Wool gathering – what brings thousands of people to a barn in Mid Wales

On the last weekend in April, I re-connected with my tribe.  After a break of two years because of the pandemic, Wonderwool Wales was finally able to go ahead in its traditional slot of the last weekend in April, and nothing was going to keep me away.  The event at the Royal Welsh Showground near Builth Wells in rural Mid Wales has taken place since 2006, and whilst it started with the idea of raising the profile of Welsh wool and providing a showcase for craftspeople and small businesses using wool, it has developed into a gathering of the fibre-obsessed from all over the UK and beyond.

Colourful skeins of yarn.
Fivemoons yarn hand painted yarn from the Blackdown Hills, Devon. www.theslowwardrobe.co.uk/collections/fivemoons-yarns

Let me try to set the scene.  The venue is three large barns which, when used for agricultural shows, are full of pens containing trimmed and brushed sheep and cattle, the elites of their breeds.  During Wonderwool, however, the barns become like the inside of a kaleidoscope, a sensory overload of colour and texture with nearly two hundred stalls representing sheep breed societies, craft guilds, boutique textile mills, purveyors of equipment for knitters, spinners, weavers, dyers, feltmakers – but mainly yarn, more yarn in a dizzying rainbow of colours than I have ever seen in one place.  The choice is overwhelming.  The first time I came, I felt like I needed a lie down in a darkened room for the rest of the weekend.

Dozens of skeins of brightly coloured yarn.
Sock yarn by Siobhans Crafts www.siobhanscrafts.co.uk

But it is not only the cornucopia of goods for sale which draw the eye.  Fibre events like this (similar gatherings in the UK include Yarn Fest in Yorkshire and Woolfest in Cumbria) are an opportunity for people to show off their creations.  There are several thousand people here, and seemingly every second person is wearing a handmade scarf, hat, sweater or dress.  I could have photographed dozens of examples at Wonderwool, but I settled on these two ladies who had travelled to Wonderwool from Cheshire, resplendent in their stunning, unique creations which incorporate felting and stitching techniques.  Fortunately, they were happy to pose for me!

Two smiling ladies modelling a coat and waistcoat.
Ali and Christine modelling their creations

Over the years that I have been coming to Wonderwool, I have noticed trends within the fibre crafts world.  For example, a few years ago there was a plethora of yarns made from hemp/linen, organic cotton, and nettle fibres.  This year, when I specifically wanted some cotton yarn for a project, there was none to be found, and remarkably little linen either.  Neither was there any sign this year of the giant knitting – with yarn as thick as rope, and broomsticks for needles – which was all the rage the last time I went.  The theme I could see this year was traceability – there was a strong emphasis on the provenance of the yarn on sale, with information on the flock that the fleece came from and the mill or hand-spinner that had processed it.  One vendor was even able to show a prospective customer a picture on her phone of the individual sheep whose fleeces had contributed to the balls of undyed knitting yarn on sale!

Sacks of sheep's fleeces in a range of natural colours.
Sacks of raw fleece. British Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association www.bcsba.org.uk
Skeins of coloured wool featuring the red Welsh dragon on the labels.
Yarn from Welsh flocks by Midwinter Yarns www.midwinteryarns.com

I was interested, too, to see an exhibit of natural dyestuffs – a range of plant products which have traditionally been used to dye yarn and fabric – together with the yarn that has been dyed with them.  There is increasing interest in natural dyes, with a number of how-to books now available (I have tried it myself, using onion skins to dye some silk fabric a vibrant, autumnal orange) and in view of the environmental impact of conventional (artificial) dyes it was good to see awareness of natural processes being raised in this way.

A selection of natural dyestuffs.
A selection of natural dyestuff from Allium Threads www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AlliumThreads
A selection of naturally-dyed yarns in shades of cream, wheat and green.
A selection of naturally-dyed yarns from Allium Threads www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AlliumThreads

Despite the name, it’s not all about the wool – one particularly eye-catching stall was selling yarn made from recycled saris.  The fabric is ripped into narrow strips, which can then be used to knit, crochet or weave.  The colours are luminous.

