Amanda Richardson creates vibrant collages in her Cornwall studio
Large windows flood Amanda Richardson’s studio near Land’s End with light. The airy space in the Cornish countryside is painted white, contrasting with the vividly colourful pieces of her textile collages that adorn the walls. Rolls of fabric are stacked in one corner, while boxes sit on the floor and worktops are piled high with dyed material. The only tools on show are paint brushes in jars, three irons and a pair of spring-loaded scissors.
The studio is in a converted watermill surrounded by two-and-a-half acres of garden. This plant-filled plot has been nurtured by Amanda over the 19 years she has lived there. Today it forms the overarching inspiration for her art. It is a glorious rambling landscape of pathways winding through flower beds, a pond and a traditional orchard. The Penberth river trickles through the garden, its moorland origin and route through golden granite giving the water a deep yellow-brown glow.
Amanda has been working with fabrics for 40 years, first experimenting as a teenager at art school in Penzance. She attributes some of her affinity for textiles to the fact that her artist mother also used fabrics in her work. At the time Amanda was accepted to Goldsmiths, University of London, the fashion among artists was for harsh work, using austere barbed wire and calico. Amanda rejected this to develop her own style. “I have always loved seductively beautiful fabrics and so I looked for a way to use them,” she says. She is also a painter and believes there is a link between the two art forms. Both require her to think in layers.
Now she creates beautiful collages of grasses, flowers, trees and wild landscapes using a combination of fabrics. She dyes many of them herself to get the right shades. “The natural world is what I find most exciting about life,” she says, “Artists should be working with what excites them.”
Her work is strongly influenced by the flora growing around her. Plants and flowers are kept in pots so they can be brought into the studio to be worked from. “My work is about the growing plant and so much information is lost if it is cut,” she says. “I am looking at how it comes out of the ground, the way the leaves connect to the stem, all of the minutiae.”
Selecting and dyeing fabrics
Each new collage starts with a spark of inspiration, influenced by something that captures her eye on a walk or while in her garden. She works out an initial composition in her mind. Then she creates a simple pencil drawing, often just 3in (7.5cm) square, to work out the weight and movement through the composition. “It is worth getting those qualities just right,” she says. “I then scale that up onto the background, the fabric of my piece.” This scaling up is achieved by using a grid and sketching the design onto backing material with a white pencil.
Next she chooses the fabrics. New ones are sourced from a small textile shop in Penzance. “They supply velvets and silks and extraordinary fabrics,” she says. Boxes are also filled with pieces saved from previous projects and these are delved into as she picks out the different surfaces and fibres she wants. Her choice is influenced by the light reflecting qualities and textural elements she feels are required for each collage. Her pieces use a combination of satins, silks, velvets and man-made textiles.
Each new piece of work requires fresh dyeing of new fabrics. She uses two main techniques, depending on the type of fabric. Silks and other natural textiles are coloured using what she terms the boiling cauldron method. This involves dipping the fabric into hot water that has been mixed with dye. Special dyes, known as disperse dyes, are used for man-made fabrics. These are painted onto paper then transferred to the fabric with heat.
Layers of depth
Working on an autumnal poppy and barley project, Amanda first creates the grass background. She applies dye with a paintbrush to a sheet of high-quality drawing paper. “By using brush strokes, I am suggesting the waving movement of the barley,” she explains. “By building the layers at this initial stage, I will have all of this sense of motion and texture built into the piece. That is what I am doing with all of my fabric, building character into it. It gives a sense of depth and complexity and brings life to the piece.”
Once the design is painted, the selected piece of fabric is placed under the inverted paper. Heat is slowly applied to the back of the paper using an iron on a high setting. This forces the image to bond with the fibres of the material below.
There is an important distinction between the results obtained by dyeing as opposed to painting onto fabric. “What is essential to the personality of my art is a light-reflective quality,” says Amanda. “If I were to paint directly, it would sit on top of the fabric and mask these qualities. In this case the dyes have actually entered into the fibres and so all those lovely surface qualities are retained. The colour becomes integral to the fabric rather than superficial.”
