Sussex florist Georgia Miles puts frothy grasses, striking foliage and rich-hued blooms centre stage in her garden bouquets
An array of bright-coloured dahlias lie on a long table, their straight stems surrounded by rich foliage. Behind stand buckets filled with a myriad of flowers, including the delicate papery heads of Physalis alkekengi, the Chinese lantern, frothy Alchemilla mollis and white hydrangeas.
These are the tools of the trade for florist Georgia Miles, at the Sussex Flower School. Here, she teaches a range of students, from gardeners who want to improve their home-grown flower arrangements to professional florists wanting to enhance their skills.
Setting the stage
Her flower arranging has changed considerably from the days when she used to teach at East Sussex’s Plumpton College. Now her style is much freer than in the past with the main blooms being dahlias, sweet peas and English-grown flowers. “My arrangements used to feature very structured flowers, such as roses, carnations, spray chrysanthemums and lilies; typically the sort you’d easily find in supermarkets,” says Georgia. “Now, all my flowers are British grown, many grown myself. I choose types that are not quite so uniform and, because of this, my arrangements have naturally evolved into
a relaxed form.
“There’s much more awareness now of growing your own flowers, and people are increasingly wanting to know how to make more relaxed, floral, foam-free hand-tied bouquets,” she explains.
Foliage is important for these informal, country garden-style arrangements. “It’s key, so grow, cut, forage or buy it,” she advises. “Use it to create the structure of the design. The arrangement’s height and width should be created from the foliage.” Georgia uses a mixture of foliage at this time of the year, much of it from her own garden. “I like to use plenty of leaves, as they are no longer new and so are stronger and last longer once picked. Beech, silver birch and cotinus are favourites. The slow growing pittosporum is also a useful addition.” She is also fond of Clematis vitalba, often called old man’s beard and found rambling over hedges in the countryside, and laurel. Both grow in her garden. She enjoys foraging for berries, which are also used in her arrangements to add colour and different textures.
It is only once this is done that the flowers are chosen. Georgia recommends ensuring there is a mixture of different forms, so they are not all linear or round shapes. “I use a three-tier system in my arrangements,” she explains. “The focal flowers are round and include roses, dahlias and peonies. These draw the eye and are mixed with linear flowers, which are pointy, but not rigid, and provide height. Foliage is added, and grasses are a particularly good choice, as they often have an interesting curve in the stem.
“I look for plants that aren’t symmetrical, or ones that have wiggly
or twisted stems. Then I add what I call the bridesmaid, or supporting flowers, creating the third tier. These are lush and offer a transition between the focal and linear flowers.”
She particularly likes to use eustoma or lisianthus along with spray roses as these bridesmaid flowers. She suggests including anything in spray form with smaller heads.
The last step is to use what Georgia calls a filler flower. These fill any gaps, making the bouquet or arrangement look full and luxurious. “These are the flowers you might forget to buy in a shop because they seem boring and would not look pretty in a vase on their own, but they are really relevant, as they add shading to the arrangement,” she says.
Growing in abundance in her beds, in autumn, these include armfuls of pink and russet sedum, fluffy grasses, large hydrangea flowers and asters. All supply a froth of colourful flowers and foliage to perfect an autumnal bouquet.
A love of dahlias
Many of the flowers she uses in the school are grown in her own garden. Hidden behind brick walls, raised beds flourish. In the autumn, vibrant jewel-coloured dahlias, bright zinnias and large clumps of thriving perennials vie for attention.
Dahlias are Georgia’s passion and her favourite flower for cutting. “I love these flowers because there are hundreds of varieties, forms and colours,” she explains. “They are super fashionable and are cut and come again. Feed and water them well and each time one is cut, another will grow, right through to the first frost.” She grows hers in raised beds in the 50ft wide by 100ft long (15x30m) cutting garden.
“I think raised beds are easier for a cutting garden,” she says. “You can control the soil much more, and they are easier to access.” At the bottom of the South Downs, Eastbourne’s soil is chalky, with a tendency to be thin and alkaline. By growing in raised beds, she can provide better soil for plants that have to supply plenty of stems for cutting.
The walls provide both shelter and warmth for the plants, keeping the temperature inside slightly higher than it would be if the garden was open to the elements. This, added to Eastbourne’s mild southerly seaside location, means the garden rarely experiences frost.
“It’s not frost free, but we don’t tend to have severe frosts,” Georgia explains. As a result, tender plants, such as her beloved dahlias, can be left in the ground to overwinter. In fact, she found she lost more tubers through rotting when she did try to lift them, than when they were left in the beds during the colder weather. “I cut them down, make sure they are labelled, then I put a big pile, about half a foot, of well-rotted horse manure on top. After that, I just leave them be, and they are absolutely fine. It never gets so cold I have to worry, but if it did become very wet, I might be inclined to cover the beds with plastic sheeting.”
Range of colours
Because they are left in place, the dahlias increase in size annually, producing more and more blooms for cutting. Georgia also adds approximately 20 new varieties each year. “I love all their colours, but I like experimenting,” she says. “I normally go for the really dark red-black ones, but I have added lots of oranges, which I love.” Tangerine-flowered, dark-leaved ‘David Howard’ and vermilion-orange ‘Happy Halloween’ joined deep, velvety red cutting classics such as ‘Arabian Night’.
Added to these are pale, pink, white and peach varieties, such as ‘Café au Lait’. “I needed to have some pale colours for our wedding flower courses,” she says. “Now, I’ve got a whole new spectrum, and they are so abundant I can pick buckets of them every week.”
Annuals for variety
As well as the dahlias, her beds provide many other autumnal plants to arrange with them. Long-lasting annuals, such as zinnias, cosmos and multi-stemmed sunflowers, billow from her raised beds along with perennials, such as sedums, rudbeckias, grasses and penstemons.
