by Perry Austin-Clarke

JOANNE Nalson's uture was all sewn up the day she was serenaded from the stage of Batley Variety Club by pop star Alvin Stardust.

The rock ‘n’ roller sang his hit Red Dress to her when he saw the 16-year-old in the audience wearing the crimson gown she had created from scratch as a school project.

That remarkable moment helped to cement a lifelong passion for sewing that has dominated her life ever since.

It led to Joanne’s first job straight from school, to her winning a Prince’s Trust grant to launch her first business and to her moving back to Oakworth, near Keighley, after 13 years abroad to fulfil a lifelong dream to teach others how to do it.

Now her passion has led her to a new business venture and the accolade of becoming one of just a handful of stockists in the north of Liberty’s famous fabrics.

Forty years after that chance encounter with the leather-clad pop star, Joanne’s love of sewing still shines out of her: “Three days out of every week I do a 12-hour day and it just doesn’t feel like it – I can sit here and sew for 24 hours if I want to.

“I absolutely love sewing. If I can sit at my sewing machine and not be interrupted, I am as happy as Larry!”

Nowadays, she gets almost as much pleasure from passing on her enthusiasm to customers at her Sewing Days Café, at the heart of the village at 99 Lidget, Oakworth.

“I also get really excited if someone comes in to see my fabrics!” she says. “And I love the whole process of teaching others.

“I love when they start doing something that you’ve taught them and you don’t need to say anything because it’s gone in and they produce something lovely.”

Sewing Days Café opened in November 2016 and has grown increasingly popular ever since – but it isn’t quite the business Joanne imagined when it started.

“When we bought the building my first thought was to sell patchwork and quilting fabrics on ground floor with a couple of tables to provide a little light lunch for the people who came to sew,” she recalls. “But when we were doing it up all the locals just heard the word ‘café.’ So, we thought ‘OK, we can always do the fabrics upstairs (which is now a flat).’

“But the cafe side proved so popular we’ve ended up with five staff – so I’ve had to wait two years until I could get this side of the business off the ground properly.

“I have run some sewing classes right from the beginning. I’ve taught beginners sewing right from the start down here in the basement.

“My first ones were three of the girls that go to the local school. They were eight when they started and one of them is still coming. Although one of them has just dropped out to go to tap! I can’t compete with tap dancing!

“But I’ve always wanted the sewing and fabrics to be the main business and now, at last, I can focus on that.

Joanne was born in Batley and, after that successful six-month red dress project, she left school to work in a big factory in Heckmondwike, sewing rugby shirts on piece rates.

She married young and moved to Leeds but, after the marriage failed, she moved back to a council house near her parents in Batley where she decided to make some festoon blinds for her windows.

“It was the ‘Eighties and they were all the rage,” she says. “A friend of mine showed them to a local landlady who wanted some for her pub – and I ended up making 32 metres of them!

“That led to other orders and I got so much work I decided to set up my own business making curtains and blinds. I managed to get a £1,000 grant from the Prince’s Trust to get it going, which bought me a sewing machine, a Mini and a vanity case which I used to carry all my stuff in which made me feel very important when I went out to see people.”

The business wasn’t as lucrative as Joanne had hoped, and with a young son, she felt she should try working for someone else for a while so she gave it up and went to work in a fabric shop. It didn’t put her off, though, because she eventually tried again and, this time, her business ran for 20 years.

“I never advertised at all,” she says. “All my trade came from word of mouth. I used to do it for whole families: curtains, blinds, cushions, swags and tails – I used to do the whole lot really. And I did some interior design as well.

“At first they used to buy their own fabrics. I used to tell them how much to get and then I would provide linings. Then I ended up in my own shop in Gomersal.

“The business was called Designer Drapes and I started buying sample books so I could start buying in fabric and that was my downfall. I loved the fabrics so much, I spent too much on books!”

By this time, she’d met her second husband, Geoff Nalson, who had retired after selling his engineering business.

“I said to him ‘We should do something together’ so we decided to look for a business,” Joanne recalls. “We looked at a B&B on the Isle of Skye, a wedding venue near Glasgow and then, randomly, Geoff found this property in France.

“So, in 2004, we went over to Normandy for five days and we fell in love with this house which had 11 barns and more than two and a half acres of land. We put a pool in and did B&B for a few years and we just had a brilliant life.