The selection and dyeing of the materials is time consuming. It can take as long as a week to achieve all the gradations of tone, colour and pattern needed on all the pieces of fabric she is going to use. It is a part of the process from which she takes great joy. “Because I am coming to it as a painter, it is the most exciting thing I could possibly do,” she says. “I love dyeing fabric, creating the tones and colours and suggestions of patterns. Sometimes I have to give myself a talking to and remind myself there is an end goal here. It is such an adventure seeing how each piece will react to the dyes, and envisaging how the fabrics will work together in the final composition.”
Once the dyed fabric is dry, it is ironed flat. Amanda then takes a roll of glue, which has a type of greaseproof backing paper on one side and adhesive on the other. This is bought in 328ft (100m) rolls, several at a time. It is placed glue-side down on the reverse of each individual piece of fabric being used in the collage and ironed on. Once the backing paper is peeled away, the fabric is ready to be used for the collage. A particular advantage of this technique is the way in which the glue holds the fabric together. Under any other technique, small cut pieces would fray and become almost impossible to use. The glue stiffens the fabric and holds the weave.
Building the collage
The poppies are now created petal by petal, building up the layers piece by piece, before transferring a whole flower to the main collage. There Amanda experiments with the different elements of the piece. “It is the association of plants that interests me, not just something standing on its own but the whole environment, the miniature landscape,” she explains. “When I have put that together, I then have the freedom of planting my flowers in the collage. I naturally think in layers. That is part of what gives a sense of depth. Building layer upon layer slightly fools the eye of the viewer.”
Using the iron on a warm setting, the pieces can be tacked in place so they do not drift in the breeze or move in the event of her cat, Artemis, jumping up. Everything can be peeled back and repositioned if necessary. The flex from the iron used to be a problem if it trailed across the work. This was solved by using an elasticated dog lead to keep it suspended above her.
Other than her hands, Amanda’s key piece of equipment is a pair of spring-loaded scissors. These open automatically after each cut, helping reduce the strain on her hands. She uses these regardless of the size or fineness of the piece she is cutting, never downsizing to a smaller pair. “It is just a matter of precision. If I really concentrate I can shape even the most minute fragments,” she says. She works with great dexterity, picking up and moving the pieces with the tips of the scissors without ever cutting them.
Once she is satisfied everything is in the best place, a warm iron is run over the whole artwork to tack it down. She then damps a piece of cotton fabric, squeezes out the moisture and lays it over the collage. With the iron turned up to its hottest setting, she firmly glides it over the entire surface. This permanently fixes the pieces in place.
The collage is now set, but she can still add pieces of fabric to tweak the composition if she wishes. The process of adding and sealing can be repeated as often as required. How much time is spent on each artwork varies widely, from two weeks to a month or more. It all depends on how many adjustments are needed and the fineness of the detail.
The collage does not have clean edges, with leaves and foliage creeping over the sides. Amanda prefers to leaving her pieces unframed which allows for these organic edges. It also means there is not reflective glass surface between the viewer and the collage. Instead the finished work has a wooden backing.
The act of displaying the collage is central to her art. “For me, the fascinating moment is when I first hang it up, put the lights on it and stand back,” she says. “The key factor is that it shifts and changes throughout the day in different lights and the different angles from which it is viewed. It is not static. I want it to work from 30 feet away or right up close, from either side or dead on. That journey of the eye is a very complex one but that is what is exciting about the work.”
Words: Eleanor Gasgarth Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Amanda's textile art originally appeared in the Sept / Oct 2015 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
CREATING TRADITIONAL TARTAN GARMENTS
Pale winter light streams in through a glass gable-end of an oak-beamed workroom, overlooking Perthshire’s Strathearn Valley and the River Earn. Publications on tailoring, tartan and Scottish history fill a bookcase on the wall. In front of them, lengths of tartan in a variety of colours are spread out on large tables. Behind them finished kilts hang on a rail, waiting to be fitted. Tall spools of green, red, blue and black thread are ready to be used. On the tables lie pincushions and tailoring scissors.