The cosmos in flower in autumn were sown in pots in spring and planted out. They tend to self-sow, so Georgia lifts seedlings that are not where they are wanted. She pots them up to grow on in the greenhouse until they are bigger. This keeps her beds free for earlier, quick- growing annuals.
Her vibrant zinnias were sown direct in late spring. She has started growing pastel-coloured zinnias as well as the bright ones. “I found that although they are very beautiful, the bright colours are less useful for flowers at the school. Brides don’t want bright colours,” she explains.
As well as mitigating the effects of frost, the walls keep out strong winds. She still supports all her flowers, using green pea netting stretched horizontally over the beds, to ensure unbroken, long stems.
Passion for teaching
Georgia’s enthusiasm for her school is infectious, and she is keen to spread the joy of working with flowers.
“I enjoy teaching and passing on knowledge and experience, and now my main focus is on supporting other people while they are carving out their own careers,” she says. “I’ve had an interest in gardening since being a child. However, it took having my own garden for me to recognise how passionate I was about the subject and that working with flowers was what I wanted to do. I never wanted to work in other people’s gardens, just my own. I particularly enjoy the commercial side of what I do, running the business, which surprised me. I like bringing people together and I always bake a cake for the occasion. Growing flowers to cut has always been my main interest, mostly because I’m producing something that I can sell, which I’m very proud of.”
Over the past two years, she has noticed that more people than ever are training to be florists, as they can trade online and no longer need a bricks and mortar shop. “I run career-changing courses for those who want to move into floristry from other jobs, and they are very popular, especially with the young and trendy,” she says. “I started out only running two courses a year, but have now increased this to three, due to demand. There are lots of ways to market a business now, and this surge in people training to be florists is the result.
“I am lucky, as I get to do what I love every day and I thoroughly enjoy helping others to achieve the same goal. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Contact: The Sussex Flower School, East Hoathly, BN8 6QA 01825 841370
Words: Clare Foggett and Julie Brown Photography: Abigail Rex
In a quiet corner of a family home on the edge of the Surrey Hills, a replica of an acorn is being shaped in silver. The perfectly proportioned nut, still in its cup, was a chance find during a stroll on nearby Headley Heath. Now it is being recreated, a long-lasting reminder of its autumnal perfection.
Working on the acorn is jeweller Caroline Brook. Accompanied only by the background murmur of the radio, she makes gold and silver pieces inspired by nature. “I love the work,” she says. “I like the idea of the permanence of what I make, and the fact people nearly always buy it for a reason, usually as a gift.”
After leaving school, Caroline worked in a bank. It was only when she was in her early 30s that she finally succumbed to her love of making things with her hands. She enrolled in a series of evening classes. “I signed up for sculpture, but the class was cancelled, so I ended up on the jewellery course. I was completely hooked from the very first day,” she says. “I have always liked detail, so I fell in love with the tools, such as the tiny files and tiny saw blades. I appreciated the way the metal was so malleable that you could just form it to create anything.”
She attended evening classes for three years, then was offered work experience in London with a Hatton Garden jeweller. Initially, she helped out with paperwork, but was soon working on the jewellery. Caroline ended up staying there for seven years, serving what was in effect an apprenticeship. “It was a fantastic environment, being in a real workshop and learning from a master,” she says.
Today, 20 years on from her first course, she works from home in her peaceful studio space. Here, she has a traditional jeweller’s bench. Taller than a work bench, it allows the craftsperson to sit tall, without hunching over the work surface. It has a curved indentation on which sit clamped tools and a jeweller’s peg. This is a wedge of wood on which the jeweller places the metal being worked on.
Beneath, there is a drawer designed to catch any pieces of scrap metal or gold dust. This can then be melted down and re-used. There are boxes of tools with wooden handles and a series of blow torches. A section of beech tree trunk was found on a walk on the heath. “A beech tree had been cut down and pieces were left,” says Caroline. “It is perfect for hammering and punching metal, as it absorbs the shock.”
She makes a range of jewellery including rings, bracelets, pendants and cufflinks. Almost all her pieces have their roots in nature and the gentle Surrey countryside surrounding her home. “I have always been attracted to nature. I walk every day with my dog and watch the seasons come and go,” she says. “I search for objects and pick things up that appeal to me like tiny acorns, twigs and branches or pretty stones. I really enjoy the search for that special piece.
“I picked this acorn up because the detail was incredible. It was a lovely size and very delicate. I liked the volume of the cup, its texture and the way it’s quite a deep cup with a little acorn in the middle,” she explains.
To turn the acorn into a silver pendant, Caroline has to make a clay mould. This allows her to create a cast of the nut that accurately reproduces all its detail. “I have the skills to make my own version, but what appeals to me is the idea of preserving a piece of nature forever. I want to capture its beauty in precious metal,” she says. Casting highlights the intricacy of the natural detail on objects. “You don’t realise the lovely texture on an acorn cup until you see it cast.”
The next stage is to prepare the silver. For this piece, she uses sterling silver, an alloy containing 92.5 per cent silver by weight and 7.5 per cent other metals, usually copper. She prefers to work with fine silver, which is almost 99 per cent pure. “It is very malleable with a nice white colour. But it is softer, so not as good for this type of piece,” she says.
The metal is heated using a blow torch, and becomes liquid after approximately five minutes. Caroline then quickly pours the metal into the mould. This is very tricky. The silver hardens the moment the heat is removed. If the pouring is not timed correctly, the mould can be ruined. If that happens, the process has to start again. The metal can be melted down and re-used, but the burnt areas of clay have to be thrown away and a new mould created.
The silver acorn is removed from its clay casing and the finishing process started. First, Caroline removes the sprue, the stem created by the remaining metal in the pouring channel. A piercing saw with a very fine blade is used to do this. The rough edge left by the cut is then smoothed with a fine file, without removing any of the surface detail.
