Big changes rarely come quickly. When they happen you can see the long path that lead to it, even though it might appear to have come from nowhere.
I have been working very hard, creating new work, forging new links with those who might endorse me, building a loyal and warm customer base and collaborating with other creatives. You have to keep going, believing it was the right path as so many believed in the uniqueness of what I was doing, as did I. I haven't been making a living from it so I now find myself working full time. It's full-on and I can only work on my business in days off and evenings. I have considerable experience in digital media so, thankfully, despite a confidence blip, I could go back into this where I left off 5 years ago. I feel quite lucky as many creatives don't have such a back-up.
I have decided to get this work, business, home, friends, family life re-arranged in a different order. There is much sanity in setting up a solid income source, building foundations. At the same time, I want to take a step away from the season by season renewal. I feel as though this time will be one away from direct making, creating for a while, maybe a year. I have a version 2 brewing, a bigger renewal, which will probably be more refined and focused. It will probably contain some core elements of Eloise Grey as she stands now. But, there will be a new direction. Once I have found stability in my digital work, I will look to carving out time in my Eloise Grey work and take it from there.
With that in mind, I won't be taking any new orders or making new stock, at least for this year, but will be selling my current stock of beautiful tweeds. Consequently, I have reduced my prices.
There was a delightful intersection on the venn diagram of things I like, when cult clothing label Old Town sent me news inviting me to a literary festival near Holt, Norfolk. The fabulous Diana Athill would be a headlining act. So, I enquired and informed that Ms.Juno would also be welcome. We got front row seats.
A very dear old friend had just moved to Dersingham, not a million miles from this extraordinary house near Holt, so we had somewhere to stay. Voewood is a Grade I listed Arts & Crafts house, with a rather Queen Anne feel.
I have previously written about Diana Athill and have come to read more of her work, and not been disappointed. I'm not sure why it was such a draw to hear the 95-year-old writer speak. I love her work but I can't help being inspired by her approach to ageing, and indeed her acceptance of the vagaries of existence.
There were many other writers, with worthy and interesting books and things to say. Of note was a great talk by photographer, Martin Parr. Of course, the aesthetic was spot on, as were the refreshments:
An unexpectedly interesting experience was a taster bibliotherapy session with Ella Berthoud. As I want to embrace contemporary writing, somewhat with trepidation, it was great to let someone lead the way a little. You can see a bibliotherapist if you are stuck with your reading, but also if you are stuck with your life.
Now that my organic silk dresses have launched on my website, and now on Yoox I realised that in my euphoria at collaborating with Ptolemy Mann and writing all about that, I haven't shared much background on the eco side of the work. It was hard for me to think of working with what I call 'normal silk' - ie. silk that doesn't have a sustainable angle, however beautiful it might be.
Maud Dress in GOTs certified organic silk in Ptolemy Mann violet feather ikat print, printed and made in London. Photograph by Alun Callender.
I came across a number of Swiss organic textile manufacturers when I was showing at GREENshowroom, which is part of Berlin Fashion Week in July 2010. I didn't know then that Zurich has a long, millenia-long, connection with the silk trade, and clearly with silk-producing lands such as Italy and China. Like Germanic-speaking countries, I tend to favour certification, where possible, and organic is the most rigourous in my view. GOTs (which is recognised by the British organic certifier, The Soil Association) organic certification covers both environmental impact at source and in processing but also human rights and labour-related issues. So I was delighted to find an incredible quality silk from Zurich-based Weisbrod. The silk is from China, and the whole process is well documented and certified as detailed here. The mulberry bushes are integrated into an organic multicultural environment with many other trees and plants, the silk worms are fed on a feed which is free of fertilizers, growth hormones and other nasties. Then the boiling off of the raw silk is done in a low-chemical environment and so on. In the same way as my organic tweeds, the feel of the silk satin I use for the silk collection has an amazing lustre to it and I feel it must be because of this organic processing. It's more than just the knowledge of the process; it's actually in the feel of the fabric.
Then came the printing. I have done quite a lot of research into natural dyes and it's really hard to achieve durability and quality. Plus the use of water is still very heavy. When I came across Ptolemy Mann's prints I started looking into digital printing. I discovered that digital printing has many environmental benefits, such as very low water-use and very low wastage. We used London-based printers Cameron Gilmartin, who use low energy machinery and hand-finish everything so we can be sure of top quality, which is something we couldn't compromise on for our beautiful dresses.
I'm moving back to London in a few weeks. It's quite exciting but I leave the countryside with much fondness, for it has been a rediscovery. I have been living in my grandmother's old house for the last few years and for various reasons, not least because she passed away in the summer, we are selling it. I spent days getting the place ready for the estate agent's photo session and rather fixated onto styling the place. As he was touring the house to take the right pictures, it seemed to me rather sad that the details would be missed. I thought it rather nice to present an alternative view. I have no doubt the owner will modernise it so I wanted to have a few pictures to document this end of an era.