This light, airy space is home to Marion Foster, who makes traditional kilts by hand. She came to kilt making through a love of textiles. “As a teenager I would make all my own clothes, despite it being the jeans era,” she recalls. She made her first kilt when she was 16, for her uniform as a cub scout. “I had no money to buy one, so I thought I would make it. It must have worked as I wore it for quite a while.”
Marion continued making her own clothes, then four years ago, inspired by a course she attended, she started making kilts in her spare time. At the age of 50, she decided it was time for a change. “I still had the energy and felt it was time to follow my passion,” she says. In 2011 she started making her hand-stitched kilts full time under the name of Askival of Strathearn.
Taking the measurements
“Making a kilt takes a lot of time and effort. I stitch every kilt completely by hand and making one from start to finish takes me five full days,” she says.
“When someone comes to me for a new kilt, we first decide on a tartan.” Marion has books of tartans she uses to find specific ones. Once a tartan has been chosen, she commissions the 100 per cent wool fabric from one of five remaining tartan weavers in Scotland.
Each kilt is made of one single length of fabric with two overlapping aprons at the front and pleats at the back. Because of the many folds of the pleats, approximately 32ft (10m) of fabric is used for each garment.
The kilt is shaped to the individual wearer. It should fit snugly into the small of the wearer’s back and then widen, before falling to the middle of the knee. It sits high on the waist, lying smoothly across the abdomen. If someone has a large build, the kilt should fall from the stomach, not lower down. “I think of the wearer’s shape all the time,” she says.
Accurate measurements are crucial to the final fit and hang of the kilt. Marion measures the wearer’s waist, seat and length to the centre of the knee.
Forming the pleats
A tartan may have many colours, some subtle, some more obvious. The way the pleats are created emphasises particular colours in a tartan. “It’s amazing how many colours there can be within the garment,” she says.
A tartan can be folded so the big squares and original tartan design are clearly visible. This is called sett pleating. It can also be folded so it emphasises lines on the tartan, which are a different colour. This is called pleating to the stripe.
Marion calculates how many pleats the kilt needs and their size. She bases this on the measurements she has taken, the individual tartan and how the fabric is going to be folded. Her kilts have between 27 and 34 pleats for an adult male. This is the same for a woman’s dancing kilt, although a woman’s fashion kilts varies widely. These kilts are more like skirts and often have bigger pleats. Standard kilts have pleats that are on average ¾in (2cm) wide on the outside.
After the calculations have been made, Marion cuts the tartan to the right depth. She leaves cutting the length of the fabric until all the different parts of the kilt are marked out. The aprons, or front parts, are marked out first with white chalk. It does not take long to stitch these parts, and the chalk will rub off easily when it is done.
The individual pleats are marked with special white tailor’s wax, which lasts longer. This is important as stitching the pleats takes time and must be done accurately. The marks are made on the front of the fabric, so they can be seen clearly when sewing. Marion folds and stitches every pleat individually as she goes, measuring the width and pinning it in place constantly.
“Every millimetre counts,” she says. “Twenty-seven times one millimetre makes a big difference.”
Because it is hand sewn, she can make sure every bit of fabric is exactly where it should be. Misalignment is prevented, as she can control the bouncy fabric as she sews. It is a slower process, but gives an excellent final product. “I set the standard high,” she says. “It takes me up to a day to sew the pleats.”
The pleats are stitched from the top to roughly a third of the length of the kilt. To keep them in place before the fabric is pressed, temporary basting is added lower down on each pleat.
Lifting the folds
Marion now turns the kilt over. Working on the back, she spends three hours securing each pleat in place with barely visible, small stitches. This extra stitching ensures the pleats are secured higher up, and keeps them from stretching and sagging.
Further support and shaping is provided by stitching linen canvas across the full aprons and the back pleating. It helps preventing the kilt from distorting when the straps used to fasten it are adjusted.