To make the silver acorn into a pendant, Caroline attaches a jump ring, the little silver loop through which the chain is threaded. This is made from silver wire and is neatly soldered to the base of the acorn. The soldering can be a fiddly procedure, but one that she enjoys. “I have endless patience, and love working with small things,” she says.
She cuts small pieces of solder to fasten the jump ring on the acorn. These are applied to both the base of the cup and the jump ring, and then the area is heated.
For this fine work, she uses a traditional jeweller’s mouth. This involves blowing through a rubber tube, controlling the flame with her breath. The solder has a lower melting point than the silver, so the flame melts it but leaves the precious metal untouched. The melted solder acts as glue, joining the jump ring to the acorn.
The soldering work leaves a dark discolouration created by oxidisation. An acid compound called pickle is used to remove this. The silver is added to a mix of pickle and water in an old slow cooker. It is then gently heated for approximately four minutes. When the silver is taken out, all the black oxide has disappeared.
The final stage of the process is polishing. This turns the whitish finish into shining silver. Caroline polishes the acorn by hand using a fine mop head made of lambs’ wool attached to a pendant motor. This mechanically rotates the mop head, allowing the polish to be applied evenly. The process takes 20 minutes.
Hand-polishing allows her to retain the all-important contrast between the smooth acorn and its minutely dimpled cup. Once the polishing is finished, the acorn pendant is threaded with a chain and is ready to wear.
It takes a full day to make this tiny, delicate acorn pendant, for Caroline time well spent. “I always feel that I need to make things with my hands, and my hands just want to work,” she says. The detailed work involved in making jewellery particularly appeals to her, but she also enjoys making something special for other people. “I often hear the stories behind pieces such as engagement rings. People like to tell me their stories and I like to hear them,” she says.
“I love the fact that my pieces are something that people will wear and cherish for a long time.”
Making a mould
Caroline uses the Delft clay casting method. The process was invented by a Dutch goldsmith in the 1980s. This is perfect for jewellers such as Caroline, who work on a small scale. It allows her to cast items without recourse to expensive tools. To make the mould, a small, circular aluminium ring frame is filled with Delft clay, which is oily and sticky. The frame comes in two sections which fit on top of each other. The larger ring measures approximately ¾in (2cm) high and 1½in (4cm) in diameter. The smaller is approximately ½in (1.5cm) high. Small marks on each ring mean they can be carefully aligned when joined together.
Creating the shape
Caroline firmly packs the clay into the smaller bottom ring and pushes the acorn into it. She then fills the bigger ring with clay and places it on top. It is essential to check the rings are aligned and the acorn is completely buried in clay. She then taps the top with a mallet. This gets rid of any air pockets. It also ensures the shape of the acorn is neatly moulded into the clay.
Now the two rings are separated and the acorn removed. Caroline uses a knitting needle to create a channel through the upper ring of clay. She pushes up from the acorn indentation to the outer edge and widens the hole at the top with a small bladed knife. This is called the sprue hole. The molten metal will be poured through this.
A series of smaller holes will let out the displaced air and steam created when the molten metal is poured. The rings are carefully re-joined to finish the mould.
Mark of origin
Caroline’s larger pieces require hallmarking before she is able to sell them, although pieces like the acorn pendant which weigh less than 7g are exempt from this legal requirement. Caroline sends her jewellery to the Sheffield Assay Office where it is stamped with the year it was made, the quality of the metal and the Sheffield stamp. It also has her maker’s mark: the initials SCW within little diamond-shaped frames.
Acorn pendants from £55
Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Clive Doyle
A Devon artist captures the sharp outlines of leafless trees in his striking linocut prints
An ancient oak wood sits in a valley on the edge of Dartmoor. Mist drifts down from the moors and hangs in the top of the trees. Their leafless, stark winter silhouettes are the inspiration behind artist Richard Shimell’s evocative prints.
“I like their many curving, complex branches,” he says.“I am attracted to trees for both their simplicity and their complexity. The shapes in winter are hugely complex and interesting. You could lose yourself staring at one, but a silhouette doesn’t have to involve tone. That means I can cut something which is simple, in that sense.’
Richard spends time walking on the moor and in the surrounding woods. While he walks, he photographs views and trees that catch his eye. Returning home, he checks the images. “I need to have lots of images in order to find one that I like and which will work as a silhouette,” he says.
Content and configuration
The pictures he eventually selects are the ones that stand out for their composition and shape. One photograph that attracted him depicts two hawthorn trees. One has fallen over and is supported by the second. This in turn is being pushed into the lower tree by the prevailing wind. “There are two things going on here, as the wind direction is going one way and the fallen tree the other,” he says. “This creates a sense of balance or tension between the two. It’s difficult not to anthropomorphise them, as the two trees are an obvious metaphor for someone supporting someone else, co-existing with them, but still being separate.”
When planning a print, he also takes the negative space into account. “You want to have nice blank areas of empty space to balance the areas of detail,” he explains.
A former journalist, Richard only took up printmaking when he moved to Devon in 2010. A chance visit to a local printmaker’s studio inspired him to find out more about linocut printing. He joined the Dartington workshop. “I found printmaking very difficult to begin with. But it was a way of expressing myself that I had been waiting for, so I just kept going,” he says. He did find that a long-held interest in photography helped him with the composition of his prints.
Once a photograph has been chosen, he makes a sketch of it on paper. “I always do a sketch to make the image mine,” he says. He sometimes sketches in pencil, but prefers working in charcoal. “I have a tendency to be too precise, but charcoal makes me freer as it moves so easily and you can smudge it.” The sketching process lets him see how effectively the photograph will work as a print. He edits out details such as houses, simplifies forms, and experiments with tones.