My house-dressing started with me eliminating any bottles I didn't like, the brushes I thought rather nice.
and in the kitchen:
The new owner will obviously replace these apricot basins. White and green objects and bottles seemed to work, anything not matching was duly dispensed behind the cupboard door.
And Dr Hauschka only by the bath:
I made these curtains myself from aged linen pillowcases my grandmother had given me. I repaired the pillowcases until the holes were too big, but I liked the holes and raggedy frayed edges as bathroom curtains, a little uneven but I liked them. And Penhaligon bottles sat nicely next to this silk-like linen.
I shall be editing down my stuff as I move into a 1960s flat and embrace modernism. I shall keep this set of linen towels - they must have been initialled with PG (my grandfather's initials) in the 1930s. You can see the Art-Deco shapes. I never got to ask why they embroidered the man's rather than the woman's initials.
I shall keep my books, of course, and in particular my collection of Persephone Books, to which I have added three more since this photo. The furniture will find a new home. I was very proud of the patchwork curtains I made from off-cuts. The room was so cold I used a heavy blanket to interline it.
I loved using things like bedsteads that we don't really use any more. It reminds me always of staying with my grandmother as a child.
in particular this bamboo one is nice, with matching chair:
I shan't miss the Aga. Maybe it's a generational thing. I'm sure the new owner will remove the tiles, which is a shame, but I do understand. They are from Cole and Son, though I'm not sure they do tiles anymore, just wallpaper.
Some things have travelled with me, from when I lived in Ecuador more than 15 years ago. Though I think it's time for them to move on too.
There is a grand fireplace in the house, but I rather like this simple one in the study. I like the brick and wooden mantlepiece.
The house was built in the 1980s using old brick. My grandparents built it with an Arts & Crafts style - though thankfully it has more light than many real Arts & Crafts houses. It's sweet that there are some motifs of the Arts & Crafts era, like this heart motif in wrought iron.
They had a very fine joiner who made beautiful doors from oak, which are all over the house
and oak skirting and shelves. It's this kind of detail that gives a place a nice finish. I think I shall do something like this, in a more modernist style with my new flat.
And the lightshades, these I think my brother will have.
I am not sure if anyone has reserved these fabulous 1950s pineapple lamps. I went to Capri once and found a hotel full of all this type of stuff. I think it must have been frightfully chic in that era, and they were probably from Italy as my grandmother loved the Amalfi coast. There are photos of her swimming with gloriously ornate swimming caps in the sea at Positano. These lampshades and highly-decorated swimming caps seem to me to be from the same slice of design.
I will be taking these two, which I rather like.
they are more in keeping with my 1960s era
This area had piles of teabag boxes, herbs and all sorts. Amazingly, it is still quite clear and tidy a week on.
Finally, the wonderful pelmets. My mother wants these as they were a gift from her.
Update.. you can view the proper property listing here: Holmwood For Sale
I was approached by stylist Katie Rose to supply a couple of pieces for a film for which she was styling for The Good Fashion Show. You can barely see a pair of my trews, but nevermind, the film is most evocative. It is the work of photographer Claire Pepper.
I loved the texture of the work and the feeling it gave me of the preciousness of the moment and the simplest things. The thoughtfully styled work juxtaposed muted tones with strong ones; sometimes neon, sometimes primary, sometimes pastel shades which was enthralling and gentle at the same time. It showed the power of film and fashion that made me want to see if I could do this one day with my work. I confess to green evangelism lethargy and how ineffective and preachy it can be. Yet, this voiced my own feelings about cherishing everything and seeing the beauty in it; however modest. The modest is to be prized and this film shows the beauty of it.
My next, and final, review of memoirs in this series is Diana Athill's Instead of a Letter. Athill has written a number of memoirs but this is her first - and it's so pleasing to read that I can see why there was so much more material. She really came into focus for me when she guest edited The Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I was fascinated that this remarkable lady was 90, living in an old people's home and still working, writing, contributing.
She wrote Instead of a Letter age 43 when her career in publishing and her writing appeared to be flourishing. It is the same age I am now, and I felt in good company. She shares her delightful childhood and the development of her passion for reading only for this to turn dark as her heart was broken in her early twenties. Seemingly unable to recover, she spent the next twenty years letting life drive her from pillar to post, never very happy. Her openness was so moving with no high drama or fraught hyperbole - it just seemed so approachable and reasonable.
