Sewing Indie Month Interview with Fehr Trade

Fleur and Melissa Kitten LeggingsWe both share a love for stretch fabrics and novelty prints on lycra (kitten print leggings anyone?), so it was a perfect match for me as part of the SIM2015 designer interview tour to speak with Melissa the seamstress and designer behind Fehr Trade! This lady not only creates visually interesting active wear designs for her patterns but she’s a bonafide active lady! Read on to find out more…

Hey Melissa!

Dude, you just came back from South America after totally OWNING the transplant Olympics! How do you feel now you’re back home, and more importantly where are all those medals hanging?

Thank you! Yes, the World Transplant Games went even better than I was expecting – I ended up with four individual world championship gold medals, plus two team golds AND a world record in the 1500m! To be perfectly honest, I feel utterly knackered! Very proud, but so, so tired – I sometimes forget that my special immune system means that I need more recovery time than most, and those short and sharp track races take as much out of me as a full marathon.

In terms of where I display all my medals, well, I’m ashamed to admit that they’re all just in a drawer! My husband and I have been throwing ideas around on how to best display them, but the traditional medal displays where they just hang down from hooks would drive us crazy! Living on a boat means that they’d clank together constantly, so we’re trying to design a display where the medals themselves are separated, but still visible. Having run five full marathons, about 10 half marathons, countless 10k races, and three years of British Transplant Games events mean I have a lot to display, too!Wow. I’m just going to pick my jaw off the floor… fellow readers if you want to follow more about Melissa’s sporting antics check out her River Runner blog. 

I thought we’d start off talking about the work behind your patterns. What kind of process do you go through when you’re designing a pattern? Is there an organic process of a design that evolves or do you work through a structure to get the final idea?

For my first few patterns, my design starting point was a hole in my own exercise wardrobe – say, I really want a pair of close-fitting shorts with integrated pockets to store my phone and gels, and so I went off and developed my Duathlon shorts pattern. Or wanting an all-around workout top with a built in bra that actually had enough support to run in – something I couldn’t find in RTW but I was determined to sew for myself, and which became my XYT Workout Top. But some of my other patterns have been led by requests from my wonderful, active customers, like my Steeplechase Leggings pattern, which came about after some equestrians told me about their struggles to find no-inseam leggings that wouldn’t chafe against the horse.Ferh Trade steeple chase leggingsI usually start with an inspiration like this, then it’ll go through quite a few muslins before I take it out for some on-the-road tests while I exercise, usually followed by a few more revisions, until finally I’m happy enough that I send it off to my grader and start work on the pattern instructions and illustrations.

Did you get any inspiration for future active wear patterns whilst you were out at the Games?

Well, it was kinda weird for me to be competing in kit that I hadn’t sewn, since we all had to purchase the same Team GB kit, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t examine the construction! My activewear sewing experience definitely helped with my own kit, though, as the athletics competition shorts were a little shorter than my Duathlon Shorts “booty length”, and really rode up the second I moved! So I was able to take my experience and just apply some silicone elastic inside the hems, which kept everything in place and meant I wasn’t worrying about what I was wearing as I ran.In general, the kit worn by the different countries’ teams weren’t anything particularly exciting, but I did really like some of the prints and colours used, however – the Czech team has a really nice red white and blue pattern on their team jackets, and I loved that the Finnish team jackets had very narrow pale blue and white stripes, which made them stand out nicely.

I love the fact that you use people who are truly active/sporty from all walks of like to model your patterns. Do they get to road test the garments alongside you whilst you’re refining the design?

Picking my athlete models for each release is one of my favourite parts of the whole release process! I’ve got so many sporty friends doing so many different activities that I’m in no danger of running out any time soon, either. I’ve got an idea brewing that I’d like to post a “where are they now?” update to showcase all the amazing feats my athlete models have done over the past two years, too, as I know customers have told me how inspiring they find my own updates.Ferh Trade Kimono SweatIn terms of the pattern development process, though, my model athletes usually only get their samples just before the photoshoots, and this is normally the very last thing to be done before release. By this point the pattern has already been through several weeks of testing by my group of fit sewing ladies from around the world, and as part of the testing process, each are expected to take their garment out for at least one workout to assess how it performs under usual exercise movements. I started off having my athlete models give me feedback as well, but I found that it was more focused on the particular fabric I’d used, or even the colour, instead of the more technical aspects of fit or seamlines, shifting etc – in other words, they were coming from more of a RTW shopping viewpoint instead of a sewing background. But each of my athlete models get to keep the garments they model, so I often hear months later that they get loads of compliments at the gym and “where can I buy those??”, which is just great.