Photo of a woman winding a skein of bright orange recycled sari yarn.
Making a skein of recycled sari yarn at www.lalawithlove.co.uk
A display of recycled sari yarn in a range of bright colours.
Recycled sari yarns by www.lalawithlove.co.uk

Wonderwool sets out to showcase all the processes from sheep to finished article.  Some of the breed societies bring ewes, with their lambs, to the show, and these are always popular.  ‘Raw’ fleece – clipped from the sheep last summer – is available for those who like to process and spin their own fibre, as well as combed fibres for feltmakers and spinners who prefer a little less lanolin in their fibres!  And, of course, there is yarn – so much yarn.  Knitting patterns.  Spindles, carders, looms.  Knitting needles, crochet hooks, spinning wheels, buttons.  Embellishments, dyes, bags of dyed combed ‘tops’ for feltmakers.  Knitted toys.  Traditional ganseys.  Textile art.  Yarn.  And yet more yarn.

Felt art by Ali Scott www.aliscottfeltartist.co.uk
A display of knitted and crochet toy animals including a poodle, a whale and a lobster.
Kits for toys by Toft www.toftuk.com

For many of us, though, it isn’t only about the retail opportunity – although I very much doubt anyone leaves empty-handed!  There is an aspect of the event which is more like a pilgrimage, a gathering of like-minded people, an opportunity for people to connect around the passion for fibre crafts that unites us.  It serves an as annual reunion – in the weeks before Wonderwool, many of us were emailing each other to ask ‘are you going to Wonderwool?  Shall we meet up?’  Everywhere, there were greetings, especially enthusiastic this year because of the enforced separation of the pandemic which means it’s been several years since we’ve all got together like this.  I arranged to meet up with friends I haven’t seen since the last time I was at Wonderwool, texting ‘I’m here!  Where are you?’ and rendezvousing for coffee, where we compared purchases and recommended stalls as well as catching up on our lives.  And the world of wool is international – I encountered people from Sweden, Germany, and the USA, as well as from all over the UK.  Guilds and groups hire coaches to bus their members to Mid Wales.  Conversations start over a shared admiration for a yarn, a texture, a colour.  I know I’m not the only one to have made friends through casual meetings at Wonderwool.  Here, we all understand the enthusiasm for that amazing sock yarn, that beautiful spindle, the lustre of that fleece.  Here, we are amongst our own, our tribe.

A wall display of coloured yarns.
Yarns by John Arbon Textiles, Devon www.jarbon.com
Display of hand-turned wooden spindles.
Spindles hand-turned by Ian Tait on the Isle of Wight www.thewoodemporium.co.uk

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Judging a book by its cover – the book as art and artefact

I have always been fascinated by old books and their tooled and gilded bindings.  Years ago, when I worked at an academic library in Cambridge, a favourite part of my job was to carefully rub a special kind of polish into the leather covers to keep them fed and supple.  I would fetch the key to the climate-controlled, fireproof strong room in which the ‘special’ books were stored, select a volume which looked in need of attention, and get to work with a soft cloth.  As I worked, I would marvel at the intricate designs, and above all at the antiquity of these objects – we held books dating back to less than a century after Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of printing with moveable type, most of them in their original bindings.  Whose hands had touched these covers and turned these pages before me?

Recently I was able to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  Entitled Beautiful Books, the exhibition consists of twenty-two books and an accompanying film which show the bookbinding process.  Perhaps counterintuitively for a library, the emphasis is not on the content of the books, but on their bindings.  Created between 1849 and 1993, the books showcase the talents of remarkable bookbinders whose work goes far beyond simply making covers to protect the words within.

Colour photograph of the binding of Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales.
Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim. Binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

For a few years, I subscribed to the Folio Society, and a number of attractively-bound limited edition volumes were added to my bookshelves.  Apart from that, I have had little exposure to modern binding, and this exhibition was therefore quite an eye-opener for me.  As I worked my way around the glass cabinets, a number of themes emerged.

These bindings are works of art, and not just in the way one says of something impressive, ‘wow, that’s a work of art!’  These fine bindings create pictures, images, in way that is reminiscent of textile art.  They use of blocks and lines of colour, gilding, texture, and motifs which respond to the subject of the book, combine to make artworks which stand in their own right.