Once the sketch is right, he copies it exactly in pencil onto a panel of vinyl. The vinyl is 2mm thick and has a smooth surface. It is the same size as the intended print, as it will eventually become the printing plate or block. Most of the prints are in the region of 15-18in wide by 12in high (40-50cm x 30cm).
From flooring to print
When Richard first began printing he worked with lino, but now prefers to use offcuts of vinyl flooring. “Working with vinyl is the same principle as working with lino, but it’s much easier to define detail in vinyl, as it’s a harder material,” he says. This is important, as precise detail and crisp lines are a key part of his work. The vinyl comes from offcuts of material normally used for flooring in institutions such as schools and hospitals. “I like the fact that it’s such a mundane material and that I am able to recycle something that people don’t want any more,” he says.
Cutting the pattern can take up to a month, but it is the part of the process he enjoys the most. “I love the cutting. I get into a rhythm or flow and then I can do it for hours and hours. At the end I feel relaxed and fulfilled,” he says. Cuts are made along the drawn pencil lines. They remove all the vinyl except those areas which will form the finished image. These untouched, raised sections will be inked to form the pattern on the print. This method of printmaking is called relief or block printing.
To cut away the surface, Richard uses wood-cutting tools. These are steel blades, roughly 5-6in (12-15cm) in length, with rounded wooden handles designed for holding in the palm of the hand. The blades vary in shape and size, with some having a V-shaped profile and others more being U-shaped. Because of the detail, he uses the smallest tools he can find, some as narrow as 1mm across. The wooden handle held in his palm, he pushes the blade gently into the vinyl. His other hand acts as a brake, or to guide the movement. The work is so intricate that a magnifying lamp is needed to help him achieve the neat, precise outlines he requires.
Recently, Richard started working with wood-engraving tools as well. These enable more texture to be created than the wood-cutting tools. “I can achieve more variety with the engraving tools,” he says. “They allow me to make thin or patterned marks on the vinyl, which will show up in white.” His plates are now cut using a combination of both types of tool. “What I do is a kind of hybrid between a linocut and a wood engraving. I use the linocut technique for the tree and the wood-engraving tool for the landscape. This opens up a lot more opportunities to depict a tree in the landscape.”
When the plate is finished, Richard is finally ready to start printing. He uses a modern Hawthorn press, printing on to Somerset 250gsm paper, made from cotton rag. This is an etching press, with a bed approximately 47in long by 21in wide (120 x 54cm).
Most of the tree silhouettes use two plates. The first is a plain vinyl plate used to create the background colour. Richard pours oil-based, washable Caligo ink onto a glass slab, using it to coat a hand-held spindle roller. When it is evenly covered with ink, he rolls it over the plate three or four times. The ink-covered plate is then put on the printer with a sheet of paper carefully positioned on top. The plate and paper are wound through the printer rollers, the process transferring the colour to the paper.
The background colours may be graduated to give the effect of a winter’s sky at twilight. Colours fade from a deep blue to a subtle primrose yellow. Richard achieves this by colouring the first plain plate with a blend of inks. He places three different colours, dark blue, pale blue and yellow, in bands along the glass plate. The roller is pushed through the colours, Richard moving it slightly across the bands to mix the colours. When the roller is evenly covered, he coats the plate with the ink and then uses the inked plate to print a coloured background.
When the background is finished, the image of the actual tree can be printed. The inking process is repeated, but this time black ink is used to coat the plate cut with the tree image. The ink sticks to the raised surface, while the cut-away areas are left uncoloured. Richard places the paper printed with the background colour on top of the black inked plate before rolling the two through the printer. The result is a dramatic black silhouette against a gently coloured sky.
“I love doing this,’” says Richard. “It is fantastic and hugely exciting when you are printing something new and you first lift up the paper and see what you’ve printed.”
Linocut is relief printing, a method of transferring an image onto paper using a plate, or block, with a pattern cut into it. The background is cut away leaving a raised image on the surface which is then inked. The recessed background remains untouched. The plate is then pressed onto paper, in the process transferring the inked pattern onto the surface of the paper.
The earliest form of relief printing was woodblock printing. This was carried out for centuries. Then, in the early 1900s, artists realised they could replace the traditional woodblock with a new, softer material called linoleum – lino. This had been invented in 1855. Made out of solidified linseed oil, it was intended as a flooring material. Artists discovered that it was much easier to work than wood, as it was softer to cut and had no awkward grain.
The new technique was taken up by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Picasso produced his first linocut in 1939, going on to use the technique more in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was popularised in Britain after the Grosvenor School of Modern Art opened in London in 1925. Here, students were taught linocut classes by the artist Claude Flight. Today, linocut is often taught in schools as an accessible introduction to printmaking.
Linocut printing can be used in several ways. The simplest method is to print in one colour using one plate. However, more colours can be introduced by using more plates. Each different plate is cut with a different pattern which can then be covered with a different colour ink. For example, a bowl of fruit could be printed with three plates. The first could depict the bowl itself in blue, the second, apples in green and the third, a bunch of yellow bananas.
A more complex method of making a multi-coloured print is by using the linocut reduction method. This is when one single plate is used to create a print with a series of progressive cuttings, inkings and printings. The disadvantage of this method is that, as the plate is gradually cut away, more and more of it is destroyed. This means it cannot be re-used. However, using the same plate for each printing means that the problems involved in exactly matching the paper to the plate, or registration, are avoided.
Contact: www.richardshimell.co.uk Print prices from £50
Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Jeremy Walker
Using vintage oddments of textile, artist Louise O’Hara constructs images that evoke the traditional British countryside scenes she visited as a chile
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 reaches for a pencil to outline the position of a ramshackle gate before threading a needle
and starting to sew. She works quickly, the stitches adding another dimension to her design.
