from closing the account completely to getting more people involved. Whatever happens the hashtag #SewOver50 continues, and the strong community of over 45,000 will, I am sure, continue to inspire each other and the sewing world. we are a force.

You can follow Judith and SewOver50 on Instagram by following the links.