For this second episode in the Unusual Sewing Space Series (see the first one here) I have a special guest for you from across the canal: Melissa Fehr. You have probably heard of or sewn with her modern activewear patterns by now, she’s been around for a while! I admire her style and her original designs, even though I’m not that ‘active’ myself hehe. But today is all about her unusual home and her sewing space: she and her partner James live on a houseboat on the Thames in London. This one is close to heart for me – did you know I was born on a Dutch barge like hers? My parents lived and worked on their own barge when I was born, navigating the (mostly) French rivers with cargo. I always feel immediately at home on a boat, and there have been times when we thought about living on one ourselves. But now I leave you to admire Melissa’s beautiful home and sewing space!
Hi, I’m Melissa Fehr. I started both running and sewing shortly after I moved to London from the States 14 years ago and my husband and I bought a Dutch barge nine years ago, which we moor on the Thames here in central London. Seven years ago I suddenly became very ill and had a bone marrow transplant. I started Fehr Trade patterns, specialising in activewear, two years ago when I was made redundant from my tech job. Four years ago I ran my first marathon (in self-sewn gear, too!) and last year I broke a world record for a transplant athlete competing for Great Britain.
If you’re not familiar with the London housing crisis, pretty much everyone in their 20s and 30s is priced out of ever owning their own flat, let alone house. It’s not just that it’s super expensive – it’s actually impossible with current income levels and property prices. We had only been dating for a few months when we went to a party on a coworker’s boat and were just blown away by the space you could get in central London and the whole community that comes with boatlife. So from that night really, we started saving for a deposit, and we bought Hendrik in the eastern Netherlands. With the help of a skipper, we sailed her back across the North Sea under her own engine. For our first nine years, we were moored on the Thames just by Tower Bridge, but we recently felt it was time for a change so in January we moved her to Battersea in southwest London and are loving exploring a new area! Our dream is to both have location-independent incomes within the next few years so that we can live in Paris for a year, or take the boat to Berlin, or down the Danube.
Since Hendrik (a Dutch luxemotor barge built in 1933) was a canoeing hotel when we bought her, she came not only with 16 canoes, but 12 pokey little bunk bed rooms full of 26 mattresses, sheets, duvets, plus 300 glasses, plates – everything you’d need for a hotel! We got rid of most of the stuff early on, but ripping out all the bunkbed rooms while living in the space and upgrading all the systems, and converting the original Captain’s Cabin to a self contained flat to rent out – well, it’s taken much longer than we ever anticipated. But a few years ago we got the “pointy end” of the boat cleared, scraped, repainted, insulated, clad, painted, and carpeted enough to move into our permanent bedroom. My sewing room was carved out of a weird little space at the end of the corridor, under a bit of lower head-height deck, so we decided to give it a hidden bookcase door! The illusion is really convincing when you see it in real life because there’s a porthole just above the bookcase – even friends who have seen it in progress don’t realise there’s a room hidden behind it!
While our boat is very large (30m/103ft long and 4.5m/15ft wide), my sewing room is very small – less than 4sq m (2m x 2m) (36sq ft, 6ft x 6ft). So it’s good that I’m a very tidy, very organised person and I have fabrics neatly folded and tools and haberdashery all tucked away – I honestly can’t work if things are messy in my space, it really stresses me out! In terms of storage, my go-to and favourite patterns hang on a pattern rack on the wall, with my (relatively small) envelope pattern stash in an old Ikea chest of drawers along with smaller pieces of fabric. Some of my (rather larger) pattern magazine stash are on the bookcase door itself, but many more are in archival boxes in our vast hold. I’ve got a floor-to-ceiling Ikea wardrobe with shelving for my fabric, and a little wire drawer to hold all my lycra scraps, which are otherwise impossible to keep tidy. I’ve got my three main sewing machines (coverstitch, vintage sewing machine, and overlocker/serger) out along my main workbench, and a clothesline above it where I hang all my fabric pieces and anything in progress. Because the room itself is so small, I do all my fabric cutting up on a big desk in our saloon (main living area) where the lighting is much better and I have better access. My ironing board is stashed just outside my sewing room, and I set it up either just inside or just outside my sewing room, depending on whether I need to keep the heat in (some portions of the boat are still a building site and, as a result, unheated).
There are a few specific challenges that come with a sewing space on a boat:
Daylight isn’t really a challegne: my sewing room actually has no windows, but you’d be surprised how much light comes through multiple portholes and skylights in our bedroom, for instance! Our saloon has six enormous windows, and our wheelhouse is basically entirely glass. So it just depends how you finish a boat – obviously white, light-bouncing paint makes for much brighter rooms than dark woodwork, too.
Another is rocking when other ships pass: This actually was a problem at our previous mooring, but the stretch of river we’re on now, combined with the better moorings infrastructure here means that we only move around a small amount. More than we would in a marina, say, but it’s something friends get used to in a day or so.
Storage is not a problem, our friends in flats groan with jealousy when they see the size of our storage hold! There are lots of drawbacks to living on a Dutch barge, but storage isn’t one of them.
We’re currently in an aggressive saving mode, with a plan to go into drydock in a year or two and completely rip out the rest of the boat’s interior back to the hull (apart from the new bedroom and sewing room, of course, and the original 1930s Captain’s Cabin), spray foam insulate it, and do the first fix or electrics, heating, black and grey water lines, cladding, etc. It’ll be a lot of work and expense, but it’ll be worth it to finally have the layout and plans we’ve had drawn up for years now. I’m currently more dreading having to move all of our stuff out than the actual months in drydock getting the work done! But as with everything in boatlife, you get through the rough times by thinking of those perfect summer evenings sat on deck, barbecue going and glass of wine in hand, watching the sunset over the river and swans swim by and think “all this, and no 40 year mortgage!” It’s all a balance, but you’ve ultimately got to love your boat to put up with the hard work that comes with the rewards.
Thanks for showing us around Melissa! I’m getting all excited for you hearing about your plans for the future. Being able to shape your home the way you want AND being able to take it with you and just moore it in a different country is fantastic and right up our alley. I hope you readers have enjoyed this peek into boat life as well!