Best to be Merry

sheepGazing in the early Herefordshire sun at a flock of sumptuous pedigree black Welsh sheep this weekend brought me full circle. 

The journey started only a couple of weeks before: having visited the Wool in Interiors exhibition at Southwark Cathedral, we’d taken the train to Hackney in search of The London Cloth Company‘s weaving shed, tucked down an easily missed alley. There Daniel was demonstrating his hand-built looms, constructed from many salvaged parts, and weaving his handsome wool broadcloth.

london cloth company

Much of the yarn he uses in his micro-mill is natural and undyed, and all is from British flocks. He loves his machines and what they can weave together, and his enthusiasm is infectious. I came away full of ideas for new checks and hand-dyed warps.


natalie gibsonI’m happy to see friends’ work currently at two London venues. At Pitfields Natalie Gibson has a most ebullient retrospective exhibition. It includes some huge wallpaper roses and her gorgeous rug designed for Aram’s 40th anniversary as well as prints on both paper and fabric – with plenty of cats, of course. Congratulations on her MBE this year by the way!  marsden woo

And at the new Marsden Woo gallery round the corner in Charlotte Road their opening show – ‘Cut and Run’ – celebrates the works of Alison Britton and Jim Partridge. To me the central installation looks like a coppiced woodland – Alison’s monumental ceramics stand as cream trunks painted with dark leaves, and Jim’s dense black scorched burr oak vessels lie between them on the forest floor. Upstairs Tord’s shop shimmers with light.

abdoulaye konateSomerset House was home, briefly, to the1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair; I was most moved by the magnificent textile hangings of Abdoulaye Konaté from Mali. In each the colour ripples through the many many appliquéd fabric ‘feathers’ building to a crescendo of intensity.100 leading ladies

Nancy Honey’s 100 Leading Ladies exhibition remains on in the Courtyard Rooms until the 26th – and on the last day she will be there herself to chat and sign books. And there’s still time to enter the competition to win one of them – books that is, not ladies – here.


At last my Friday afternoon came, the little yellow wellies were packed along with the map, and I set off for the green woodworking course. Quite a few hours later I was in the Marches, the borderland between England and Wales, ready for my bed and full of anticipation for whatever the next days would bring. I was not disappointed!


Set within an ancient wood – we worked beneath oaks of 400 years and more – were two impressive pole lathes, powered by string-sprung saplings, built onsite, along with the other equipment, of a traditional hewn, pegged and slotted construction – a bodger’s paradise! They instantly reminded me of the kente cloth weavers in Ghana whose long drawn out warps stretch through the village streets of Bonwire. We later tried some turning, guiding the various chisels as we worked the foot pedal, but I, for one, became more involved in other processes.


DSC07684Beyond this first shed were logs, froes, axes waiting for our first attempts. Birds whistled and flitted as with a lot of help and guidance from Ben, the course leader, we cleft the logs for our stool legs and started to fashion them first with axes and then with the beautiful tools – draw-knives, spoke-knives and travishers – which he provided. Each of these shaping, and smoothing implements leaves their own signature in the shavings from little chips and slivers to long curling ribbons.


The ashwood for the legs had been felled the day before and was wet and soft. The wood for the seats was much harder being already seasoned. I fell in love with a beautiful piece of elm with a waney edge and decided to attempt a table. Revealing the glorious patterns in the wood with this smiling travisher was completely absorbing – ravishing in fact – experiencing the ways the surface resisted and accepted my attempts, learning to go with the grain.


DSC07702As you might imagine there was a lot of joshing about my three rather eccentric and whiskery legs and Dan’s splendid bottom, which he adsed into shape with aplomb!

At the end of the two days we were happily weary and proud of our achievements. The last task in the construction was the fixing and glueing of the legs. Perhaps because I was tired, but more likely simply inept, I found it hardest to make the three little oak wedges needed to force the wood into place. But finally seeing that essential detail beaming out is so entirely satisfying.

We’d been generously fed and hosted, and most kindly taught and helped; I absolutely loved it. The plan for the site is to build some yurts next year for camping in a beautiful meadow by the stream, and to run further courses there – chair-making perhaps, yoga and so forth – maybe even a calico flag-making workshop by yours truly…  One of the nice things about being me is that I sometimes bump into designs done many years previously that have been earning their keep happily at other people’s windows. This was the case twice at the weekend – Liberty’s Cottage Garden at the B&B, and Cote d’Azure in the kitchen at Boultibrooke – rather like a calling card that had gone on ahead. I feel fortunate in this.


The table I brought back with me has a somewhat animal nature I think, and looks very at home amongst the birds and leaves of my flat.


Leaving the traditional bodger’s setting behind – actually it all un-assembled so cleverly, folded up in the car and headed back to Ben’s workshop in … Crystal Palace of all places! – I travelled a few miles down the road to visit my old friends in Aymestrey where I was greeted and entertained most generously with a delicious mixture of luxury, humour and cosiness.