Stylistically, they are very much of their time.  For example, the binding by Elizabeth Greenhill for Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (1963) put me in mind of a tapestry by Graham Sutherland, and would not have looked out of place scaled up on the wall of a brutalist concrete building on the South Bank in London. 

In many cases, it really is possible to judge the book by its cover, as the binding gives a hint or preview of the contents.  For example, the cover created by Julian Thomas for Houses of Leaves, a translation of the work of fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwylim by Rachel Bromwich, published in 1993, takes its inspiration from the book’s title, and features lines based on the outlines of leaves and the tendrils of foliage which ornament medieval manuscripts.  And with the binding for Across the Straights by Kyffin Williams, Thomas’ collaboration with arguably Wales’ most famous artist results in Williams’ essential simplification of landscape being transferred to the book’s cover.

Colour photograph of the binding of Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales
Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

As a writer, it is a strange experience for me to be looking at books as artefacts as well as texts (or indeed as artefacts instead of texts – with the exhibits contained within glass cases, it is of course not possible to interact with the printed words within).  This has made me muse about the books I own.  Are some of these, too, artefacts rather than just texts?  Do I choose to have them because they symbolise my aspirations to be knowledgeable, cultured, or well-read (whether or not I’ve actually read them)?  Do some of them earn their place on the shelves because of the tactile quality of their bindings, or their attractive cover designs?  There are certainly some books I have bought because I was entranced by their covers, and others where I have been pleasantly surprised when their plain, worthy covers prove, on actually reading the book, to belie the fascinating content.  Book covers matter.

The exhibition Beautiful Books continues at the National Library of Wales until 9 December 2022- more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/exhibitions/beautiful-books

Just upstairs from this exhibition is another, which also caused me to think about the significance of books.  Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) celebrates the four hundredth anniversary of the publication, in 1620, of the translation that became the standard text of the bible in Welsh until the 1980s.  The significance of the Welsh bible goes far beyond religion – as with many languages, the standard translation defined the language, providing a benchmark for written Welsh and a foundation for cultural and literary life to the present day.

Colour photograph of Mary Jones' bible.  Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society
Mary Jones’ bible. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society

Here, too, I am brought face to face with the book as artefact.  In this case, it is the bible owned by Mary Jones.  Her barefoot journey across North Wales in 1800 to buy her own copy of the bible in her own language has become a story that is told across the world.  This object – dark with use and age – is more than a book.  It connects us to an individual, a real person who held it and turned its pages, and also to a whole history of a language and the people who speak it.  And it tells the story of reading – at that time, Wales had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world thanks to the ‘circulating schools’ pioneered by Griffith Jones and his successors, which would come to a district for a while and teach people of all ages and genders to read, the aim being that they would be able to read the bible for themselves.  Literacy was perceived as what we still know it to be today – the gateway to knowledge and independent learning that can change lives.  Mary Jones’ bible is symbolic of the world of words and ideas that was opened up to her when she learned to read.  There can be few greater gifts than the ability to read.

The exhibition Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) is on until 2 April 2022 – more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/beibl-i-bawb

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

The fallacy of the binary, or why BOTH/AND is better than EITHER/OR

If I am this, then I am not that.  If I am a writer, I am not an artist.  If I am to go on to do this, then I must leave that behind.

This is a common enough view, but it is, I believe, a fallacy.  All of our experiences enrich our lives, and each other.  Also, different perspectives enable us to see things in new ways.  Because I studied history, I see a landscape in a particular way.  Because I am obsessed with maps – including historical maps – I see landscapes in a particular way.  Because I am an artist – and specifically a textile artist, engaged with colour and texture, form and function, techniques and materials, symbols and metaphors – I see a landscape in a particular way.  Because I am a historian, a map addict AND a textile artist, I see the landscape in a way which is uniquely informed by all those lenses – more complex, more nuanced, more sophisticated and more original that if I were solely a writer, a historian, a map addict, a textile artist – a way that is greater than the sum of those parts.