There’s been a real growth in the past year or two of people sewing with technical or stretch fabrics, and more people have been branching out from the regular sewing repertoire into garments with stretch. When you’ve been teaching has there been any one piece of advice that you’ve found to be the most useful in sharing with your students that are dabbling a toe in active wear?

I teach beginner stretch fabric classes at the Thriftystitcher studio here in London, and I love watching students successfully sew their first leggings or teeshirt when they’d previously thought it was all so difficult! I think the first thing to know is that you don’t necessarily need a serger (overlocker) – you can get great results with a sewing machine using a zigzag stitch for seams and twin needle for hems. My biggest tip is to invest in a walking foot, though – this will prevent the fabric from stretching as you sew, and therefore prevent those horrible, wavy seams you sometimes see!

laurie kingYou did an awesome collaboration with illustrator Laurie King last year on surface design prints that worked specifically with your patterns. Can you tell me how you guys came together on that?

Thanks! Laurie is someone whose worked I’d admired for a few years, though by the time we met up to talk about collaborating, we’d only briefly met in person once at a race. He lives outside of London and is a cyclist first and foremost, and also runs the odd race in the hills near home, too. I just loved the hand-drawn quality of his prints, and asked if he’d be up for testing the market for on-demand fabric designs that were tied to specific pattern pieces, so you’d only need to buy one yard of fabric, but have coordinating prints in different parts of that yardage so you could sew up a garment with print in some places, and solid colours in another. It was an idea that at the time no one else was doing, and to be honest, I still don’t think the infrastructure is quite there to support it, but it’s something we both ultimately want to take much further. How cool would it be if you could order a garment online that was printed and sewn precisely to your specifications in terms of colour, pattern, and fit, for example?

Personally I’m a fan of the purple/citrine combo’s and it’s on my list of todo’s with the VNA pattern. For you readers out there you can see how it all cleverly comes together in Melissa’s post.

You’ve never been someone to shy away from experiments and ideas with sewing, which I think is such a nice voice to hear on the Internet. I remember the first time I read your blog, it was the post on the dress you made from an Ikea shower curtain for Glastonbury festival.Ferh Trade Glasto DressNow you’re coming up to your 10 year anniversary for you blog, what’s it like have that many years worth of sewing recorded down on ‘paper’?

When I look back over my nearly ten years of FehrTrade.com, I’m mostly really proud at how far I’ve come in terms of my sewing ability, but also the range of garments and techniques I’ve covered during that time. I’ve sewn everything from fur coats to bras, jeans to my wedding gown, leather handbags to menswear. But I’m also really proud that my site documents my health and fitness journey, too – I was healthy but overweight when I started the site, then I lost a lot of weight just before we moved onto our boat, and then of course I was very seriously ill in 2009-2010, and my return to health and fitness has been chartered in all of my finished garment photoshoots ever since. I think it’s one thing to lose a lot of weight, but it’s another to show people the real side of that, that sometimes I gain a bit in the off-season, but I slowly work it off again as I go through a training phase, and that real life isn’t just a tidy Before and After photo.

Amen to that!

I know you’ve just moved into your newly built-out sewing room, (which looks lovely by the way!) how are you settling into it? Is it nice having a little more room?

Omg I am so happy to be in my new sewing cave! I was sewing in a temporary space for 8 years, so to be in my “forever room” is just bliss – everything is there because I designed it to be organised and within reach, and I can pull my bookcase door closed and just shut myself in.

What’s next on your list on sewing challenges – have you got any meaty projects you’re looking to bite into?

Well, I’ve actually got a big collaboration coming up early next year that will raise my profile significantly, and I’ve also got a site redesign in the works as my current site is nearly 10 years old and definitely feels like it! I’ve also got two new patterns in development – one of which is for the men in your life, so hopefully that will be out in time to sew up some Christmas presents!

Oooh, now that sounds very exciting and what a tease! I shall be on tenterhook until next year now! Thanks so much for your time and I can’t wait till we meet next time i’m in London.

You can find out more about Melissa at Fehrtrade.com and also check out her articles on sewing with stretch and technical fabrics in Seamwork Magazine here: