Crafty old Sawbridgeworth

Bobin lacemaking

Bobin lacemaking - Credit: shutterstock

Julie Lucas seeks out three Sawbridgeworth creatives whose crafts have become a passion

The Tudor Gallery

The Tudor Gallery - Credit: The Tudor Gallery

From the architects who created the beautiful Tudor, Stuart and Georgian buildings to its ancient church and meandering river, there is plenty to inspire in Sawbridgeworth. The small east Herts town makes a good setting for anyone with a creative side.

The photographer

Gill Billington has had a lifelong interest in photography and after working as a pharmacist decided to pursue her passion as a new career in 2007. She now sells her work not only in Herts but to buyers worldwide. Her main interest is cars, particularly American models, but she also finds more natural inspiration on her doorstep. ‘I am always walking, so I take pictures down by the river and I’m fascinated by cloud formations, which I incorporate into a lot of my photography,’ she says. ‘Local people particularly like to see local images.’

Gill Billington

Gill Billington - Credit: Gill Billington

Billington (left) sells her work through the Tudor House Gallery, which, as well as showcasing a diverse range of artwork, sells contemporary and handcrafted gifts ranging from jewellery and glass to ceramics and prints. Visitors can not only buy one-off artworks here, but can also learn some of the techniques involved in making them in the many popular workshops held in the restored 17th-century building. The classes, which range from lino printing and photography to glasswork and jewellery making among others, are kept to only six to eight people. Gallery owner Peyman Akhondzadeh, who says he has fallen in love with Sawbridgeworth, explains: ‘The smaller the classes the easier it is to learn, but it’s a beautiful space just to be.’

The woodturner

For woodturner Nick Bright, part of the enjoyment of his craft is to take locally-sourced wood and create something beautiful. ‘I look for a good grain, in ash, maple, walnut and yew; basically anything I can get free. I know three tree surgeons and they keep an eye out for any suitable wood,’ he explains.

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Bright turns the wood into platters, bowls, and vases and has even designed a poppy holder for the Tower of London poppies that commemorated the 100th anniversary last year of the outbreak of the First World War. Using a lathe to shape the wood, Bright takes the grain and enhances it. ‘I don’t mind if it has a split, as I will make a feature of it. Everything I create is a one-off. I don’t like doing copies as it’s so difficult, and often I have to do five pieces to get a pair.’

Bright says he has always loved working with wood, beginning in furniture restoration which then evolved into creating his own pieces. As well as the creative side, he likes to talk to people who also have a passion for wood. Like photographer Billington, Nick’s work can be bought at the Tudor House Gallery in Sawbridgeworth, and he also does ‘the occasional craft fair, as every so often I have to get rid of it all’. He is passing his knowledge on to his grandson and has also introduced Scout groups to the skill. ‘One of my grandsons, he is 13, now has a basic knowledge. It’s not cheap, it costs around £1,000 to start off with second-hand equipment but it’s very therapeutic and stress relieving. You can just get carried away and not realise the time when you are at the lathe. To see what develops is very rewarding.’

The lace maker

Shelia Brown is part of the Wednesday Evening Crafters, as they like to call themselves. The group carries on the ancient art of making bobbin lace – creating intricate patterns by braiding and twisting lengths of thread wound on bobbins. But if you can knit, crochet or embroider, they will welcome you too.

Brown joined the long-standing group as a lace-making novice when she moved to Sawbridgeworth in 1976. ‘I thought the way to get to know people was an evening class and lace-making was the only thing that attracted me,’ she says. ‘It isn’t difficult, although it may appear to be complicated. If you can count to four and know your left from right, you can make lace.

Basically it’s a weaving process from which modern textiles are derived. We have a pair of threads that we weave through another pair and continue, just like a modern weaving frame. As you become more skilled you can then begin to create the designs.’

In the 19th century, different types of lace were made around Britain, with names such as Bedfordshire lace and Honiton lace from Devon, Brown explains, and enthusiasts draw on this history. ‘It can be relaxing, but you can also tear your hair out – but isn’t that the same with every craft? When I used to go to France I would always take a pillow and work. The French would be amazed to see an English woman working on ‘la dentelle’, French for lace.’ Brown has made many friends through the craft both at home and abroad and far from being a dying art she says lace is alive and well all over Hertfordshire. She has even passed on the skill to her daughter and granddaughters.

‘You find it goes down the generations. You may put it aside, but ultimately you come back to it.’ n

Inspired? – Get crafting

Fancy lacemaking? The Wednesday Evening Crafters meet in the Hailey Centre, Sawbridgeworth, at 7.30-9.30pm each Wednesday in term time. The group can provide equipment for beginners. For more information, email To have a go at woodworking, try East Herts Woodturning Association (to which Nick Bright belongs). See Tudor House Gallery is on Knight Street, Sawbridgeworth. For details of upcoming workshops, go online at

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