Once the canvas is in place, a special piece of equipment is used to shape the kilt. Called an iron, it consists of a large table with a foot switch to turn on a vacuum. This sucks the fabric to the table, keeping it flat. A steam iron is then used to flatten the pleats and mould the kilt into shape. The table also heats up to help the shaping.
Adding the buckles
Now the 32ft (10m) of fabric has been successfully concertinaed into the garment, it is time for the first fitting. Marion checks to ensure the kilt is fitting correctly and falling as it should. If she is not happy, she alters the stitching to improve the fit.
One of the final steps is to add three metal buckles, the pieces of tartan that hold the belt buckles known as chapes and belt loops. Made of the same tartan as the kilt, the chapes match up with the pattern when attached. The bar of the buckle sits over the join between the third and fourth pleat on either side. The third buckle is placed over the second and third pleat on
the right-hand side.
Marion takes great care in sewing the chapes, which need to match with precision. “It is hard on your fingers,” she says. “I use a very fine needle, but there is still a lot of fabric to go through. It is one of the most difficult things to do neatly.” She uses no thimble as her fingers have become used to the work over the years. She adds a waistband, again aligning it at the front and creating symmetry with the pattern of the tartan at the back.
The kilts are finalised with a black cotton lining. Marion embroiders Askival of Strathearn onto it. She can also add unique embroidery specified by the client, which usually mentions a name, place and year. “Once I’ve done all this, I press it one last time,” she says. At this point the temporary basting which was added to the pleats is removed. Only the final, barely visible minute stitches remain.
Everything is now ready for the final fitting. “The apron should always lie neatly at the sides without rolling or kicking out. There should be no gap between the apron and the pleats, all of which should sit straight at the bottom.”
A kilt has to be comfortable for many occasions. “You should be able to climb a mountain in it if you want,” says Marion. Her final product has approximately 40 hours of work and a great deal of love and care in it. “It’s a truly beautiful garment that can be passed down through generations.”
Words: Marieke McBean Photography: Mark Mainz
This feature about Marion Foster's kilts appeared in the Jan / Feb 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
ARTIST CREATES GLASSWARE REFLECTING THE CHARACTER OF THE CORNISH COAST
Vivid blue bowls crowd the shelves of Malcolm Sutcliffe’s whitewashed studio in Penryn, Cornwall. In the far corner, a large furnace emits a fiery glow each time the door is opened.
Malcolm set up his studio in a former bakery 14 years ago. “I had been working in glass for more than 26 years when my artist wife Jean and I decided to relocate from Chesterfield where we had a studio to Penryn. In our youth, we both had summer holiday jobs in St Ives, getting engaged while we were there. We always hoped to live by the sea, and looked in Devon and Cornwall until we found this place.
“I always wanted to make things, and I became hooked on glass making in college. I got good technical training and discipline working in a small glass company, in terms of honing my skills, but it was not artistically satisfying,” he says. He wanted to be in full control of the whole process, from creating to selling. “I wanted to create a glass blowing studio with a gallery to display and sell the work in. It took a while to get established here but we have successfully done it now for 14 years which we are both delighted with.”
When they moved in, the building was in a terrible state. “It hadn’t been used as a bakery for 26 years, the windows were smashed and there was no water,” he says. “It took six months to get the furnace and studio up and running but we have never looked back.”
Since then, the sea and coastline have become an increasing inspiration for his art. The design of his seascape bowls and vases conveys a sense of movement and immersion. This is created through the vivid colours and textures he adds to the glass, and also by the shape of each vessel. His elegant Wavy Sea design reflects the white-tipped waves against the blue of the sea and the sky. The convex surface of the bowls brings the scene and patterns to life. It is as if they leap from the glass.
His designs range in size from dainty perfume bottles 4in (10cm) high to magnificent bowls measuring 19½in (50cm) in diameter.
Malcolm’s working day starts at 7am when he removes the previous day’s pieces from the ovens, and runs until 5pm when he finally lays down his blowing iron. The muffled ongoing rumble of the furnace is accompanied by the odd tinkling and pinging of small pieces of surplus glass as they cool and detach from the blowing irons. He is constantly on the move, deftly rotating, swinging and raising the blowing iron to his mouth to breathe into the vivid globule of molten glass at its end.