In our culture, we are encouraged to focus on a few things in life.  It starts early, in our education system, where by our mid teens we have to select those subjects which are to be taken forward to public examinations.  If we reach university, our mental paradigms are narrowed still further to one, two, or at the most three subjects.  By postgraduate study, the focus is on one small aspect of one subject, and the emphasis is on depth, not breadth.  There is still the expectation that we will stay in the same job – or at least the same type of work – for the whole of our working lives, as our parents and grandparents did before us.  But we live longer lives than ever before, and this expectation should be obsolete.  More and more of us (myself included) are making one or more career changes – reflecting the massive changes in society and the economy during the half-century and more of our working lives, which have caused entire industries to disappear and others to be invented, but also reflecting the change, growth and development in ourselves as people over that time.  Sure, there are things that don’t change – for example, my love of history was formed young and continues unabated.  But we do develop, change emphasis, change our outlooks.  It would be sad if we stagnated, with our life, work and worldview the same at seventy as it was at twenty – that would imply that we hadn’t lived, hadn’t experienced anything, hadn’t learned or adapted or evolved.

To my mind, there is a close correlation between openness to change and creativity.  Creativity, by its very nature, is the antithesis of the ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ school of thought.  You cannot make a new thing by doing everything the old way.  This is not to value innovation at all costs – that way lies a senseless waste of heritage, skills, knowledge and resources – but to be wedded to habit can only stifle new growth.

It seems perverse, therefore, for me to acquiesce with the cultural notion that we can only be one thing – a writer, an artist, a teacher, whatever – and cannot, should not, also be something else;  that it is a cause for surprise, and somehow unsettling, to find that the local street sweeper is also an award-winning poet, for example, or that the sheep-farmer is a best-selling author*.  The idea that if you are this, then you are not that.

For a while now I have been finding it frustrating that, in order to focus on writing, I have felt that I have to turn my back on my art practice – to say no, I’m not an artist, I am a writer.  But as well as being frustrating, I feel this could weaken the quality of my writing – deliberately excluding the perspectives and insights of the artist me has, I would argue, risked making my writing unnecessarily one-dimensional.  As a writer, I write because of who I am, with experiences, perspectives and insights from all the aspects – relationships, careers, interests, study, skills, identities – which make up my life.  And my best writing is always when I allow one of those things which makes me ‘me’ to play on the page.  When I write ‘as a writer’ I am sometimes disappointed by how flat the resulting work is.  When I write because I can’t help myself, because I am so passionate or fascinated or curious or entranced that I just have to write, it’s then that the magic happens.

Textile art by Lisa Tulfer - an abstract composition in shades of plum, pink and ochre.  Wet process felt, 100% sheep's wool. Image copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

A few days ago, a number of factors came together – quite randomly, in that serendipitous way which so often births the best things in life – and I had an idea for a book.  A book that would reflect on landscape and place, and would engage with history and maps and identity and all the things I get excited about.  A book, moreover, which only I can write – because I am a textile artist AND a writer.  BOTH/AND, not EITHER/OR.

It is not unlike the way I am not British OR Dutch, but both – I feel that by embracing a multiplicity of identities my life is enriched by the diversity of experiences, perspectives and insights.  To be one thing to the exclusion of the other feels like a limitation, an impoverishment of my life and, by extension, my writing.  Wilfully to narrow my world-view, limit my sensory and intellectual input, and put large parts of my life into a box labelled (like on the steamships of yore) ‘Not Needed On Voyage’ feels wrong – and, if I am striving for the best writing I am capable of, counter-productive.

So – I am embracing this new book project, which requires me to be the artist me quite as much as the writer me.  It’s scary, it fits into no known genre of writing, and selling the idea to an agent or publisher is going to be a challenge – but I know that I have to write it, because only the BOTH/AND not EITHER/OR that I am can write it.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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* Both these examples are genuine.

The machine that changed the world – one stitch at a time

My pride and joy is a vintage Singer sewing machine.  It’s black and gold, is so heavy that I can hardly lift it, and celebrated its 90th birthday this year.  Built to last in an era when built-in obsolescence had not yet been invented, it is a design icon which truly changed the world, and every time I use it I am captivated again by its story.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, all sewing was done by hand.  There was no alternative to hand-stitching – every seam of every garment made, ever, in all of human history, was hand stitched.  Then, a flurry of inventors created a variety of ‘sewing engines’, which could sew much faster than any human hand.  The most enduring of these designs was patented in 1851 by Isaac Merritt Singer of New York.  A gifted salesman, he created a network of showrooms where the machines were demonstrated, showing both that they were easy to use (‘so easy a woman could use it’ – not a slogan that would, one hopes, sell many products these days, but in its time very effective) and also that clothes sewn by machine were at least as good as those sewn by hand.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Singer’s two main markets were commercial – garment manufacturers – and domestic.  It was in domestic sales that the sewing machine created a revolution.  Diaries kept by American women in the 1860s showed that they were spending the equivalent of two days a week on making and repairing clothes for their families.  A sewing machine saved up to 90% of that time, giving them opportunities to earn money either through sewing for other people or by working outside the home.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

