WHEN Franklins opened in 1956 it had seven second-hand sewing machines and a £100 till float.

It was operating from a loft in nearby Essex Street, nothing compared to the grandeur of where it stands today on St Botolph’s Street, Colchester.

What was then AJ Franklins & Sons – grandfather Anthony Franklin being the ‘A’ – is now Europe’s largest specialist needlecraft store and one of the largest sewing machine dealers in the country, representing three generations of creativity.

They are two of many accolades the store can now celebrate with its 60th anniversary on March 29.

Father, Laurence, 57, joined the family business aged 16 – it is his only job.

He explained how his father, a former bicycle mechanic, worked for the famous Singer sewing machine brand and would cycle around Colchester delivering machines on a trades bike. His response to a job advert searching for a sewing engineer became his entry into the business.

Laurence’s mother, Janet, worked for a competitor in Chelmsford selling machines and this is how they met.

He said: “My dad never forced my brother or I to come into the business, but we’ve enjoyed it and we want to carry on this enthusiasm with the next generation.”

His brother is Trevor Franklin, 58, who has been in the business for 42 years.

His son, Nathan, 30, takes a lead in the refurbishment of Franklins’ five branches in Colchester, Ipswich, Dovercourt, Chelmsford and Salisbury.

Nathan said: “Each day is completely different when you travel to different locations.

“My brother isn’t in the business at all, but I’d just always wanted to be involved.”

Alongside them is Laurence’s elder son, Jason, 24, who moves between the sales floor, back office and everything in between – as they all do.

He said: “Some weeks the team might go to China for a show and other days I’ll be doing manual labour clearing out a million buttons from a warehouse.”

He eventually narrows it down to sales and management – he is the manager of the Ipswich store.

It’s a running joke that there has been an absence of girls in the Franklin bloodline, but Laurence’s wife, Heidi, and sister-in-law, Deanna, are both important to the business.

When asked what it’s like working with family, there was an unanimous “fine” among the laughter from Laurence and Nathan.

Jason said: “We’re all invested in the company and have the same aims because we’re from the same generation – it’s great.”

The Franklins’ attribute their success to not only knowledgeable customer service, which has built a loyal customer base who rely on their advice, but being at the forefront of product innovation.

A turning point came in 1997 when it made an alliance with an American company and led the way in embroidery software for the European market.

Through this, they introduced a home embroidery system which allowed sewers to embroider on any machines; resize and rebrand their patterns, something they were previously unable to do.

Laurence said: “It was the early days of computers, so we brought out our own hardware and were the first to do it.”

What followed were knitting machines, making them one of the biggest dealers in the country, but the introduction of fleece “finished the machines over-night,” Laurence explained.

However, adapting quickly to changes in the industry and looking ahead is what has given the growing brand its staying power, added Jason.

He said: “A lot of people don’t respond and suffer because of it. Recognising what’s coming ahead really helps you to be on your game.

“I would say we were quite lucky with the credit crunch, because it encouraged an attitude of ‘make do and mend’ and people began taking up their craft hobbies as jobs.

“We’ve seen people go from absolute novices to teaching classes and we get lots of men sewing now who like to have another bloke serving them.”

The BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee has also brought an influx of amateur sewers. Series three finalist, Lieutenant Neil Stace, sews at Franklin’s Salisbury store in his free time.

After opening a news article about him on Google, all three men pour over the computer screen, deliberating on how old the photo is based on the brand and condition of Neil’s machine.

What was more profound is the peculiarity of the man dressed in Army uniform posed behind it.

Neil began sewing at school out of protest for girls being able to take part in football. Despite this the boys point out men have always dominated the sewing world.

“They always were as tailors,” Laurence said.

Jason continued: “One of the biggest past times in the trenches during the war was knitting.

“The soldiers would do it to pass the time, it wasn’t viewed as a womanly thing to do.”

Laurence added: “With home dressmaking, more women sewed at home and possibly then it wasn’t macho enough for men.

“When I was at school, boys did wood work and metal work, while girls did textiles and cooking, but now everyone learns skills so it’s broken the barrier down again.”

Entering the store’s landmark 60th year, Franklins can celebrate its successes.

Its 50th birthday was marred by Colchester Council’s Vineyard Gate Development – the proposed 150,000 sq ft shopping centre had threatened the future of the premises for 12 years.

It forced them to halt their own refurbishment plans, much to Nathan’s disappointment, and put a dampener on the occasion.

He said: “One of the highs so far for me has been opening and modernising the new shops and we want the same refreshed look here, but the council’s compulsory purchase order down the length of the street has been a pain.

“This is the only store out of them all which hasn’t had the massive rebrand.”

Being held back by the council is a sore point for Laurence, who said they are not entirely in control of their destiny in Colchester.

Nonetheless, they intend to continue the year on a high with a rebrand of Franklins’ marketing for customers to join the fun.