The Miller’s Tale
An appreciation by Dina Iordanova
St Andrews may have more than one chic corner, yet Miller’s Tale is where I feel real creativity is at home (MT1). It is due to unique businesses like this – a combination of a small series of knit designs and unique accessories – that fashion shopping acquires a special stylish feel. In other small towns across Britain, the commercial areas are dominated by high street names; there is rarely space for uniqueness and independence of vision. In St Andrews, Carolyn Miller’s creative genius has graced the scene for nearly two decades now.
Miller’s Tale is synonymous with quality, style, and a captivating free spirit. Carolyn Miller, whom l spoke to recently whilst researching for this piece, is a woman whose creative and commercial acumen are in perfect balance. She started designing clothes back in 1984, a time when the manufacturing base for knitted pieces across the Midlands was still robust and ubiquitous.
In the early years, it was she and her sister – they both designed – looked into setting up a production line, and selling the knitwear from exhibition stalls they set up at handpicked selections of high-class agricultural shows and sporting events around the country. They would travel and put up a stand at exhibitions such as the Royal Show, the Burghley Horse Trials, or the New Forest Show – all places where the best of British country living would be on display. But they also exhibited across mainland Europe, where the British country style is held in high esteem. It was a lifestyle that permitted the sisters to combine their love of travelling and exploring new places with an unconventional way of bringing their creations to an international community of admirers.
The original Miller’s Tale shop opened in the beautiful town of Helmsley in North Yorkshire in 1995. It was a move to stationary life precipitated by the advent of the internet and the changes it brought along to the trade environment of the shows, first subtly, then more palpably. Being a Scot, Carolyn had always wanted a presence north of the border. She basically made it happen when, whilst showing designs during the 129th Golf Open in St Andrews, she spotted a vacant shop on Church Street, where the Scottish headquarters of Miller’s Tale soon materialised.
Miller’s Tale caters to the taste of those who prefer something ‘just that little bit different’. It offers stylish designs in the highest quality yarns from a small family concern, above all, British. In the early days one could rely on the network of knitwear factories in England. Over time, the mass aspect of this industry shrank, yet it was not a factor that affected adversely the making of small series of unique garments. All clothes on offer remained highly individual by virtue of the fact that all production is realised by a small team of skilled knitters. And whilst the model displaying these designs is a young woman (MT2), Miller’s Tale designs are just as perfect for the sophisticated mature woman – and, as far as I am concerned, it is the mature woman that is the perfect wearer of these elegant tops and scarves! Perhaps because of the high neck, where the eyes are led by an ornamental abundance of textures and shapes, and the loose back that falls straight down giving a youthful curve of the spine.
A signature design is the snuggly knitted top with loose back (that gives a fantastic line to the garment) with hems that are often asymmetrical. It can be worn on top of trousers and riding boots, or with a skirt. (MT4, MT5). The neck is traditionally high and, in most instances, rich in ornamentation — usually achieved via a combination of a scarf-type wrap-around collar that combines several textures, fur, feathers, a pendant. The shop also offers attractive stand-alone accessories, such as multi-coloured infinity scarves, or the very Scottish style of the Wallace scarf (MT3).
Today, Miller’s Tale not only continues to manufacture its trademark beautiful knitwear, but also designs and makes clothing in luxury fabrics: for example, in the shop one can find shirts in Liberty fabrics, yet another beloved British institution of eccentric taste. The shop also sells handpicked products that complement the clothing; many of these items are handmade and distinctive.
I was privileged to meet and befriend Carolyn. I was also overjoyed when she agreed to come and talk to the students in the Film and Fashion class I was teaching: whereas we would normally be discussing the work of costume designers who work in cinema, such as Edith Head, Orry-Kelly, Milena Canonero, or Emi Wada, we now had an accomplished business woman and a real designer, who introduced students to the vagaries of the profession. This was one of the many aspects of Carolyn’s community involvement.
For the years l have lived in St Andrews, Miller’s Tale changed location a few times. The original shop was on Church Street. Then it moved to more spacious premises on South Street. While for the past several years it enjoys its current location on Greyfriars Gardens, where its exquisitely designed windows and stylish interiors attract a cosmopolitan array of visitors (MT6). Many of the interesting people who pass through St Andrews have come to appreciate this unique destination, and revisit every time when they pass through the town.