“We did up the house and then moved into one of the barns and ran it as a gite. It was a lot easier than B&B – although I still spent most of the week doing washing! But it was fun.”

Joanne didn’t sew for her first six years in France but, eventually, the pull of the sewing machine lured her back: “I started going to a sewing bee over there with a group of ex-pats. Then I started making children’s dresses and taking them to our friend, John, who owns a chateau over there and does all-inclusive holidays for families.

“I used to go on a Friday and set up all my dresses and they were all well to do folk and they used to buy several at a time!”

They stayed in France for 13 years and had decided to return to Yorkshire when Geoff suggested they buy the shop.

“He wanted to retire and play golf but I needed something to keep me occupied,” she laughs.

Joanne came up with the name and Sewing Days Café was born.

“The café side was so popular we ended up moving the sewing business downstairs,” she says. “I really wanted to get back to my first love of sewing and I wouldn’t really have been happy if I hadn’t brought the patchworks in; that and the teaching are what I really want to do. That’s my passion.”

She now teaches sewing classes of up to three people at a time on four days of the week and her students even include a mum and her home-schooled son who now goes home and teaches his sister.

“I love teaching and I think it’s fantastic when they get the bug,” she says. “It’s all about getting them started, teaching them the beginnings. It’s all machine sewing. They start by making a bag; it’s all calico so it’s nice and stable for them to start on. Then, once we’ve taught them all the basic skills, they start sewing patterns on and assemble the bag.

“Most of them end up using it to bring their next project in as they are so proud of what they’ve done. Then they can move on to other projects: for instance, one of my ladies is making a kimono, another one has made a quilt for her sister who is having a baby, another is doing 30 metres of bunting for her sister’s wedding.”

Joanne also runs a social sewing bee, where people who have learned the skills can come along and bring their own projects, and holds special events such as sewing parties and an afternoon tea and sewing experience for Mother’s Day.

But, after the café and the teaching, the third strand to the business – the fabrics – is where Joanne sees her future.

“All the fabrics we sell are quilting quality,” she says. “It’s a flat weave of fabric that has a warp and a weft; it’s 100 per cent cotton but has no finish on it. They are just a lovely weight fabric.

“I’m also starting to stock sewing patterns for dresses, jackets and the like. Brands like Sew Over It and Tilly and the Buttons, which was launched by one of the first competitors on the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee programme.

“The fabrics we sell include brands such as Stoff, Makower, Michael Miller and Riley Blake, which are all well-known patchwork, quilting fabrics.

“We stock about 300 fabrics overall. A lot of places don’t do this, but you can buy them by the metre, by the quarter metre, by the fat quarter, by the long quarter – basically you can buy it by the centimetre if you want. For quilters they don’t need a full metre at a time so I am quite happy to sell them like that.”

She is most proud, though, of becoming one of just 100 stockists nationally of Liberty fabrics, and she is more than a little chuffed to say that one of the shoulder bags she designed and made using Liberty’s new Hesketh range is now being used in their publicity material.

“Liberty is a very special name in fabrics,” she says. “Some of the patterns they have brought back come from as far back as the 1930s and they have recoloured them, so you are getting those really lovely old prints but in modern colours.

“What I really want now is to be known for stocking quality fabrics. They’re not just for quilting, you can make all sorts with them. I have one lady who is using the Hesketh range to make Roman blinds.

“I want people from across Yorkshire to know we are here. We are a bit out of the way and you can find us on our website and on Facebook. But there’s nothing quite like seeing and feeling the fabrics for yourself so we need to do everything we can to let people know we’re here.”

Joanne also has some of her products on sale in a shop in Grassington, called The Craft Hutch, and the Oakworth premises is set to expand: “We are in the process of converting our courtyard at the back, which is right outside the fabric shop and is south facing, into a seating area for our cafe customers and also somewhere we can hold events like the sewing bee on a warm evening.”

It’s clear that Joanne’s love for sewing, for quilting and patchworks, for teaching and simply for the fabrics themselves is not going away anytime soon: “I just love sewing and everything about it.

“I love sitting at the machine – it’s just what I love doing. If I didn’t have the business, I’d be sitting in the spare bedroom sewing. And I just love sharing my passion with others….”