The furnace is used to heat the raw material, known as batch, to create the molten glass. This is 65 per cent silica sand, in pellet form. Inside the furnace is a brick box with a ceramic crucible, a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures.
Initially, it takes two days to get the temperature of the furnace up to the 1240°C required to create molten glass. It must be fired up slowly so as not to crack the crucible. The batch is shovelled into the furnace over the space of five hours. Doing this gradually helps achieve a better, more even melt.
After seven hours, the molten glass is as fluid as water. Malcolm then turns the furnace down, leaving it to reach its working temperature of 1055°C overnight. By the morning, the glass has the consistency of toffee and is ideal for working.
“The crucible holds 50kg of molten glass, which will last a week before I need to refill it,” he says.
Heating and cooling
In addition to the main furnace, there are two smaller ones, known as glory holes. The glass is returned to one of these frequently during the blowing process to soften and shape the vessel. Malcolm needs two to accommodate the different sized pieces he produces. He is able to produce only one or two of the largest bowls in a day. In the same time, he can make up to six smaller bowls.
The final element is the annealing oven. Annealing is a process whereby glass is heated then allowed to cool slowly. Doing this removes internal stresses and toughens the glass. “Everything I make has to be annealed,” says Malcolm. “As soon as I’ve finished blowing a piece, it goes in there at 500°C and stays at that temperature. At the end of the day, I set a programme timer that cools the oven slowly overnight, then the pieces come out in the morning. If they were left at room temperature to cool they would break.”
Creating the picture
To create one of his bowls, he begins with a blowing iron. This is a hollow tube of stainless steel with a nylon mouthpiece at one end. Opening the main furnace, he dips the bare end into the crucible of molten glass. It is rotated continuously so that the glass is collected evenly.
He now moves to his chair, as he needs to trundle the iron rod along the extended arm, causing the glass to rotate, gently shaping it. The small globule is placed inside a rounded hole in the centre ofa block he carved from cherry wood. “In many ways the surfaces and tools used are just as important as the glass,” he says. “For example, I use cherry wood because it doesn’t burn particularly quickly. It’s also close grained so it doesn’t mark the glass too much.”
The blocks are kept in water to remain damp. The water turns to steam when touched by the glass, lubricating the block so no marks or ash are left on the piece.
He now begins to add colour. A first layer of cerulean blue for the sky is gathered by dipping the piece into a bowl of powdered glass, which sticks to the hot surface. The glass is returned to the reheating furnace for a few seconds to soften so the powdered glass will adhere to it. A layer of white powder is then added to the blue. This will form the gentle cloud background of the design.
“To create a swirling sky effect, I throw water onto a table called a marver and spread it with my hand,” he says. “I twist the rod as the glass is run along the wet surface.”
The marver is made of thermal insulation to cope with the high temperatures. Malcolm saved it from a derelict science laboratory when he was a student. “As well as not catching fire, the material doesn’t take the heat from the glass like steel does,” he says.
Adding the white-tipped waves
After twisting it to his satisfaction, Malcolm returns the piece to the reheating furnace before a further layer of blue is added. More glass is gathered from the main furnace until the vessel resembles a light bulb in size, glowing red and orange. At this stage the colours underneath cannot be seen. The wave motif starts to be added with aqua-coloured powdered glass, Malcolm darting to and from the reheating furnace after each application. “I use a spoon to apply white granules because it allows a precise application of colour. These will become the wild crests of the waves when the bowl is blown. I’m trying to get a painterly quality, with the same feeling of depth,” he says.
The glass is blocked again using a slightly larger cherry wood mould, and is then ready to be blown. A burst of compressed air that comes from a gun dangling from the ceiling blasts the bottom to chill it. This is done to ensure the glass remains thicker at the base. Malcolm puts the rod to his mouth and blows steadily, expanding the bubble inside. The glass is returned to the glory hole after each blow. Now a tool known as a jack, which resembles a large pair of tweezers, is used to gradually score the rim closest to the blowing rod in preparation for its detachment. One of the jacks has cardboard tubes on its end, wet like the blocks so the glass is, as Malcolm explains, “riding on a cushion of steam”. A wad of damp newspaper is also used to manually shape the bowl.
