Building a business – and a community of customers

One of the most striking features of our sluggish economy is the way it’s inspired people to take up traditional crafts.

Why buy expensive clothes when you can make better ones yourself? Or spend money on bland supermarket bread when you can bake your own for less? And why live off pricey ready meals when you can whip up a gourmet meal using cheap fresh ingredients?

As people ask themselves these questions, there’s no shortage of TV programmes drumming up further interest: The Great British Bake Off, Masterchef and The Great British Sewing Bee. to name just three.

From a business point of view, it’s great news for those who supply raw materials for the growing army of home bakers, chefs, embroiderers, dressmakers and others. And as with THP Wanstead’s near neighbour, Stitch Fabrics, it’s also encouraging suppliers to get ‘crafty’ themselves.

Stitch has occupied a shop in Wanstead’s Woodbine Place for the last two years, but the company’s history stretches back to the years after World War II, when Maurice Rosenberg and his wife Freda began selling dress fabrics at markets in London’s East End. In time, their son Geoff joined them and the stall of M. Rosenberg and Son was a familiar sight among the hustle and bustle of centres like Kingston, Bromely, Pitsea and Bermondsey.

Expanding the business with a new venture

Geoff grew the business substantially, creating The Travelling Fabric Show to take quality fabrics to customers in new areas. Today he and his son Andrew still take their wares to village halls in Cambridge, Bromley and Ongar, as well as trade shows across the country.

Stitch Fabrics is the newest venture of M. Rosenberg and Son, and it’s here in this characterful 19th century building that Geoff’s daughter Jenni is making her mark. She developed her passion for fabric while working on the family stall at Kingston Market, where she was enthused by her father and brother as they discovered exciting new fabrics and introduced them to their customers.

Once Jenni was bitten by the fabric bug, she almost immediately got interested in patchwork and dressmaking. “I began taking part in beginners’ sewing classes,” she explains. “And with my new passion for fabric, I knew I wanted to be part of the family business. After two years of working in the markets, I had a vision for a new kind of shop – and Stitch Fabrics of Wanstead was born.”

When you walk into Stitch Fabrics, it’s like entering an Aladdin’s cave created specially for craft enthusiasts. “I have tried to make the shop as inspiring as possible,” say Jenni. “There’s fabric surrounding every wall, both downstairs and upstairs. And the stock changes all the time, giving you plenty to choose from – whether it’s silks, cottons, linings, designer fabrics, linen, woollens and more. If we haven’t got the fabric you’re looking for, I’ll happily search our warehouse in South Woodford to find it.”

Not just a product shop, but an opportunity for inspiration

But while quality fabrics is at the core of Stitch’s offering, what makes the shop remarkable is the community of craft enthusiasts that Jenni has built up around it. They’re attracted by the regular craft workshops that are held upstairs by a friendly team of local experts.

“We run very popular workshops to help people learn lots of different skills,” Jenni explains. “They’re mainly aimed at beginners; people who are looking for an introduction to the world of dress and craft fabrics. All our teachers are exceptional at what they do and very friendly. Jenny Smirden teaches dressmarking. Sharon Williams leads on patchwork and small craft, such as cushion marking. Gilly Gladman offers crochet for beginners and people who have reached an immediate level.”

The Stitch Fabric workshops are getting more and more popular as people become less able or willing to pay high prices for quality clothes. “It’s definitely a big motivation for them to make their own,” say Jenni. “Especially when they can use our designer fabrics to make clothes that fit them perfectly. Our customers make all sorts of wonderful items, from kaftans to wear on holiday and corset dresses, right through to ball gowns and clothes for little girls.”

So what advice does Jenni have if you’re thinking of learning a new skill? “Simply come and try one of our workshops. If we don’t offer the craft or the level you’re looking for, if you can get six people together we’ll create a class for you. You’ll make some great friends, and there’s a great buzz in all our sessions – it’s great to hear my customers laughing as they learn.”