Colour and texture abound in Louise’s small but fascinating studio in the heart of a Cheshire village. Vintage fabrics spill out
of boxes, acrylic inks and reels of thread cluster on wooden workbenches among pots of paint, glue and brushes. Lengths of cloth hang off chairs and bales of coloured paper are stacked under tables. Embossed black-and-white walls are lined with books, cabinets and tinted glass. An iron and crystal chandelier draped with ribboned hearts dangles from the ceiling.
Here Louise uses mixed-media art to portray the light and textures of the world around her. She crafts paintings and collages that capture the spirit of countryside and seascape. Her work is often in bright, uplifting tones but also reflects darker, moodier days.
The majority of her pictures are based on places she has visited, often as a child. “We spent many family holidays in the Lake District and Yorkshire, and that archetypal cottage scene features in a lot of my work,” she says. “My pictures tend to be constructed of a collection of memories I have of different places I may have visited many times.”
Concepts of the flow of time and continuity of human relationships are the centrepiece of her work. This is captured in the way she builds layers of paint and in her use of vintage fabrics. “I don’t like using new materials. I want to use old,” she says. “Because they have been used, there is a history there, a trace of all the people, all the conversations that have gone by. I find that exciting.”
Louise is always on the lookout for materials to use in her pictures. The studio is home to a vast collection of period clothes, fabric, beads, quilts and crochet at the studio. Some she may cut up or re-dye to achieve a particular colour or effect. She often produces
a collection of pictures with similar themes and colours. To do this, she may spend two days dyeing fabrics and paper with a combination of ink and paints.
Many of her vintage textiles come from secondhand shops. Friends and clients, aware of her fascination, also send her items. “People having a clear-out send me their granny’s old scarves, gloves and cardigans,” she says. “I think it’s important that these things aren’t just thrown away but can live on, reclaimed, in a new guise.
I got a parcel the other day from America and I cried when I opened it. It was full of buttons, Victorian ones, glass ones… It was absolutely wonderful.”
Building up layers
Louise uses a camera to record the landscapes and buildings she visits. If there is time she may even make rough sketches. “A piece will develop from a photograph, or sections of a photograph, and sections of memories,” she says. “I might see a photo and think, I like the colour of that field. I then seek to re-create it. And that willdictate the materials I use, the paint and possible fabric, the size and shape of the finished design.”
For a painting, she starts by applying modelling paste or paint to a canvas, creating a rich, uneven substrate. Then layer upon layer of paints, inks or oil pastels are added. This creates an undulating, tactile surface out of which a landscape gradually emerges. Next, she builds up the body of the drawing. White cottages are clustered against beguiling seas and fresh blue skies. Streams wind their way across mist-wreathed moors. Always there is a sense that home is waiting.
Textile pieces begin with Louise lightly glueing then machine stitching her carefully chosen fabrics to sheets of watercolour paper. Different materials are added to create further ideas of form and flow. Pieces of paper, wax, wool, buttons and beads create flower-filled meadows, boulder-strewn fells, the shifting waves and eddies of sullen grey seas. Scenes may be embellished with rows of stitching to emphasise detail. A soldering iron creates burns or a leaden effect. Stencilled text from songs or poems relevant to the landscape or seascape adds to the storyline imbued in a picture. She may include scraps of handwritten letters found in charity shops, bus tickets or other ephemera. As she works, the picture becomes three-dimensional and tactile.
“The sense of being able to reach out and touch the scene is an important part of my work,” she says. “But the textiles are delicate and to protect them I always frame the pictures under glass. My framer makes double-mounted frames for me to accommodate the thickness and layers.”
Beauty in imperfection
It can take several weeks to finish a picture, not least because she usually works on two or three at the same time. “I’ll go into the studio and one piece will grab at me, and I’ll work on that particular one for a while,” she says. “Then I’ll leave it. I like to reflect on a piece and give it time to settle in between sittings. This is usually up to two weeks.
“If a picture doesn’t work well for some reason, I may cut it up and then use the canvas pieces in another. It makes me see things in a different way. I am also a great believer in serendipity. If some ink gets spilled on a picture accidentally I’ll go with it and see where it takes me.”
Another defining feature of Louise’s work is the philosophy of ‘beauty in imperfection’. This was an idea
she first encountered when doing her MA at Manchester University. “I photograph battered walls and threadbare fabrics,” she says. “I love the layers and depth they lend to a piece of work. All have a story to tell. There are marks and qualities in worn-out things you cannot reproduce.”
As part of her course, Louise took photographs of paint peeling from a door. These then created a pattern more reminiscent of falling leaves, which were incorporated in a collection of scarves, cuffs and collars.
The finished piece
Confessing to a tendency towards obsession, Louise often pores over one little part of a picture until it is right. “I know when something else is needed in a picture,” she says. “It will pull at me until I’ve fixed it. Over the years I have developed my techniques and now know how to effect a change.”
Finishing a piece of work always brings great satisfaction, but there is the immediate impulse to start another. “I love what I do but I’m very driven,” she says. “There’s so much to explore.”
She believes her work appeals to a human sense of place. “People seem to like the sense of nostalgia. My pictures are reminiscent of places they have been, or perhaps would like to go. My paintings are not harsh. Although they can be moody, they are gentle to look at. And there’s so much in there, you always see something else.”
People do ask her to do pictures of specific places they know, or to use fabrics that were part of their lives. “I’m happy to do that, but I prefer it if the viewer sees a picture and thinks ‘oh gosh, that looks like such and such a place’. That means my memories are triggering their memories. I’d like them to have that sort of relationship with a piece.”
With major exhibitions on the horizon, Louise has never been busier. “I suppose I’m outgrowing this studio. I have so much stuff now,” she says. “But I can’t imagine moving; this house has so many memories for me. I’m a collector – of memories and of time and of objects. I’ll always be this way.”