It wasn’t just the machines themselves that changed the world – it was the way they were sold.  In the 1870s, these expensive pieces of kit were worth the equivalent of half a year’s salary for a typical worker.  Singer introduced the idea of hire purchase, where an initial deposit and regular payments would enable people to own and use a machine they would otherwise not be able to afford.  Sales boomed, and modern consumer spending was born.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Supported by a reputation for reliability and a good parts and maintenance network, by 1918 it was estimated that one in five households in the world had a Singer sewing machine.  Yes, you read that right – one in five households in the world, for it didn’t take long for the Singer company to realise that there was a market far beyond the USA.  It started its international expansion in the United Kingdom, initially manufacturing sewing machines in Glasgow, and 1882 construction started on a new factory at Kilbowie, on the banks of the River Clyde, where John Brown’s shipyard was already a major employer of skilled workers.  The Singer factory, which at the time was the largest factory of its kind in the world, was a catalyst for the development of the town of Clydebank, and it was in this factory that my Singer sewing machine was born.

Black and white image showing the serial number of a Singer sewing machine

By tracing the serial number which each individual machine has, it is possible to find out exactly where and when a Singer was manufactured.  Serial number Y7649074 was part of a batch of 20,000 model 99K machines made in the Kilbowie factory in January, 1930.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

In 1930, the Great Depression had taken hold following the Wall Street Crash of the previous year.  In January, Buzz Aldrin (one day to be the second man to walk on the moon) was born in New Jersey, and Mickey Mouse made his debut in a comic strip.  Over the next few months, the planet Pluto would be discovered, and elections in Germany would see Hitler’s National Socialists become the second largest party in the Reichstag.  Sliced bread would appear in British shops for the first time, Sellotape (Scotch tape) would be invented, and Clarence Birdseye would sell the first frozen food.  Against this backdrop, my sewing machine emerged from the last of the 56 departments in the Singer factory, its black japanned cast iron body gleaming, the gold leaf bright and fresh, its mechanism oiled and ready for action.  I would love to know who first owned it – who first excitedly turned the key to open the domed Deco-style box – whose hands first threaded the needle, wound the bobbin, turned the handle – who first proudly wore a garment created on this machine, what that garment was, what fabric, what colour.  I imagine children’s clothes, the curtains for a first home, a dress to wear to the dance, the changing fashions and fabrics of more than six decades.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

My Singer came to me in the mid-1990s, in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  I had spotted it in the window of the sewing machine shop near where I worked, advertised as ‘refurbished’.  I was given it as a birthday present, and it’s one of the best presents I’ve ever had.  A quarter of a century later, it’s still in regular use.  It only has one stitch – a straight stitch – and it only stitches forwards (later machines had a reverse function), so modern stretch jerseys present it with some challenges, but for many years I made most of my own clothes.  I remember the first thing I made was a black velvet longline jacket, which I wore for years and years until it finally disintegrated.   These days, my Singer produces curtains and alters clothing, and it’s especially good – when fitted with the right needle – for shortening denim jeans.  Even though I neglect its maintenance, I have only once had to take it in for a service, because it was sticking – the guy who serviced it told me off for not cleaning the fluff out of the works more regularly!