Despite this, she surprised herself and everyone by finding herself at the centre of the publishing world - now known to be one of the finest editors of her generation. I felt so much for her revealing that at a certain point she was labelled as a 'career girl'; somewhat as an explanation for her not having a family. All she'd ever wanted was to do just that, to get married and have the family, but it wasn't to be; she hadn't really wanted to be successful in the way she eventually was. It makes me wonder if the success we are supposed to strive for these days has always been so applauded.
The journey was so real and intimate and I finished the book with a contentment that she'd come, not exactly full circle, but she'd accepted her experiences. She was finally happy, even if her desires hadn't been met. I felt lifted in a way that was not transcendent or in the least sentimental. I'm not sure how she communicated that, but writers could probably decipher her expert prose. Just as well, I only wanted to read and enjoy it, which I really did. I look forward to reading her other work this year.
My next book of memoirs is the harrowingly beautiful, What To Look For In Winter, A Memoir in Blindness, by Candia McWilliam. It kept coming up as a recommendation on Amazon, not that I ever take notice, this time it seemed to haunt me each of the many times it appeared. A 'writer's book' about 'loss, blindness, depression' and so on was not what I needed at a time when I wasn't doing too good myself. Yet something drew me to order it.
Her prose is astonishingly beautiful, perceptive and brutally self-deprecating. She recounts her neglectful Scottish childhood with delight and charm yet piercing honesty about her state of mind. I too spent many summers in the Scottish Highlands and I felt the warmth of her experience on Colonsay (an island not far by water from my weavers on Mull). I loved her episode where she went to work at Vogue after coming down from Oxford. She just couldn't cope with the kind of person that she had to be in that office, despite considerable leeway given to her by today's cut-throat standards. She couldn't face it and seemingly stayed in bed until she came clean that she wasn't coming back. It showed remarkable self-awareness, though such awareness can't make it any easier. Most people would battle through and change to fit the environment, but the beauty of her is that she simply coudn't and that must have been a hard hand to be dealt.
Despite the misery and the ordeals she went through, her prose and honesty seem to shine through with such spirit that I felt lifted by this work. Despite pain and suffering, the ability to see the humour and, dare I say, beauty in it, and move forwards is how you get through.
So I have found myself drawn to memoirs and contemporary writers. As I was launching my business I found mid and early twentieth century writers conveniently approachable in that they have a category and historical context. I find myself somewhat at sea with contemporary writers. Maybe I shouldn't worry, but just follow my nose. What is it that makes you pick up a book and read it? I know that the first writer in this series of memoirs, Jeanette Winterson, has beckoned for some time. I read and loved Oranges are not the Only Fruit when it first came out and then had trouble with Sexing the Cherry, but regretfully so and wanted to return to her work some day, often reading features on her or reviews in the books section of the papers.
Finally, listening Winterson read extracts on Radio Four's Book of the Week prompted me to buy Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. The bit they didn't cover in the radio version, which particularly intrigued me, was the chapter on her depression, which I really wanted to read. You could view it as a gory confessional, which in many ways it was due to the astonishing cruelty of her adopted mother. However, she had that humour and detatchment that a writer gives you. Her language opens up the door to her world and experience it a way that feels as though you're one of her friends, but doesn't detract from the impact of the events.
I loved that she could see the humanity in her mother, despite everything, that she always yearned for closeness. I loved her working her way through the fiction section of the library starting from A and getting to Z. I loved reading about how she she got to Oxford her tutor told her she was the token working class girl and proceeded to ignore all the women who were left to fend for themselves, but they came together and worked it out for themselves.
I've always thought Winterson would look great in my Toklas jacket. Maybe I should write to her and suggest this. I shall keep you posted.
I read three outstanding memoirs last year, Jeanette Winterson, Candia McWilliam and Diana Athill, worthy of their own separate posts but part of a series. Naturally, I should share something of my own memories, as I don't have memoirs written, nor should I expect anyone to want to read them. Maybe a paragraph or two is enough. The writers, whose memoirs I've been reading, have all spoken with such love of their childhood reading lives that it made me think about my childhood and books.
As a lover of books it may be a surprise to hear that I had trouble reading - only getting into my book-reading stride in my early twenties, having properly started when I decided to improve myself at 16. I think reading wasn't a priority in my large family, nor was being read to if there had been time. It was a duty rather than a delight. Hearing all this stuff about August babies makes me wonder if my starting school in the summer term and being a June baby meant I missed out on something critical. I was good at maths and my poor reading managed to disguise itself. I did, however, love English literature lessons when I got to O-level the teachers were inspiring. By good fortune our Head of English used to regularly arrange buses to the Royal Shakespeare company, then at the Barbican in its heyday and so my love of theatre was born.
