Image © Tabitha Stapely

Stitches, the tailoring business bringing East London’s clothes back to life

Run by Hamiyet Alpetkin and her children, tailoring and repairs business Stitches seeks to give every garment a second life.

Since opening in 2019, Stitches has become part of the fabric of Roman Road. Run by Hamiyet Alpetkin and her two children, Mehmet and Dilek, this is a real family business. They might be embedded in the local community, but their reach is city-wide: today Londoners will travel from far-flung boroughs seeking out Hamiyet’s deft needlework.

Step into Stitches and you’ll find yourself in a small, cosy space, where rails of clothes line the walls. Customers pop in and out to pick up dresses and coats, talking with Dilek as they go. Tune out of the conversations and you’ll hear the low mechanic thrum of Hamiyet’s sewing machine, the snip of scissors, the rustling of clothes. Tape measures dangle from the spool holders and brightly coloured pincushions dot the room.

There is an atmosphere of intimacy, of familiarity, that makes Stitches unlike many shops. The Alpetkins talk softly as they work, laughing at each other’s jokes. Switching fluidly between Turkish and English, Dilek and Mehmet translate for their mother when she speaks. 

It’s a shop bristling with stuff, from boxes of ribbons to lengths of fabric to great piles of clothes. For Mehmet, the lockdown came as something of a relief: those quiet months gave him the opportunity to have a spring clean.

‘Before lockdown,’ he says, ‘the rail system we had couldn’t handle the amount of weight we had on it.’ The rails were so full they were breaking from their brackets, coming away from the walls. Quarantine gave him the opportunity to install scaffolding rails capable of shouldering the weight of the clothes.

It may have been a welcome break for Mehmet, but Hamiyet couldn’t wait to return. ‘She just wanted to come back,’ says Dilek. ‘She’d ask, “when can we open again?”’. To keep busy, Hamiyet took to knitting children’s toys, but this project paled in comparison to running the business. ‘I like the work’, says Hamiyet, gesturing expansively to the shop.

They may be known for their alterations and repairs, but, as Mehmet says, ‘we make everything’ from dog pillows to custom-made dresses to up-cycled bags and masks. If you bring them your favourite piece of clothing, they can replicate its shape and fit precisely, so that you have a clone. They’ll also go material-hunting for you, rifling through every fabric store in London until they find the exact pattern or print you’re seeking out. 

They may be perfectionists, but the Alpetkins also know how to get things done fast. Once, a man ripped his blazer on his way to work. He dropped the piece into Stitches, where they told him to take a walk to the top of Roman Road. ‘By the time he came back, it was done’.  

Another time, a man was at a wedding in Clapton when his trousers ripped. He hopped straight in a cab to Stitches. ‘He waited in the fitting room while we stitched it, and then he went back to the wedding,’ says Dilek.

The Alpetkins also repair vintage clothes by hand. Dilek gestures to an impressive fur coat hanging from one of the rails. ‘I don’t know if you’ll want to touch it,’ says Dilek, as her brother picks it up. He’s vegan, and this coat is made of bear fur. It’s a glamorous thing, shaggy and soft. ‘Because it’s so old, it’s about trying to bring it back to life,’ says Dilek. Apparently, it was made 100 years ago or more.

Alterations are also popular. Post-lockdown, lots of customers have come in hoping to have their trousers let out a bit. ‘People will say, “I’ve gained a bit of weight during lockdown,” Mehmet says, with a smile. 

They’ve also started making masks, each one hand-stitched by Dilek. Dilek’s working on a Burberry mask at the moment, the fabric sourced from an official Burberry dealer. Only recently has she learned to sew by hand; Hamiyet taught her during lockdown. 

So where did Hamiyet pick up sewing? ‘She learned back in Turkey,’ says Mehmet. ‘They used to have this old machine where you had to pedal it to make the machine stitch’. In Turkey, she was simply repairing her own clothes; the idea of a business was still far off. 

After settling in England in 1985, Hamiyet took several jobs in factories, before making one-off sample outfits. Later, she learned to tailor, making alterations and repairs in Brent Cross. ‘She did tailoring and alterations there for 10 years,’ says Mehmet. 

It was only in 2018 that Stitches took shape and form. Keen to open a vegan café, Mehmet had been on the lookout for good commercial spaces to rent around Bow. When he noticed an empty spot on the Roman, he leapt at it, putting down a deposit within a week. 

But Mehmet’s vegan café was not to be: Hamiyet dissuaded him. ‘Let’s stick to what we know,’ she said.

It was difficult at first. ‘We took in too much work,’ Mehmet explains. They weren’t expecting to get so busy so fast, but soon they were accepting 25-30 pieces every day. ‘One piece can take two hours,’ says Mehmet, so they’d be repairing clothes late into the night. ‘That was the lowest point,’ says Mehmet. ‘We argued a lot. We’d say, “when are we going home?”’. 

Since then, Mehmet’s got a new job; his little brother helps out when he’s not around. ‘People prefer him in customer service,’ says Mehmet. ‘I think that’s because during lockdown I had a massive beard, so that’s all they saw.’ 

Dilek and Hamiyet work at Stitches most days. So, of everyone, who’s the boss? ‘Even if it looks like it’s me, it’s really her,’ says Mehmet, nodding in his mother’s direction. 

Living just fifteen minutes’ walk from the shop, the Alpetkins are real locals. Mehmet’s a Bow boy through and through, having been to Bow Boys school. On Roman Road, his favourite spot is the East End classic G. Kelly, where they do a good vegan pie and mash. 

They may be locals, but today everyone knows about Hamiyet’s work. ‘She’s the jack-of-all-trades,’ says Mehmet. ‘She can do everything that needs to be done.’ Bursting with clothes, the shop is a testament to Hamiyet’s tireless work. There’s little space for anything else: the family sits on a small sewing-table island, surrounded by a rising tide of garments. 

Have they thought about upscaling? ‘We have been thinking about it,’ says Mehmet. But the Alpetkins weren’t expecting to need more space so soon: they’re on a fifteen-year lease. As Mehmet says, ’we’re going to be here for a while.’

If you enjoyed this article, you should read about the highs and lows of running a local corner shop.

 


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