A life in art
Louise has always painted. At a young age she felt a connection to the work of artists such as Kurt Schwitters, an early 20th century artist, typographer and writer. Another influence was Joseph Cornell, an artist and sculptor who was an exponent of assemblage. She was inspired by the way they gave new life to discarded and broken objects.
After school she did a degree in fashion and textiles at Liverpool John Moores University.
“I loved it,” she says. “But afterwards I was totally burned out and decided I needed to step away.” She became an art teacher and had two children but all the while found the time to paint. “In 2014 I decided I was split in too many directions. I took the plunge and became an artist full time. I wanted to show my girls they could carve their own path in life and that sometimes it is worth taking a risk.”
Words: Diane Wardle Photography: Clive Doyle
Using techniques that date back hundreds of years, Susie Gillespie weaves linen into subtle patterns.
Deep in the Devon countryside, a weaver 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.
Inspired by the past
Weaver Susie Gillespie has long been fascinated by archaeology, an interest reflected in her work. She worked at the Oxford Archaeological Unit for several years. “I was keen on doing conservation work but I struggled with the chemistry,” she says.
It was during this time that she fell in love with Coptic textiles. These Egyptian fabrics are some of the oldest known surviving textiles and can date from as early as the 3rd century AD. People were often buried in these fabrics, which then survived because the dry climate helped preserve them.
As a child Susie loved making things with her hands. Working in archaeology failed to fulfil her need to be creative. Instead, she decided to study a degree in Structural Textiles at Leicester’s De Montfort University. “Textiles brought together all my feelings about making things with being creative and artistic,” she says.
Her BA was followed by an MA in Woven Art. Then, in 1995, a grant from the Theo Moorman Trust for Weavers helped her set up in business. She bought her first loom and since then has gradually built up her practice.
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.”
Her woven fabrics are influenced by her enduring love of the early textiles. Like her own work, these were mainly woven in linen with small areas of pattern. “I love the heavy plain linen tunics the Coptics wore and the detailed intricate tapestry bands around necks and arms,” she says. 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.
“They are all materials which carry a human element, things that are worn out and have a feeling of history and of people in the past,” she explains. “I am very keen on simplicity and use mainly plain weave with everything done by hand.” Pieces often look slightly aged, in a muted range of colours. “I’m drawn to subtle colour palettes as I love things that look old.”
Most of her pieces are woven in linen. “It’s perfect to work as it’s strong and I can use it to get the tension really tight on the loom,” she says. She appreciates its sheen and the way it can look different depending on the light. Her preference is for hand-spun linen yarn as this contributes to what she describes as ‘the clothiness’ of her weavings. “You lose all the subtle variations of colour and texture with machine-spun yarns,” she explains.
To get everything exactly as she wants it, Susie now produces some of her own linen for her artworks. She is unable to make enough for all her work, however, so still has to buy in yarn. Hand-spun linen is not easy to source, which is why she was delighted to find an antique batch in a derelict weaving shop some years ago.
All her work is woven on a pine floor loom, measuring approximately 6ft 6in (2m) wide and the same high. Before starting on a new piece, the loom has to be set up. First job is to tie in the warps, the parallel yarns that provide the structure of the cloth. Each one has to be threaded through a heddle. This is alooped wire or cord with an eye in the centre which a warp thread passes through. There is one heddle for each warp thread. Threading them can be a time-consuming job as one of Susie’s cushions has 300 warp threads.
When all are in place, they run from the back to the front of the loom. The threads are tied onto the warp beam at the back of the loom and a wooden bar, known as a cloth beam, at the
front. It is a day’s work to set up a loom to make a 14in (35cm) wide cushion cover.
The weaving is done using her feet to work floor pedals. These move the different shafts, which separate the warp threads to create a gap known as a shed. It is through this gap that the shuttle is passed. The coloured weft is wound on to the shuttle. As it is passed along the loom the thread unwinds, leaving a line across the warp threads. The weft is then pushed down by a beater, which Susie pulls towards her. It is then passed back the other way, gradually building up a dense structure of thread running over and under the warps.
A different weft thread is used to introduce a new colour. Each new colour or weft in the pattern is on a separate shuttle. A cushion cover can take up to two days to weave depending on the amount of detail. When the weaving is finished, the piece is cut off the loom.
The loose warp ends hanging from the weaving are stitched up to stop them fraying. Sometimes these ends are turned into decorative tassels. The woven panel is then hand sewn onto a piece of plain linen backing to finish the cushion cover.
Some weavers draw detailed designs before they start work, known as cartoons, but Susie prefers to work more instinctively. “Ideas on paper don’t translate particularly well into my weaving. They can help, but it is more a combination of having ideas and then doing it and seeing where it leads you,” she says. Working in this way allows her the freedom to respond to the material taking shape on the loom.
Her work is very much about the weaving itself, rather than designing. She takes pleasure in the actual making process. “I love the act of weaving, the slowness of its growth and the feel of the yarn on my fingers.”
Flax: from seed to yarn
Three years ago, Susie started producing her own flax to spin into linen yarn. She grows the variety bred for fibre, Linum usitatissimum. This has long stems, up to 3ft 3in (1m) high, and fewer seeds than the type bred for linseed oil. The flax is grown from seed in a polytunnel, which protects the long stems from wind damage. Planted in spring, it is harvested in August. Once harvested the plants are dried in the polytunnel for approximately two weeks. The seedheads are then removed from the stems with a comb called a ripple.
The next stage in the process is called retting. The stems are soaked in water, which encourages the pectins that hold the fibres to the woody core to break down so that they can be easily released. The retting flax must be carefully monitored. “You have to test it to see if the fibres are coming free but you can’t leave them in the water too long as they lose their strength,” says Susie. The process normally takes up to two weeks. Once finished, the stems are dried again.