So unlike Winterson, McWilliams and Athill, I didn't while away my childhood reading, I spent it sewing, sometimes furiously. I spent many hours in the third floor haberdashery department of Army & Navy Stores in Guildford (now House of Fraser) selecting patterns that I would adapt and chosing fabric. I'd lay out my patterns on the floor of my bedroom and make make make. I got quick and could make things in a day or, a skirt, in an evening. In those days we did Needlework at school for a double period a week and I was seemed to excel. I even did O-level 'Needlework & Dress'. I spent hours shopping too: looking at clothes and generally I couldn't afford them so I had to make them. They weren't cheap in those days (the 80's). I knitted a little but, as my grandmother used to say, you were either a knitter or a sewer, and I was a sewer. She was a great knitter and incidentally, a great reader.
My reading started in earnest in my early twenties. I studied Italian and went to live in Italy and had fallen in love with literature. It was a curious experience pushing oneself to read in a foreign language: to read when you only undestand 50% of the vocabulary but I would still get the feel for the book, the narrative and the characters. Over time my vocabulary developed and I was a fluent reader. I think all this reading gave me a deep vocabulary - and a love of Italian writers such as: Daca Maraini, Guseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Alberto Moravia, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg and many others. At the same time, I was reading more and more in my own language, and enjoying the escape. Maybe as I was now in my itinerant 20s, and without a TV, reading took over from the sewing which required space, time and equipment.
It's always interesting to look at what a child does in those hours of boredom between 8 and 15 before hormones and socialising become the primary concern. I think it offers an insight into the future and what makes one feel satisfied. I was quite academic and so not at all encouraged to follow the fashion route, but in that way I did develop intellectually by doing an arts degree and for this I am very grateful. It led me to spend five years in Italy and this has had a big impact on my work, my approach to quality and 'finezza' as they say, fine-ness - which is so Italian in food, clothing, design. It took me ten more years to synthesise these things and start making again. This time designing my own work I could draw on all that experience: a visual experience from travel and art but also an internal and imaginative one which can only come from books. Maybe it's no surprise, then, that I find writers such an inspiration for my work.
I have sent two dresses off to an innovative gallery in Ruthin, North Wales. They play a small part of Ptolemy Mann's first solo retrospective. The cornerstone of my Spring Summer 2012 collection is three dresses and a blouse in GOTs certified organic silk satin onto which we printed Ptolemy's new collection of digital prints.
Here is the Nancy Gown in Broadstripe Ikat:
And the Maud day dress in violet feather ikat:
Ptolemy and I met on the Crafted mentoring programme in 2009. Ptolemy, a weaver who graduated from the Royal College of Art, produces woven artwork in the ikat tradition. Whilst drawing on traditional techniques her work is firmly in the contemporary art space. Her work features the use of hand-dyed saturated colour and this has led her to a parallel career as a colour consultant. Strange, one might say, with my undyed tweeds and muted palette that I should work with someone so intensely colour-focused. But, I find myself drawn to colour and technology.
Image courtesy of Ptolemy Mann. Handwoven Ikat.
Ptolemy produced a collection of digital prints from her work. She scanned her original handwoven work and then worked it up using digital techniques so it still has something of the handwoven flavour to it. Initially her work was commissioned for interiors. As well as her website she also write a blog, Significant Colour, which I do recommend. See below an example of the furnishing fabric with her artwork behind:
Image courtesy of Ptolemy Mann
When Ptolemy showed me her swatches I was enthralled - at first not sure how it would fit with my brand. But sometimes, things knock around as images in your visual mind and it comes together. There was something about the feather ikat that really drew me. I found it quite art deco, classic and incredibly chic and interesting. I was at Goodwood Revival and saw a lady wearing the most exquisite vintage dress of 1940s era and it had fine pleats down the centre back and the ideas started coming together. I felt the prints had a timeless quality to them and a movement that would require some kind of structure. The pleats give this movement and angularity, and concentrate the print in sections in an interesting way. Plus it has all those 1940s references I loved.
The Maud dress in the violet feather ikat print, which enthralled me:
I dedicated this collection to Roger Fry's Omega Workshops. A creation of the Bloomsbury Group, Fry aimed to blur the distinction between fine and decorative work. Working with an artist's prints fit with this approach and, of course, it nurtures my affection for things Bloomsbury.
The third print I selected was violet bamboo ikat. A much subtler, print, which is in some ways my favourite. But, in all honesty, hard to have favourites. They work together and have different personalities. I like the discrete nature of this but with the flashes of red.
Here in close up:
These dresses will be available made to order from Spring 2012.
Ptolemy Mann, The Architecture of Cloth, Colour and Space at Ruthin Craft Centre, Park Road, Ruthin,
Denbighshire, LL15 1BB 19th November, 2011 - 15th January, 2012
The exhibition will then tour the country over the next year.