During ‘Lockdown’, my cousin Amanda, a follower of my Tea Towel Blogs, wanted to give me a tea towel that would inspire an interesting, topical, and possibly controversial, Blog. She sent me a tea towel from the Florence Nightingale Museum, designed by Alison Gardiner, about nurses; this was the time we were all ‘clapping for carers’. My view was that if you ‘clapped for carers’ this should be something you remembered for a very long time; ten weeks on your door step wasn’t enough and, therefore, everyone should have one of these tea towels. It was a windy day when I photographed this one!!
A friend of mine described my trips on YouTube as ‘following the rabbit warren’ and so it is with tea towels. This was a great tea towel but the style was very similar to an Advent Calendar I had. First I had to delve through my Christmas decorations, and yes it was by Alison Gardiner. Then I was distracted by her website. This was a woman who designed a lot of tea towels; this was a woman I’d like to interview in In Conversation With… And here we are……
I am always interested in how tea towel designers describe themselves and how they got started:
“I would describe myself as an illustrator. I originally studied printed textile design at West Surrey College of Art and Design, however whilst still at college I started working for a greeting card publisher designing cards. Having left college, I worked as a freelance designer of fabrics, magazine illustration, children’s books, cross stitch and tapestry kits. I have also exhibited my paintings at a few one-man (or should I say woman!) shows. Then, in 2000, the National Trust commissioned me to design and produce a range of mugs for them which led to over 50 designs. That is the point of when I took control of producing my own work.
By 2010, I joined up with a partner to grow the business rather than being a sole trader. This enabled me to take on more production and expanding my designs onto more products. We have also taken on distribution of another companies products – German Advent Calendars and party masks – so this has expanded our business being a one stop shop for store buyers looking for Christmas products.
We now produce a whole range of products which are all made in UK: mugs, plates, teapots, tea towels, Advent Calendars, Advent candles, notebooks, coasters, bookmarks, fridge magnets, rulers, postcards and prints, tote bags and jigsaw puzzles”
So, do you have any favourite products?
“I don’t feel there is any one product that I have a preference for but the Suffragette/Votes for Women range is one of my favourites. I went to a couple of talks during the 2018 Centenary (one given by the Great Granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, where I presented her with a mug!) And discovered more about the incredibly brave and inspiring women who were Suffragettes. It has made the design take on a more poignant significance. This year I have slightly adapted the design for the US market (changing colours and wording on placards) as they celebrated winning the right to vote in 1920. During Lockdown we kept on our five members of staff and concentrated on boosting our online sales. Fortunately we sell to a few online catalogues in the US, and Amazon. Not surprisingly, we found our jigsaw puzzles very popular during the Lockdown and had a huge increase in sales.”
How do you see things in five years time?
“I don’t like to think that far ahead. I suppose I’d like to keep building on the foundations, expanding sales in the US. We used to have a shop but now only sell via Trade fairs, direct online sales and occasionally I take on personal commissions”.
And your interest in tea towels?
“My mother used to hang a tea towel, with plastic rails on top and bottom, above our breakfast table. She would change them as she bought new ones. (This seems like a good idea, might try it myself). I especially loved the Lucienne Day designs (I wish she had kept those) in 1960s. (For anyone who knows me, the mention of Lucienne Day sent me off down the ‘rabbit warren of tea towels’ and I discovered ‘Night and Day’, designed in 1962. That’s the sort of tea towel you should never throw away). These were replaced by Pat Albeck’s designs for the National Trust in the 1970s. I remember looking at the tea towels over breakfast around the age of 7 or 8 and being inspired, feeling that I wanted to be a tea towel designer when I grew up!! There was a link with Pat Albeck in that she studied at Hull Art School at the same time as my father (who studied Exhibition and Interior Design). So I grew up knowing and admiring her work. As my father was a designer, we grew up with contemporary furnishings, including Jacqueline Groag and Lucienne Day curtains and clearly these designs had a strong influence on me which led me to study textiles.
The themes of my tea towel designs have come about to match the mug designs, apart from one or two. Some of my main customers have been Cathedral shops hence the Clergy, Monks, Pilgrims and Chorister designs. This originated from a commission by Portsmouth Cathedral for a mug to commemorate the installation of their new bishop…. Ten years later I supply most of the Cathedrals in England, either with bespoke designs or from our regular range. Other bespoke tea towel designs have developed from Advent Calendars I designed for Blenheim Palace and Highgrove.
This can be quite tricky to limit the colour palette to seven colours for a tea towel, whilst keeping to the original work.
Lastly, my favourite tea towel design again is Votes for Women…. often give them as gifts to male my male friends!”
Thank you, Alison, for a really interesting story. I’m left wondering which Pat Albeck tea towels were hung in your kitchen, maybe I’ll just imagine. I’m going on your website to look for jigsaw puzzles because I am one of the people that have taken up jigsaw puzzles in ‘Lockdown’!