If he wishes to create a more natural pointed shape, he swings the rod gently in a pendulum motion. “The idea is to make the glass do all of the work. All I am doing is gently coaxing it with the tools to get it to do what I want. Mainly I rely on heat and gravity and turning.”
Once the bowl is at the desired size, the glass is transferred to a punty. This is an iron rod whose name is believed to be derived from the French word pont meaning bridge. It is tipped with a wad of hot glass and attached to the bottom of the vessel to hold it while the top is finalised. Only a small aperture exists at the top where the blowing iron was attached. If this needs to be widened to create the rim of the bowl, Malcolm holds the piece close to the reheating furnace. Then he uses his jacks to slowly widen and shape the mouth. “It is a gradual process to open it out,” he says. “As soon as it is touched with cold wet tools it stops being malleable and needs to be reheated.” It can take at least 15 trips over 15 minutes to and from the kiln to shape the rim. It is during this stage that the final colours and patterns begin to emerge.
When the rim is smooth and at the right size, Malcolm chips off the punty rod and puts the bowl straight into the annealing oven to cool. When it comes out the following morning, it will have its punty mark – the ring-shaped scar on the base – ground off using a drill. Sometimes a piece will be sandblasted to enhance its colours and remove the reflections, depending on whether he feels the design will benefit from the glass having a matt or satin finish.
Once Malcolm has started making a piece, he has to see it through without pause. “There’s no stopping for a cup of tea. I can’t hang it up and have a think because it would crack and fall off of the blowing iron,” he says. “There’s a fluidity to the process and a spontaneity that would be lost if it was deliberated over in stages and I like that. Each piece is unique. Sometimes the colour has a mind of its own and will do what it wants. That is entirely natural and reflects the free blown nature of my work.”
Words: Eleanor Gaskarth Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Malcolm Sutcliffe's glassblowing studio originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape. For back issues click here or to subscribe to LandScape click here www.malcolm-sutcliffe.co.uk
Beautiful, multi-coloured blankets made from motifs in a range of shapes festoon a North Devon studio
Soft rainbow-coloured blankets, created from a jigsaw of shapes and shades, spill out of bags in the North Devon workroom of crochet-pattern designer Amanda Perkins. Balls of yarn are arranged in clusters around the floor, waiting to be turned into future creations. A few finished motifs sit on a table. Next to them are jars holding an array of hooks.
These beautifully crafted blankets are created from circles, triangles, stars and squares, each motif itself made of myriad colours. "I am not just making a blanket, I am making a piece of art," says Amanda. Her blankets are not for sale. Instead they are used to illustrate what can be achieved with the 100 designs she has created in the past 10 years.
It takes approximately two months to create a blanket. It can take even longer to create the initial design. Before Amanda picks up a crochet hook and yard, her designs and colour ways are worked out on graph paper. "the colours and shapes excite me," she says. "I'm always thinking about designs. As I make one blanket, i am thinking about the next one. I love the tactile element, the fact that it keeps people warm and you are putting love into something."
Photography: Clive Doyle
The complete feature about Amanda Perkins appeared in the Mar / April 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
Vintage oddments of textiles help evoke childhood memories
The purples and greens of a moorland landscape start to come alive in a patchwork of lace, silk and paper shapes. Artist Louise O'Hara outlines the position of a ramshackle gate in pencil, before threading a needle and starting to sew.
Colour and texture abound in her small studio in the heart of a Cheshire village. Vintage fabrics spill out of boxes, inks and reels of thread cluster on wooden workbenches among pots of paint, glue and brushes. Lengths of cloth hang off chairs, bales of paper are stacked under tables.
This is where Louise portrays the light and textures of the world around her. She crafts paintings and collages that capture the spirit of the countryside and seascape. Many are based on her own memories of childhood holidays. Her designs are tactile but delicate.