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

I said at the start that the Singer sewing machine was built to last.  Sadly, the affordable high street fashions of the mid-twentieth century and the advent of competition from Japanese, German and Italian manufacturers after WWII contributed to the end of Singer company’s success.  The Kilgowie factory closed in June 1980.  Together with the closure of the John Brown shipyard a few years earlier, this led to Clydebank becoming a post-industrial ghost town in the Thatcher era.  A recent (2019) BBC television documentary (The Singer Story: Made in Clydebank) interviewed a number of former employees of the Singer factory, reminiscing about its glory days.  Their pride in their work, and in the machines they produced, shone out, and I was especially struck by the words of Anna Stones, who worked in Department 55 (the parts department).  She said “You were proud to be making a small part, and to know that it was going to be a Singer sewing machine, and that it was going to give somebody so much pleasure, and was going to be sent all over the world.”  I hope Anna would be happy to know how much I love my machine.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

The documentary also traced the continued use of the early twentieth-century manual and treadle (foot operated) machines into the present day all over the world, including through charities like Tools For Self Reliance who collect vintage machines, refurbish them, and send them to (often women’s) development projects around the world where they become the means for people to become economically independent.  The programme interviewed young women in Accra, Ghana who were excited to have the means to become self-employed as seamstresses, equipped with Singer sewing machines just like mine.  Here’s to the Singer sewing machine – the machine that changed the world, and still goes on changing it, one stitch at a time.

My creative inheritance – the story of three generations of women and our textiles

I have been making things with yarn and textiles for almost as long as I can remember.  I can vividly recall the first time I saw someone crocheting (I was about four at the time), which I described as “knitting with one needle.”  Evidently I already knew about knitting with two needles!  As a child in the Netherlands I grew up around embroidery and cross stitch – my aunt used to make amazing tablecloths embroidered with naturalistic leaves, berries and flowers in tiny cross stitch, a style which is very common in the Netherlands but rarely seen here in the UK.  It always impressed me that the reverse was very nearly as beautiful as the front of her work, and I was taught that this was something to aim for.  My Oma (grandmother) was skilled in a wide range of embroidery styles – blackwork, drawn thread work, and crewel work as well as cross stitch and needlepoint.  She always had something on the go – unless she was immersed in one of her beloved English-language whodunits!

Occasionally she would knit – I have a vague recollection of cardigans she knitted for me when I was very small – but it was my mother who was the prolific knitter.   Rarely working from patterns, between the 1940s and the 1980s she produced a vast number of garments, not only the usual sweaters and scarves, but also entire dresses – with panelled skirts – fully fashioned and a perfect fit and, astonishingly, knitted from the finest 2-ply or laceweight yarn on knitting needles barely thicker than sewing needles.  She always claimed to hate knitting, but nevertheless she put a lot of time and effort into her creations, even when knitwear was easily and cheaply available to buy and knitting was no longer the necessity it perhaps was in the 1940s and 50s.  She also made her (and my) clothes occasionally, including her own wedding dress, on a 1950s Singer sewing machine with an electric motor.

Image of textile art. Skyscape in blue wool with vapour trails and clouds suggested in white and oyster silk. Image and art copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

Beacons Skyscape. Wool felt and silk. Lisa Tulfer 2012

It was probably inevitable that I would continue the tradition.  I was embroidering (including blackwork and drawn thread work) by the age of 6, and I also remember learning to knit when I was 6 or 7 – it was a scarf for one of my dolls, made out of scrap yarn in stripes of olive green and burgundy.  I made all my dolls’ clothes, sewing as well as knitting and crocheting.  Up until my late 20s (when my eyesight started to struggle) I made fine cross stitch cards and bookmarks as gifts.  After that, I moved onto needlepoint, as it is larger scale, uses chunky wool instead of fine cottons and silks, and is altogether easier on the eyes.  For a time I took commissions, creating unique bespoke designs for cushions.  In my 20s I acquired a 1930 Singer hand cranked sewing machine, which is my pride and joy, and started dressmaking.  Unfortunately, full-time work and the demise of fabric shops in the 1990s eventually ended that, but I still use the machine to do alterations, shorten trousers, and make things for the house, even if I haven’t made myself an item of clothing for many years.

Image of a hand knitted sock, with a second just begun, and a ball of yarn, in stripes of three shades of green.

I knit compulsively – I’m more than a little obsessed with yarn, especially wool and silk, and deeply in love with the self-striping sock yarn which has been developed in recent years in a kaleidoscope of colours.  I think that for me it’s often about the process of knitting – the meditative rhythm of it, and the tactile and visual enjoyment of the yarn – as much as the finished garment.  I rarely use commercial patterns, usually sketching out my own designs and often making it up as I go along.  If the yarn is colourful or has a great texture I try to keep the design simple so as not to compete with the materials.  Over the last few years I have set myself new challenges – I have learned to knit socks (my partner is now the proud owner of a number of pairs of custom socks in the knock-your-eye-out colours she loves) and also plucked up the courage to try lace knitting, with generous guidance from Liz Lovick of Northern Lace.  Both of these do require patterns, as well as intense concentration.

