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I am a Nigerian-born Brit with an overly healthy appetite for fashion and sewing. I have always loved fashion, but I began my dressmaking journey just four years ago. After buying my first sewing machine and failing woefully at a couple of attempts at off-piste sewing, I decided to go to my aunty, who is a dressmaker, and watch her in the hope of picking up her magic tricks. Her freehand approach appealed to me because I had many ideas in my head and was itching to bring them to fruition! It took me three months to learn the freehand technique, but I was determined and fell passionately in love with the process of dressing myself this way. The seeds of daring to venture into the fashion industry were – ahem – sown.

I was eager to understand how to make beautiful clothes that fit women of all shapes and sizes and, after only three months of sewing for myself, I began designing and making clothes for family members and friends. I have since made clothes for private clients from all walks of life. In 2014 I took part in the BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee, where I learned so much from the judges and my fellow sewists. It was lovely to be surrounded by like-minded people, and to spend so much time sewing!

My book Freehand Fashion is not your conventional sewing book; if you watched the Sewing Bee, then you will know that I am not a conventional sewist. The book is all about producing beautiful, elegant and stylish garments using the freehand cutting method.

Freehand cutting is all about marking your measurements directly onto fabric, using simple tools, and developing an understanding of how clothes come together and sit on the contours of the body. It allows you to tailor clothes precisely to your own shape and size – no more fiddling around, adjusting commercial patterns to fit!

Although the idea of freehand garment construction intrigues many in the West, this method has been used traditionally and is still used in many of the less developed parts of the world. Fashion varies greatly around the globe and there is a vast array of traditional dress codes. In Africa and Asia many garments are created, if not entirely freehand, with at least some reference to this approach.

I am most familiar with the Nigerian freehand method, and although this has coloured my own sewing technique and style aesthetically, I have further developed what I learned to achieve a high-quality and very precise individual fit, with an exceptional standard of finishing both on the inside and outside of the garments.

My book covers key techniques and the drafting, cutting and construction of five basic blocks and then shows you how to adapt them for different designs. It contains a plethora of exciting projects that range from easy to more challenging. It’s aimed at anyone with an interest in dressmaking, and especially the growing numbers of young people who are venturing into sewing for the first time. I want to offer beginners a fresh take on home sewing, one that is fashionable and trendy, and I also want to entice seasoned sewists to step away from traditional rules and try the exciting freehand method. I learned this method without any prior knowledge of sewing; before I appeared on the Sewing Bee, I had never used a pattern.

For me, sewing isn’t just about craftsmanship, it’s also about design; the silhouettes of the garments in Freehand Fashion are timeless, beautiful shapes that have lasted throughout the history of fashion. There are beautifully fitted gowns for ultra-glamorous events like a posh party or a prom, flattering tops that ooze femininity, and many more garments that will give your wardrobe a facelift.

by Chinelo Bally

9781910496145Extracted from Freehand Fashion by Chinelo Bally (Pavilion, £20)

Carolyn Denham and Roderick Field are Merchant & Mills. The company was formed in 2010 to elevate sewing to its proper place in the creative world, respecting the craftsmanship it entails. They work from their studio in Rye, East Sussex where they also have their shop. We spoke with dressmaker Carolyn about sewing and creativity.

Hi Carolyn, what makes you passionate about your craft?
I think making of any kind is a source of great pleasure. It is an escape from the day-to-day into your own world vision. As children we love to make – we make anything and everything. Somewhere in growing up, that gets lost and we decide shopping is a much more worthwhile activity.

As I have cultivated my skills I can now make what I want and I want what I make. There is always so much more to learn and the very best way to learn is to keep making. I sew every day and there is nothing else I’d rather do.

Which is your most cherished childhood memory?
Learning to sew at my mother’s sewing machine was always my most cherished time. As one of four girls all close together in age, I loved the feeling of being the one quietly making things as the noise and chaos became faraway the more engrossed I got.

What sparks your creativity?
It hits like a conker falling from a tree onto my head. I see something – it can be fabric , a garment or even a genre, like military. I say to myself . . . well, I like that! I don’t stop to ask why, I take that influence and see where it takes me. There is a lot of messing around to go through to get what I want. Although I often start with a firm idea, in creating it I may find its failings and so I persevere until a metamorphosis occurs. It is a frantic, tough and wholly engrossing experience to arrive at something that is exactly a Merchant & Mills product.

Could you describe a typical crafty day in your life?
Almost every day is a craft day – lucky me!  I sew every day and still even if its just production, I still get a great deal of satisfaction from a well stitched seam. I am a born maker so if I am not sewing I will be more than happy to create something else like woodwork, cooking or card making. I like to see the different outcomes of the same hand in various modes and materials.

Organised mess or creative minimalism? What does your working space look like?
My intentions are good yet I tend to end up with a great big mess on an industrial scale. I am quite good at the epic tidy up at the end of the day but when I am making, I am not conscious of the rest of the world. That’s what makes it wonderful.

Merchant & Mills Workbook is published by Pavilion, £25. Merchant & Mills are also authors of Merchant & Mills Sewing Book and Elementary Sewing Skills.