Photography: Jeremy Walker
The complete feature about Louise O'Hara's work appeared in the May / June 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
Ancient techniques create subtle patterns
Deep in the Devon countryside, weaver Susie Gillespie is busy creating fabrics and yarn that hark back to a time long predating her 15th century barn. The linen cushions she weaves are inspired by ancient fabrics woven by early textile makers. Subtle geometric patterns are created in one or two colours, their muted tones reminiscent of a time gone by. Larger, wall-hung pieces are also inspired by prehistoric textiles and the ancient process of weaving.
Much of the visual interest of her work derives from the slight imperfections in the hand-spun yarns she uses. The differing textures introduced during the weaving add to the unaffected simplicity and appeal.
It is now 20 years since Susie started working as a weaver. She relishes the ability to work doing something that gives her so much pleasure. “I often feel a bit guilty as I have a lovely time,” she laughs. “I find weaving both emotionally and aesthetically satisfying.” She takes pleasure in the actual making process, the act of weaving, the slowness of its growth and the feel of the yarn.
Her woven fabrics are influenced by her enduring love of early textiles. Like her own work, these were mainly woven in linen with small areas of pattern. She takes great pleasure in using the same ancient techniques and materials as those used by the ancient weavers. At the same time, inspiration also comes from objects surrounding her home. These include field and building outlines, shapes of barns, textures of stone and cob walls.
Photography: Jeremy Walker
This feature appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
A HERTFORDSHIRE CRAFTSWOMAN WITH A PASSION FOR RECYCLING BRINGS NEW LIFE TO DISCARDED PLANKS AND PALLETS
A pile of timber is stacked outside a wooden workshop beneath an evergreen tree. Planks of wood of varying age, condition and length, are all heaped together. A few feet away lie piles of pallets, drying in the Hertfordshire sunshine. It is all castoff wood that has outgrown its original purpose.
In the careful hands of Vicki Brand, it will re-emerge sanded, polished and converted into useful furniture. At her workshop near Hatfield, she specialises in bringing new life to this worn out, unloved wood. Nothing goes to waste. “I use anything I can lay my hands on,” she says. “I’ve developed a good relationship with farmers, workshops and scaffolders who have wood for me.”
New life for wood
Finding new uses for old wood is a passion for Vicki. “Pallets and scrap wood are cut up and burned at building sites. It seems such a horrible waste to discard it,” she says. “It might have come to the end of its original purpose, but it can continue to be useful.”
Her enthusiasm for breathing vitality into unwanted wood began when she moved to a small cottage in Hertford four years ago. There was only a minimal amount of storage and she failed to find furniture that matched the dimensions of the space available. She had never made anything before but believed her practical nature would enable her to produce her own furniture. “I used an old crate to make a trunk that fitted my cottage,” she says. “It was unique and looked good. Next I wanted a corner cupboard for my bathroom. I cut up an old cupboard my parents were about to throw away, and remade it. I now have several of my own pieces at home including shelving units, storage crates, a side table, coffee and kitchen tables.”
The decision to turn her hobby into a business came just over two years ago, after making a coffee table for her mother. “Some friends saw it and wanted one. As people saw what I was making, orders for bespoke furniture started arriving. That’s when I decided to create my own business.”
She has no formal furniture-making training, but has benefitted from her father’s advice. “Dad is good at carpentry. He inspired me, and has been an excellent teacher,” she says. “Now I prefer to learn on the job and figure out solutions to new problems. I started off making trunks, then I moved on to kitchen tables and picture frames. Last year I made a picnic table.”
Building a workshop
For the first 18 months, she was based in her parents’ garage. Then in January this year, she built her own workshop on the site of her family’s horticultural business. “It took me three weeks to build, including re-concreting the floor. Old fence posts were used for the corners. I made the window frames with glass from an old greenhouse.”
The large doors on the wooden structure were built from an eclectic range of planks. When they are tied back, the sun’s rays penetrate the building. They allow her to wheel her machinery outside to use.