Johnathan HealeSo from looms to lathes to printing presses my industrial revolution turned on. Jonathan Heale’s woodcuts are famous, and famously accomplished, as are his elegant hand-painted ceramics. His current work – Modern Men’s Hairdos – is on show at BlackBough in Ludlow, but I was lucky enough to have a snoop in the plans chests at Elvis, Johnny, Frank and the like.Johnathan Heale

In the orchard was the flock of pedigree Welsh black sheep – well the ewes anyway. The boss, Ned, was kept apart for the moment with his sons in the yard, sporting some fine curling horns and waiting for his time to come, so to speak!

low 008And in the cellar were the year’s black fleeces, the wool baled and waiting – which is where I came in with The London Cloth Company! Daniel’s already given us some tips on how to proceed with them, and anyone else who’d like to contribute thoughts will be most welcome.

Just a reminder that the V&A course for young people (ages13-15) on the 15th November still has some places, and February’s Morley college course is filling up so don’t hesitate if you want to join. The Textile Society will also be running a couple more studio visits with me next spring – you need to be a member to come.

v&aThis year our 2015 calendar, ‘Cut and Paste’, which is with the printer as I write, will include a page of stickers for special days.

And one more thing – House and Garden magazine and the Artroom have combined forces to suggest hosting a ‘making’ party to raise funds. H&G have in fact done one themselves. It’s such a good idea – contribute to a great imaginative charity to help children and make something for yourselves and your pals at the same time; win, win – just do it – I’m planning one in Oxford on November 9th!


Thanks to Molly, Steve, Stafford, Jonathan and Mary (tasty chutney!), Jack and Chris Ruby, and all at Boultibrooke House

21 thoughts on “Best to be Merry

  1. Pingback: spring forward | Sarah Campbell Designs

  2. Pingback: different strokes | Sarah Campbell Designs

  3. Sarah, this truly has put a smile on my face!! You really do get up to all sorts and it’s truly great seeing your beautiful creations unfold. I will be sending you an email soon with an update of my Oz life. Lots of love x.

  4. Hi Sarah, thanks for liking my little post about our Women of the Cloth Christmas event. I’m still busily decorating all my lovely decorating customers’ houses ready for Christmas, but have carved out a couple of days or so next week to get ready for Sprout.
    Reading your post again here, reminded me of a week of green woodworking I did on a National Trust working holiday 3 or 4 years ago in Craflwyn, Wales. We made gates and hurdles in oak and ash to be used around the estate to keep sheep in, or out, and so all the terminology you have used brought back memories of an idyllic week for me too. Shavehorses with piles of curly shavings piling up beneath them, whilst looking out at the trees. Whittling of wooden spoons became a bit of an evening activity around the fire on which we cooked our meals, then we all squeezed into a couple of yurts for a bit of sleep, listening to the wind. Lovely!

  5. I have suddenly lost your blog posts that come to me and delight across the pond! Have you changed your website done something that has stopped this per chance ? I was worried but went to West Elm to find you quickly again phew! restored and happy !

  6. Hi Sarah – Once again your blog is such an inspiration!. You really have something to say an inspire thus such a joy to read.
    It has already brightened up my Saturday – Have forwarded to daughters Tara and Crystal both artists and also friend – Susan Duckworth – knitwear designer – to inspire their days
    Many thanks
    Christine Hanscomb

  7. Just found you again Sarah after all these years! I recall leaving Peter & Susan working on a new design and wondrous opera playing in the background to walk from Old Town to your studio further down and enjoying mixing colours for you all day in a little glass room surrounded by greenery – what a pleasure… Finding your blog has been like discovering a little piece of my life that was so delightful and that had somewhat faded from memory – now recalled in glorious technicolour! Thank you.

    • Hello Julia – how very nice to hear from you, thanks, and to remember those old days. Although I no longer have that studio my windows look into the trees here too – rather a nice echo. I wonder what you’re doing now – I’m still mixing colours!

      • Quick potted history…After 28 years full time in the home interest press and 2 boys later, Fred & Henry (now 23 & 20) I took a step back four years ago fully intending to resurrect any dormant drawing skills that I may once have had and spend more time in my studio. I share the space with my husband, a musician and he’s currently working elsewhere so the studio is quietly vacant. However, as these things are wont to happen I swerved off this primrose path and found myself doing something completely different and working alongside another artist in her husbands bespoke design company, blog writing, social media PR etc for three days a week in central London and despite myself I found that I really loved it. So, the studio lies calmly waiting for me. I’m not sure if I’m just putting it off because the blank page is scary, or because I’m not quite ready to let go of another kind of working life… we shall see…
        I was very sorry to hear of Susan’s passing – she was so full of energy and passion and taught me so much (including how to make the best scrambled eggs ever – which I still make!). Your son Louie I think was about 9 years old and if memory serves was passionate about football! I expect he’s a bit bigger now too.
        It’s so lovely to read your blogs, I can hear you voice, “I think you might need a tiny speck of Raw Umber in that…”

  8. Your lovely table is my favorite thing here – so impressive and elegant! It looks as though you left it unfinished . . . correct? Or is the stain a very pale one? At any rate, it looks wonderful in your flat, and I’m glad the experience of making it was so fulfilling. Do let us know when the calendar is ready! Much love, Wendy

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