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Talking Business: 'Picking up the thread to revive UK sewing skills'

Emma Willis is founder of the eponymous Jermyn Street shirt brand.

Emma Willis

Emma Willis

I’ve had a shirtmaking factory in Gloucester for five years, employing 24 workers, and as sales have increased, both through our own business and stockist Mr Porter, we needed to expand. I’m often approached by young cutters, but I became concerned about finding new machinists as many fashion colleges do not teach sewing either well or at all anymore. Students often pay to send their final collections out to be sewn, so never understand the full process. This limits their chances of employment in the industry.

I wanted to raise the profile of sewing, the skill involved, and encourage young people again as without them we will not be able to rescue and restimulate the UK’s renowned clothes-making industry.

Daniel Korski, a special adviser to David Cameron, heard me speaking about how we would waste the valuable international interest in the Made in the UK label if we don’t teach technical skills and invited me to Downing Street to discuss it. He also introduced me to Condé Nast International, who sponsored the Emma Willis Sewing School, based at the factory, to bring sewing training to young people again. It also offers another option to graduates who often have to take unpaid internships in London.

We have employed five fashion graduates who have exceptional sewing skills, from Bournemouth, Falmouth, Bath and Nottingham Trent universities, who are being trained by my two head machinists Kath Muir and Jacquie Grant,
who both have over 30 years of single-needle sewing experience, specialising in bespoke men’s shirts. It is vital to train on an industrial sewing machine to achieve the speed required for economical production.

Students typically have a year to make a few pieces for their final collection which is obviously not realistic in the commercial world. We will use our sponsorship to employ young local school leavers who will be trained by the graduates.

Our talented young team, and those they train, will be fundamental in growing the brand and an integral part of it.I am delighted this vital craft is being recognised by the fashion business before it is too late.

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