The flax fibres are then separated out from the stems using a breaker. This wooden machine is approximately 3ft (1m) wide and resembles a guillotine. It crushes the wooden core of the stems, releasing the fibres. Any remaining woody fragments are removed using a wooden knife known as a scutching knife. The fibres are then combed through with a hackle to create a smooth length of flax, 25in (65cm) long, ready for spinning.
The yarn is wound onto a distaff, a wooden stick approximately 3ft long, and then fed onto the spinning wheel. Susie turns the spinning wheel with floor pedals while feeding the flax onto the wheel. The process twists the separate flax fibres into one continuous thread, which is long enough and strong enough to weave.
A self-taught spinner, she is fascinated by this ancient process. “I love spinning. It’s amazing to think that people did exactly the same thing in the olden days. My mother gave me a hank of antique yarn and it looks identical to the stuff I produce. It has the same texture and colour even though it’s over 100 years old.” As well as the pleasure she gets from the process, the hand-spun yarns add an important aesthetic element to her work. “I love using the linen I spin because since I’m not a very experienced weaver, my yarns are quite coarse and irregular. But without the odd bump you might as well be using machine spun yarn.”
Words: Diana Wardle Photography: Jeremy Walker
PAIR PRODUCE CURVED WOODEN BOWLS BURNISHED WITH PRECIOUS METALS
A bed of spiralling wood shavings forms a dome on the floor of woodturner Richard Mills’ workshop in Kent. Clamped to a motorised lathe is a partly-turned wooden bowl. A film of fine dust clings to the timber and tools on surrounding surfaces. The lathe clatters into action when the motor is turned on, and the bowl spins round rhythmically. More curled slivers of wood collect on Richard’s arm as he holds his bowl gouge against the revolving wood. The sharp point of this long scoop-shaped chisel slices small ridges off the timber.
In contrast, his friend and business partner Lenore Zavitz works at a quiet table in her home, 20 minutes’ drive away. Here, she gilds the wooden bowls Richard has turned and polished. The gold leaf she uses is delicate and ultra-fine, requiring a clean, moisture-less and draught-free space.
Richard has been woodturning since he was 12. “My father is a carpenter and I took an interest when he bought a lathe, so he taught me,” he says. During the day he works in the City of London. His evenings and weekends, however, are spent woodturning. His aim is to be able to pursue his craft full-time. “I love the beauty you find in wood,” he says. “I get to see all sorts of colours inside the wood that other people never see.”
Lenore trained at the London School of Picture and Frame Conservation. For nine years she worked as an oil-painting and frame restorer. The gilding techniques she uses on Richard’s bowls are those she uses on picture frames.
The pair met eight years ago, but only formed their company making gilded bowls in 2014. “When the economy slowed down, there wasn’t a lot of restoration work, so I was looking to broaden my range,” says Lenore. “Richard often gave me bowls as presents, and I thought they would be nice with gold leaf on them because curved surfaces complement the gilding best. He didn’t want me to cover the grain at first but, once he saw one, he was sold on the idea.”
The company’s name, Moth and Mirror, comes from the combination of wood and metal. “The moth represents the organic material, which is the wood, and the mirror represents the reflective gilding,” explains Lenore.
Sourcing the wood
They use a wide variety of woods for the bowls. Richard keeps an eye out for spare lumber from any trees he sees being felled. He points down the lane to a house where a large cedar once grew. “I used to see it when I was growing up,” he says. “Then one day I heard a chainsaw. It was being cut down, and the tree surgeon gave me some offcuts.”
Newly-felled wood is chopped into manageable pieces, which aids drying, and the ends sealed with paraffin wax. “Moisture escapes faster from the ends, so the wax enables it to exit in a uniform manner. That helps to stop it cracking,” says Richard. “Then I store it in ventilated garden sheds until it’s dry. It dries at a rate of about one inch every year, but that depends on species, thickness and conditions. A moisture meter is a valuable tool. If it has a moisture content of more than 15 per cent it will split and warp after it is turned.”
The majority of the wood he uses comes from timber specialists. It has been kiln dried and cut into rough rounds, called blanks, ready for turning.
The bowl Richard is creating today is made with wood from a London plane tree. This is known as lacewood, because the pale, intricate patterns in the grain resemble lace. “It’s gorgeous stuff,” says Richard. “I like the way the wood talks to you. You’ve picked the area you want to work, and dried it for several years. Then, as you’re turning, you come across defects and knots you want to cut out and others you want to keep. All that leads to the shape needed. I love big natural splits that happen in the growing. They add an eye-catching feature and make it unique. If the bark is nice, I might keep that as a natural edge on a bowl.”
Sometimes, however, a split can be detrimental. He has suffered a black eye and dented the workshop door when bowls have flown off the lathe when his gouge has caught a split in a piece of wood.
Turning the bowl
Richard’s bowls range in diameter from 3in to 24in (8-60cm). Once a piece of wood is dry, he cuts it into a rough circular shape on a bandsaw. The centre of the area to be cut is marked and a circle scratched with a pair of verniers, a measuring compass. Then the middle of one surface is flattened with a sander or plane. This will be the bottom of the bowl. A face-plate is screwed on to hold it on the lathe. This is only temporary and the screw holes will disappear when the inside is turned.
Most of the work is done using a sharp ½in (16mm) bowl gouge. For small bowls, a ¼in (7mm) gouge is used. To keep the tool steady, a hinged metal rest is fixed in place approximately ⅓in (1cm) in front of the section of bowl he is cutting. As he works, Richard pushes the shaft of the bowl gouge firmly against the rest with one hand. He holds the handle equally firmly with his other hand.