When I was very young, I was told I couldn’t draw.  With art therefore not open to me as a creative outlet, I turned instead to the skills I did have, inherited from the women of my family – textiles.  For me, there has always been more to making things with yarn and cloth than simply making functional garments – colour, texture and pattern are paramount.  In my late 30s I discovered feltmaking, and rather than making the clothes, wraps and bowls which many of my contemporaries created – often very beautifully – I ‘painted’ with coloured wool fibres to create wall art which was mounted and framed like a picture.  I then discovered spinning – with a spindle, still my preference, and with a wheel – and with the unique yarns I was making I started to weave.  I did make myself a scarf, and a table runner is currently awaiting its bead fringing, but otherwise everything I weave, too, is wall art.

Although I have inherited a number of things which belonged to my Dutch grandparents, I think the one I would save from a fire is a blackwork wall hanging embroidered by my Oma in 1966 – before I was born.  It hung on her kitchen wall for as long as I can remember, and now it hangs on mine.  It depicts the signs displayed outside Dutch hostelries and other businesses in former times.  It could do with specialist cleaning, but the marks on it tell the story of family life, and for me, as the work of her hands, it’s infinitely precious.

Photograph of a blackwork embroidery, dated 1966, depicting old Dutch inn signs and associated advertising slogans.

 

The art of transformation – meet the upholsterer!

I am fascinated by the skills of artisans and craftspeople, and knowing that my next door neighbour is an upholsterer, I simply had to interview and photograph her for this blog.  Hannah Spalding’s workshop is in an outbuilding behind her house, which is a converted pub.  Her commute is a few steps across the pretty courtyard, into a realm of fabric and furniture, where wonderful transformations are wrought and sad, tired pieces are given a new lease of life.

Hannah working on a balloon backed dining chair

I visited the workshop on an autumn morning, and was curious to know what brought Hannah into this trade.

How did you come to be an upholsterer?

“I’ve been fascinated by fabric and fashion since I could thread a needle – which according to my mum was before I could speak!  Growing up, what I wanted for my birthday was fabric, sewing kit, a sewing machine.  What interested me wasn’t really the fashion side, it was the making – the trade side of sewing, how to put things together.  I started making clothes – terribly badly, at first! – and I did Textiles at high school.  But it wasn’t an option at A level, so I looked at the College of West Anglia prospectus, and it fell open at hairdressing, so that’s what I did.”

Upholstery tools

Did you actually want to be a hairdresser?

“I hated it!  I left my job, with no idea of what I wanted to do.  I friend of my mum’s needed a cleaner, and by word of mouth I was soon fully booked.  What had started as a stopgap turned into 3 years’ work.  But I was still sewing, moving onto furniture rather than clothes.  Someone I cleaned for asked me to cover some dining chairs, and I said I’d give it a go.  They turned out well, and again by word of mouth I was getting upholstery work.”

Black and white photo of Hannah, framed by the back of the chair she is working on

So how did it become a business?

“My friend Ash said ‘why don’t you do this as a business?’ but I felt it was a big step – I had a mortgage by this stage.  But Ash didn’t give me any choice, he set up a Facebook page for me, and I was soon reaching more and more people.  I cut down the cleaning job by first one day a week, then two, then three.”

What has helped you build your business?

“The support from my husband and my family was the reason I succeeded in building the business.  Their support was unfailing!  They didn’t once say ‘are you sure about this’ – it was ‘yes, this is what you are meant to do’.  My dad went back to Holland to see his family, and it turns out that there have always been upholsterers in the family – the details are a bit foggy, but they definitely had shops selling blinds and furniture.  I am the last upholsterer in the family – and Dad came back with a van full of upholstery supplies from family members!  Even family I didn’t know were supportive, and interested in my carrying on the family tradition.”

Close up of Hannah's hands as she works on a chair. She has a measuring tape tattooed on the inside of her index finger.

