Saturday 11 May 2013

Book Review: Merchant and Mills Sewing Book

Today I'm reviewing the Merchant and Mills Sewing Book, by Carolyn Denham.

Like Sew Over It (which I reviewed a few weeks ago) this is another vintage-inspired sewing book but I think it would be quite difficult to find another book more different to Sew Over It's retro prettiness - which is firmly in florals + bunting + gingham + cupcakes + Keep Calm & Carry On -style vintage territory. The styling of the Merchant & Mills book (like the packaging for their haberdashery range) is stripped back, utilitarian, with muted colours and a consciously old-fashioned writing style. Check out that grey board cover!

The cover gives this book a very distinctive look, but the cover of my review copy unfortunately got a bit bashed up in the post and I think it could very quickly start looking a mess as it would damage easier / get greasy marks on it / etc much more than an "ordinary" hardback book. (I think my concern about this may mean I am turning into my mother, but I do like my books to stay looking nice, especially the fancy hardbacks).

The blurb on the back of the book reads "Keep it simple and do it well. No shortcuts. No Cheating. Just good old-fashioned sewing" ... "Use for reference or as a jolly good read." The first part of the book - "the foundations" -  is very much for reference, with chapters going into lots of detail about tools, techniques, haberdashery, fabric and "the importance of meticulous pressing".

It's written in what seems like an imitation of the style of an old instructional guide or household manual, and it's illustrated with retro diagrams...

...and pictures with muted colours (often featuring vintage bits of sewing kit).

The second part of the book is the projects, with instructions for making things like bags, a tailor's ham, an ironing board cover and cushions.

Lots of the projects involve quite heavy weight fabrics like oilskin, canvas and denim which gives them a different feel to the ones found in sewing books that mostly use pretty printed cottons.

There are also two paper patterns included at the end of the book (in an envelope attached to the inside cover) - for a Fisherman's Top and a Tailored Shawl.

The paper patterns unfortunately both need enlarging by 175%, which is a bit of a shame as surely the point of including paper patterns in a book like this is so you can get some full size patterns that don't need enlarging? I think I would have preferred to see one full-size pattern included instead of two that need to be enlarged.

Each project is illustrated with black and white drawings to guide you through all the steps, which all look pretty clear and detailed.

Overall, I think the utilitarian vintage style beloved by Merchant & Mills is so strongly and consistently expressed throughout this book that I think it's a bit of a "Marmite" book - one you'll either "love" (and spend many happy hours pouring over the vintage-y details and enjoying how the book is written) or "hate".

Personally I have to admit that, as a lover of all things colourful and bright, I did find the lack of colour in the book a bit off-putting and I don't really have an itch to make any of the projects, possibly because in the chosen fabrics I just can't picture them in my house or in my wardrobe. The book actually addresses the colour issue directly in the chapter about fabric:

"A further caveat for all you colourful souls out there is that our middle name is 'drab', which the dictionary defines primarily as 'dull'. That is to say, we lean towards the darker, more muted end of the spectrum for much of our making and are particularly alarmed by bright primary colours. This is a personal choice and should not be seen as a directive." ... but actually, I think my personal choice would be to choose a reference book like Sewing Made Simple which, for me, was a great balance of prettiness and practical information.

But if the Merchant & Mills style really appeals to you  (if you've looked at the photos in this blog post and gone "oooh" or if you can't resist the siren song of their retro packaging when you see their products in shops) or you're just looking for a really practical, really detailed book on some sewing basics and don't care whether it's colourful or "pretty", I would still heartily recommend this book!

The Merchant and Mills Sewing Book is published by Collins & Brown. RRP £20. It's available from Amazon UK, The Book Depository, several sellers on Amazon USA and from many other bookshops.

[Disclaimer: Collins & Brown sent me a free review copy of this book, & the Amazon & Book Depository links in this post are affiliate links]


Lisa said...

Great review, thorough and enough information to help me decide on the book. I have to agree on Merchant Mills "marmite" style. I have their workbook and I have crossed out all their opinions. It was driving me nuts. I just wanted to do their beautiful projects without their marmite-fragrant philosophy!

Bugs and Fishes said...

Haha! Their stuff does come with a pretty heavy dose of sewing philosophy, doesn't it? Great to hear you found the review helpful :)