“A bowl is naturally pleasing to the eye, and I like them chunky with fat rims,” he says. This lacewood bowl measures 15½in (39cm) across. It will have a 3in (7.6cm) flat rim with a 1in (2.5cm) U-shaped rim in the centre of that.
Richard starts with the base. Turning on the motor, the bowl starts to spin. In the early stages, a slow speed is needed as the shape is uneven and rocks the lathe. The gouge makes a fast hissing sound as it slices into the timber. Shavings pile up as Richard moves the tool from the base towards the rim to form the bowl’s curved outer profile.
“I make small light cuts, taking off a very thin layer at a time,” he says. “Once it’s circular and smooth, you can turn up the speed, which allows a quicker cut.” He keeps refining it until he is satisfied.
Before the inside of the bowl can be worked, it needs to be reversed and clamped to the lathe. A chuck, a metal clamp with jaws, is used to do this. First an indent is cut in the base to hold the chuck. This will also act as a stand for the finished bowl. Richard cuts the recess with the bowl gouge initially. He then uses a skew chisel, which has an angled blade, to cut the inner edge with precision.
The surface is planed so the rim will be flat. Richard then digs out the middle. He makes deep cuts with the bowl gouge, working from the outside in. Once that is complete, he cuts a U-shaped channel within the wider flat rim of the bowl. This is the section that will be gilded.
Some of the bowls are fully gilded on the inside and some are gilded in special rims such as this one. “It’s simply a case of artistic preference,” says Lenore.
“Once I’ve finished with the tools, I sand the bowl, working through at least six grades of sandpaper from coarse to fine,” says Richard. “I hand-hold it against the turning bowl to remove tool marks so you see just the shape and grain.” A small cloud of sawdust forms around the bowl as it spins.
The friction created by sanding produces heat. Too much can cause micro-fracturing in the wood, which can not be eliminated, unlike some small natural splits, which can be glued. As soon as he feels his hand getting warm, Richard pulls the sandpaper away.
“Next, I rub on sanding sealant with a rag. That brings out the grain a bit more and fills any minor imperfections. When that’s dry, I go over it with very fine steel wool, then apply wax polish to help resist finger marks. I then hold a rag against the spinning bowl to give a high sheen. It feels like silk at the end.” The bowl takes up to five hours to complete.
“Turning is very therapeutic and relaxing,” he says. “My favourite bit is sealing and waxing it, because you really see the grain, which can be stunning.”
Now the bowl is ready for gilding. Richard and Lenore meet every week to discuss ideas and sketch possible designs. He nearly always has a batch of bowls ready for gilding. The actual number can vary from three to 20 a week, depending on their sizes.
There are two forms of gilding, oil and water. Lenore uses oil gilding. “I don’t do water gilding because it requires layers and layers of preparation using animal glue dissolved in water,” she says. “The advantage is that you can burnish it to a high sheen afterwards. But there is an extra cost for the time it takes.”
Oil gilding involves brushing oil size onto the dish or rim of the bowl. Size is a form of slow-drying adhesive made from boiled-down linseed oil, which has been used by gilders for centuries. “You leave it to go off for about an hour, though the time depends on environmental factors. I never gild on a rainy morning because it’s too humid and won’t go off. On a sunny morning, it can go off in 10 minutes.
“If the bowl is still too wet, the gold ends up a mess and will probably come off. If it’s too dry, it won’t adhere. I keep touching it until it just catches the skin. That’s when it’s ready. I use the back of my finger so I don’t leave prints.”
She uses 24-carat gold leaf, bought from British gilding suppliers, in 3in (8cm) squares. It used to be beaten with hammers until it was thin. Now, it is flattened with rollers.
“All the yellow gold I use is double thickness,” she says. “It handles better, doesn’t curl up on itself as much, and you get a better surface. But even that is so thin you can see light through it. You’re intimidated by the gold at first because it is the purest gold you can get.”
Great care is needed. Opening a door, laughing or coughing can cause the leaf to wrinkle or blow away.
As well as gold leaf, Lenore uses silver, copper and champagne gold. “The copper leaf is a bit thicker because copper is cheaper,” she says. “It has a warm smoulder as opposed to the flame that gold produces. Like silver, it needs sealing with clear gilding lacquer because it will go black exposed to the air. Champagne gold is 22.5-carat gold with palladium in it, and has a warmer hue than yellow gold.”
To gild the U-rim of the lacewood bowl, Lenore cuts the leaf into squares the size of large postage stamps on a suede gilding cushion. The cushion makes it easier to cut, and the leaf does not adhere to suede. She makes sure she never touches the gold by hand. “Getting to grips with not being able to touch it is very difficult. It will stick to your fingers and pretty much everything else.”
Instead, she uses small, flat, badger-hair brushes, called tips, to apply the leaf. “The gold has to adhere to the tip, so I put Vaseline on the back of my hand, then touch it with the tip before I pick up the leaf.” She lifts each piece and gently positions it in the U-rim. It clings on contact, but she uses a blusher brush to tamp it into place. This process is repeated until the rim is covered with gold, and takes over an hour. Two more layers are applied in the same way. The bowl is left to dry overnight between applications. The excess on the edge is removed carefully with a scalpel and steel wool.
Now, the wooden bowl gets its final polish. The base is then imprinted with their maker’s mark, a moth in a circle, using a specially-made branding iron.
“Gold is fabulously beautiful. If you leave it alone, it will be brilliant for hundreds of years,” says Lenore. “I start to move more slowly when I use it. There’s a delicate flow to the process that is quite meditative. We both have a similar artistic vision and a strong sense of what a piece is going to be like as soon as it’s on Richard’s lathe.”
The results are desirable timeless objects, handmade from natural materials using ancient techniques.
Words: Caroline Rees Photography: Clive Doyle