Have you always had your own workshop?

“For several years my workshop was my mum and dad’s house, until we moved here three years ago.  I gave up the cleaning completely 2 years ago.  It was worth doing things slowly – I’ve been able to take my time and make sure I’m doing it right.  Mum and Dad have been so supportive – when I was working at their house I took over one room completely, and there was often furniture stacked up in the lounge waiting to be worked on!  At the start, I would work insane hours – 6am to 8pm most days.  They’d just bring me cups of tea…

It was a dream come true when we saw this place, and Mum and Dad helped fulfil those dreams.  When I walked in I thought ‘OMG it’s huge, how am I ever going to fill it?!’ – now I really need a bigger workshop!”

Photo of four pin boards with fabric samples on the wall of Hannah's workshop

How do people find you?

“I get a lot of work from my Facebook page.  It has got my name out there.  I have had a lot going for me:  I’m young, I’ve not been doing this for 40 years so my prices are appealing, but my work is just as good as anyone else’s.  I used to have days when I panicked because I only had work for the next three weeks.  Now, I’m already booked up until mid-January.

It’s amazing how things have grown over the last three years.  I have excellent relationships with a number of antique dealers (again – word of mouth!) and they are a constant source of work.  I can be cost-effective for them as they often use their signature fabric, and there’s no home visits involved for me.”

Hannah using an industrial sewing machine

So – I’m someone who wants a piece of furniture re-upholstered.  Talk me through the process.

“You ring me up.  I always try to be extra lovely to people when they phone, as it’s often a stressful experience for people who’ve not done this before, and who don’t understand the process.  I ask people to send me photos, so that I can give an initial estimate, and if they are happy with that I will do a home visit and quote.  If it’s, say, an elderly customer who would struggle with emailing me photos, of course I’ll visit and have a look.   I like to keep things quite informal and friendly – I like people to be my friends, not just customers!  Having a piece of furniture re-upholstered is exciting – I want to involve them as much as possible.”

I imagine you meet some interesting people!

“A small number of customers are, shall we say, trying, but you get that in any business.  Most people are great, you get to meet the nicest people, and the houses you get to see are amazing.  The customer base is so varied!  Some, yes, have a lot of money.  Others will contact me, get a quote, and I don’t hear from them for a year.  Then they get in touch, they’ve been saving up, and they want me to re-cover Grandmother’s chair.  They will only ever have that one piece done, but they are so excited and appreciative, those are my favourite jobs.”

Arty black and white shot of Hannah's sewing machine

So, what is the range of services you offer?

“I make bespoke curtains – all hand sewn, they hang better and look better.  I make custom-made pelmets, and Roman blinds (but not roller blinds – they are too expensive to hand-make).  I re-upholster window seats, dining chairs, arm chairs, sofas, wing-back chairs, stools and footstools.  I HATE doing iron-framed tub chairs, but I do them!  My favourite is a wing-back chair.

I don’t do loose covers for sofas – I don’t think they ever look quite right, and however good you are, loose covers are going to move when your customer has kids and dogs!

When I started out, I did both traditional and modern upholstery.  But around here [West Norfolk] there are a lot of amazing traditional upholsterers, and it’s not cost effective for me to compete.  I now say I do ‘mixed’ – springs, tied down, webbing, Cocolok [rubberised coconut fibre] as well as foam.  I don’t supply fabric, it’s not economical, but I advise customers about fabrics and suggest where to buy it.

Don’t be surprised if I’m more expensive than a machine!  But, unlike a lot of retail furniture, what I do will last 20 years.”

A re-upholstered arm chair, covered in blue fabric

And finally – what do you love about your job?

“I love my job, I don’t need to prove to anyone that it’s doing well.  I’m not planning to grow the business.  I love working on my own.  My mum gives me a hand sometimes, and friends pop round for coffee, so I’m not alone, but I will never employ anyone.  I didn’t want to go to college to do fashion to go into the fashion industry – I wanted to be a tradesperson, the person actually making it.  I love it!”

Hannah seated on a re-upholstered settle in her workshop

Contact Hannah on 07557875759 or hannah.sews@outlook.com or follow her on Facebook.com/hannahsews or Instagram @hannahsews