Light shining through windows in the roof illuminates the work surfaces within the L-shaped workshop. Curled wood shavings line the floor, while layers of wood dust coat every surface. Dried-out wood awaiting reinvention is piled up against one wall. Nearby, a dustpan and brush are propped up next to wall-mounted storage boxes housing nails and screws. Next to them are rows of ordered and readily-accessible hand tools. “I have extremely sharp chisels for fine work and an extremely good router for picture frames. This creates an indent for the glass to sit in,” she says. Many of her tools are recycled, including her router which came from a builder, and a mitre saw from the family nursery. Her most expensive tool is a bench saw that cost £500. This motorised circular saw is mounted beneath a worktable, with the blade protruding through an opening.
Cleaning the wood
When the wood first arrives, it needs a considerable amount of work before it is usable. Much of it has come from building sites. Old screws must be ground off, tar and spray paint purged by a sanding process. The nails and screws are recycled, and used to hold the furniture together. The pallets are pulled apart with a long-handled implement her father made. “I use leverage with the tool and my body weight to break them up. By the time I have finished, they are not recognisable as pallets,” she says. Pallets that come from building sites have hardened patches of cement on them, which is removed by sanding. Vicki repeatedly sands and polishes the wood, until it is unrecognisable from its origins. The scaffold boards are used for the large pieces of furniture such as tables. The pallets become signs and legs.
Old scaffold wood, usually pine but occasionally oak, is durable. Ageing and being exposed to the elements causes the planks to turn grey. Uneven recycled wood requires sanding by machine to level it out and create a flat surface. Despite splits and knots, by investing sufficient effort, she restores them to a standard indistinguishable from new wood.
Working by instinct
One of her pieces is a coffee table with crossed legs, built with scaffold planks. “I select flat sections for the table top then leave them outside for two weeks so the sun dries them out. This is essential as wet wood shrinks when put together,” she says.
“Tar and cement are removed with a grinder, followed by three stages of sanding. To start with, I use 80 grit sanding paper. This has the roughest finish so removes more. It is followed by the finer grades, 120 then 240. After each stage, the wood becomes smoother and more suitable.”
Vicki often relies on her intuition when creating her pieces. For the coffee table, she works by instinct to create the angles for the legs. “I know the angle I need because I’ve been taught to do this by eye.”
However, before she cuts the plank which is to be used for the top of the table she takes careful measurements. She does this twice to ensure they are accurate.
“Once the plank is cut, I screw the top into the legs. Once finished, the table needs a final re-sand because of the holes drilled for the screws. I use a fine 250 grit for this. Then I apply two layers of beeswax by hand. It takes two days to complete a table like this.”
Vicki’s growing knowledge and experience help her solve more complex problems. “Before I would have wondered how a crate was put together,” she says. “Now I can look at a big piece of furniture and know what I need to do. I won’t make something that I wouldn’t want in my own home. If I make a mistake, I learn from it.
“Usually I just go ahead and make the furniture. Sometimes, however, more precision is needed. Intricate pieces have to have the angles and dimensions right so I might sketch them out first.”
Experimentation is crucial in generating the right image for her furniture. Vicki makes paler pieces for customers who favour a driftwood appearance. Her darker, stained, waxed wood has a rustic look. Unable to obtain large, black bolts for dark furniture, and to match the ironmongery, she found a way of ageing new ones by dipping them in gun blue. This liquid is used to protect steel against rust, and results in a blackening appearance. “The darkening effect is instant,” she says.
“I design everything and make it from scratch to order. Using new wood would be quicker, but I can renew something old, giving people furniture that is unique,” she says. “The wood is so interesting and no two pieces are the same. The grain and worn areas enhance each item.
“The wood is harder to make things with because it has been thoroughly exposed to the elements. But it is very fulfilling to be able to turn something that is knotty and no longer used into functional, bespoke furniture, giving it a new lease of life.”
Words: Sandra Smith Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Vicki Brand's woodwork originally appeared in the Nov / Dec 2015 issue of LandScape.
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