Getting to Know Anita Smith: Sew What Manchester

Words: Amy Callaghan

It’s no secret that the fashion industry has more than a few skeletons in its closet. From dangerous working conditions for low-paid (but high-skilled) workers in clothing factories, to the £140 million worth of clothing that goes to landfill each year, fast fashion is one of the most exploitative and damaging industries operating today. And yet, the majority of people will turn a blind eye to this in favour of picking something up at the H&M sale or snagging a cheap new dress for a night out on Missguided.

Not everyone takes a blasé attitude, however – there’s an increasingly popular movement known as ‘slow fashion’, which prioritises buying less, buying ethically and buying to last. Slow fashion encourages a whole range of sustainable habits, such as buying secondhand from charity shops and vintage stores, investing in high-quality handmade pieces from independent businesses, and learning to mend clothes yourself instead of replacing them. We’re pretty lucky in the north – the sustainable fashion movement has real momentum here, and there are loads of charity shops and vintage stores to favour over chains.

There are also plenty of independent businesses that place sustainability at the heart of their service. Anita Smith, founder of one-woman business Sew What, is a Manchester-based designer and maker, who champions vintage, sustainable fashion. All her pieces are handmade – she generally designs vintage styles with a modern twist – and she also offers a range of sewing and style services to help people make more sustainable fashion choices and fall in love with their wardrobe again. We had the pleasure of speaking with Anita about starting her own business, slow fashion, and sustainability on a budget.

Can you tell us the story behind Sew What?

I was a teacher before I started my business, but I did fashion design at uni, and I wanted to combine the two somehow. I got a bit disillusioned with teaching and wanted to get back to doing something that was more creative and more fulfilling for me. I wanted to share all the skills I learned at uni, and my love for fashion – but not necessarily trend-led fast fashion – and combine that with teaching people how to sew, so they could learn to love it as much as I do. That’s where the idea came from, and I just went from there. I started with a studio at Islington Mill in Salford for a couple of years, and then moved into a shared studio, still in the mill. It’s a separate building with loads of other people that I already knew – it’s so good being in a collective space with other creative people, it means that you’re constantly being pushed and supported.

You mentioned wanting to share your love of fashion, but emphasising slow fashion over high street fast fashion. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and why you feel it’s so important?

Essentially, I love making my own clothes. I got into it in the first place because when I’d go to high street stores, there just wasn’t anything there that was exactly what I wanted, or the fit was all wrong. Also, looking at things and knowing how long it takes to make something and how much skill is involved, I couldn’t justify how little the prices were. For them to be that cheap it means that whoever’s making it isn’t getting paid properly – the maths doesn’t work. That’s how I really fell out of love with the high street.

It’s a mindset change, I think – it takes people a long time, because we’ve all grown up not thinking about the impact fast fashion was having. Now there’s a real momentum going and people have started to realise what effect fast fashion and the high street is having on the environment and people in the industry.

That’s where the slow fashion movement came from. Slow fashion is about taking the time and being a bit more thoughtful and a bit more conscious about what you’re purchasing, and buying quality rather than quantity. It’s about buying from businesses that are really transparent about where they’ve got their fabrics from and who’s made it. It might be that it’s a complete one off – you’ve had something made especially for you. It might be that there’s a really small batch. There’s something about knowing you’re going to walk down the street and you’re not going to see someone wearing the same thing as you that makes clothes so much more special. So it’s a mindset change of trying to think about your style, and what you want to wear rather than what you’re being told to wear by the high street.

Graphic: Hannah McCreath

Slow fashion has a bit of a reputation for being less financially accessible. Do you have any tips for people who want to shop and dress more sustainably, but are on a tighter budget?

I think it goes back to the idea of investing in something. Rather than buying five things that are really cheap, you can save that. Just buy one thing that’s better quality, that actually fits and fulfils the need that is there. What is the gap in the wardrobe? Save up and invest in that.

At the same time, you’ll hear people saying they can’t afford sustainable fashion, but they might shop in middle-range stores like & Other Stories or Cos. They are not cheap places to buy from, but people still don’t think they can afford sustainable clothing. There are cheaper brands out there that are sustainable – it does exist!

Part of it is also about trust. People have to trust that they will still get the quality products from small independent companies that don’t have all the marketing and publicity. It takes a lot of work to stop yourself buying lots of little things, and saving up for something, and trusting that that’s going to stand the test of time. Maybe we’ve all got used to Primark prices and sale prices. There are sales on all year round now, so it’s part of our psyche that we believe everything is cheap. And it just shouldn’t be – that’s not the real cost of things.

Can you tell us about the process behind designing and creating a bespoke garment?

I generally collect things from a vintage aspect, because essentially all the fashion that’s in stores references vintage fashion. Right now the 70s are back in, when I was growing up the 80s were cool again, the 60s are always in fashion. So I generally look back at clothes that I would love to wear now, and do a modern take on them. I’ll use a modern fabric, and adapt it slightly so it doesn’t look costume-y. You can make things look more modern just with the fabrics or the print that you use.

I do things that I think my customers might like and that will fit in their wardrobes but won’t go out of fashion. I also get commissions, where people say they really like something from my website, but is there any way it can be made with sleeves, or without a zip down the front, or with a collar rather than a pinafore neck. Making something specific for a customer is a real privilege – it’s an honour that someone trusts me to do that.

Image: Courtesy of Anita Smith

What’s your favourite thing about being based in the north?

The fact that I can afford to have a studio! There’s something very specific about being in the north where it’s almost like people haven’t quite realised how incredible the creative network is here. There’s a bit of a lack of other makers but it’s just because people don’t expect to find you there. It’s really nice to find other creatives that are in Manchester or Leeds or Sheffield – you can connect more with them because they’ve not done what everyone tells you to do and gone to London. People are really proud that they’re here, and they support other northern businesses. The support network, and how positive people are towards each other is just wonderful, an absolute dream.

And finally, as people are spending more time in the house at the moment, do you have any suggestions for steps we can take and things we can do at home to start to sort out our own sustainable fashion habits?

The fact that people aren’t going out means that they might start to realise that they don’t need to buy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going out and treating yourself – it’s not a shame thing and no one should feel guilty about it. But it might make people reconsider how much they own and how much they actually need. Maybe they’ll take a bit more time to consider – when we are set free! – that they don’t go out and immediately buy, because they have all this stuff at home that they can’t wait to wear again.

Or, they might find that they’re wearing things in different ways. It’s the best thing when you see your wardrobe in a different light, and you start to wear things together that you never would have before. On Instagram, Erica Davies has started a prompt – #ericamademetryit – challenging people to wear things they’d never normally wear.  People are so excited about going out once a day, or going to do their weekly shop, they’re wearing all these crazy things. Now they’re wearing a fabulous 70s maxi dress that they’d normally save, because they’re desperate to wear something other than joggers – they can start pulling stuff out and getting it on!

I also hope it makes people realise that at a time like this, it’s the smaller independent businesses that need help. I’m sure everyone’s seen that ASOS and Boohoo are still forcing people to work, and they’re having sales to encourage people to buy stuff they don’t need. They’re not bailing their workers out; they’re not helping anyone apart from themselves. Little businesses are desperately trying to make sure their workers are OK, making sure customers get their products on time, and doing things for free for the NHS. I hope people take note of that after this is all over and really try and change their shopping habits to support the little guys – they’re the ones that need it.

You can find Anita on Instagram @sewwhatmcr and on Twitter @sewwhatmcr. Sew What’s Facebook is here, and the website can be found here.

Interview edited for length and clarity.