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Crafted in Kent: Gorgeous artisan gifts made locally

A willow-weaved animal sculpture by Natalie McLay. Photo: Trottiscliffe Willow
A willow-weaved animal sculpture by Natalie McLay. Photo: Trottiscliffe Willow

We embark on a journey to learn more about Kent’s fabulous craftmakers and discover just how magical life can be when looked at through the lens of someone who’s able to create something beautiful out of seemingly nothing.

For some, crafting is a journey of discovery. For others, it’s a way to express themselves and spread a little love and positivity. Humans have engaged with crafts throughout the ages, from cave drawings that depicted early teachings to blacksmiths who forged iron tools. Today it’s a practice that’s still very much alive and well, that connects us with our history and reminds us of the beauty that can be found all around.

With this in mind, we thought it was time to remind ourselves of some of the traditional crafts we may have forgotten about, and rediscover from these local craftmakers’ tales some of life’s simplest, yet most stunning gifts.

Great British Life: Traditional baubles created by Louise. Photo: LB Clay CraftingTraditional baubles created by Louise. Photo: LB Clay Crafting

For Louise Baldwin, two vital lessons she’s learnt through craft are the importance of determination and patience. Louise started LB Clay Crafting in 2019, after finding she could no longer continue working for her master’s degree in Mental Health Science.

‘In 2016, I developed autoimmune uveitis and scleritis of the eyes, which are serious inflammatory conditions, that made researching and spending long hours on the computer an impossibility, meaning I had to withdraw from my studies,’ Louise explains. ‘At the time I was devastated, but it propelled me to find something new to focus on.'

While waiting for laser eye surgery, Louise bought a potter’s wheel and some clay, taking it up as a hobby. Soon she turned her attention to clay hand-building and decided to start her own crafts business online. ‘It’s not always easy work, especially as my eyesight continues to deteriorate, but it’s something I’m driven to do and determined to stick at,’ she says. ‘There are days when I can’t always remain working when my eyes become too sore, but with the help of some handy tools – my magnifier visor and enhanced lighting – I’m able to continue hand-building my pieces.

‘Sometimes it’s more of a case that slow and steady wins the race, but I never give up. I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved so far and am currently enjoying expanding my crafts in decoupage and combining it with clay crafting and mixed media.’

Louise creates unique handcrafted clay products and designs made-to-order gifts and bespoke home decorative pieces - each one is a true labour of love.

‘It’s amazing working with people to understand what they’re looking for and getting to create something that can be cherished forever,’ she shares. ‘My work is incredibly rewarding, and I’ve found over the years that remaining calm and taking my time is the key to learning the refined techniques needed to produce more detailed work. It’s always great to hear back from customers just how much they loved a piece I made.

‘I’m also incredibly lucky to have the support of my family - my wife Sandra, our two grown children, and our beautiful dog, Sky. As most of my time is spent at home, it’s perfect to have my crafting to keep me busy and my family to keep me laughing. It’s these things I’m most grateful for and which matter most.’

Great British Life: Jessica enjoys wandering local beaches to source the materials for her jewellery. Photo: Sea Worn Jewellery Jessica enjoys wandering local beaches to source the materials for her jewellery. Photo: Sea Worn Jewellery

Spending time crafting can help people appreciate the little things in life and help them take stock of the beautiful places surrounding them. This is one lesson seaside goldsmith and founder of Seaworn Jewellery, Jessica Newby, knows well.

Jessica creates wearable treasures made from recycled silver and sea glass. Every piece of sea glass she uses is hand-collected and has been aged in the sea for at least 60 years.

‘I love that every bit is one-of-a-kind and gathering the material is the perfect excuse to take a wander along the beach,’ Jessica admits. ‘I adore designing jewellery inspired by Kent’s stunning coastline.’

Jessica has always been a lover of crafting, as both her parents are very creative, and were always making cards and gifts for family and friends as she was growing up.

‘I first got into jewellery making when I was supervising Carisbrooke and Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight,’ she explains. ‘I was looking for a way to relax and booked myself onto a weekend jewellery-making course. I loved every second of it and haven’t stopped creating since.

‘I’m constantly discovering new techniques, though by far one of the most difficult things to learn has been the need to slow down and not rush ahead. I’ve had to embrace the idea of not expecting too much from myself too quickly, as many of these skills take a lot of practice and even years to master.’

For Jessica, one of her busiest times of the year is the lead-up to Christmas, when she enjoys taking part in local market fairs. She’s hoping to appear at several Christmas markets this year, including the Brighter Days Markets at Turner Contemporary in Margate on November 18 and at Pierremont Hall in Broadstairs on November 25. She also plans to attend the WI Market in Dreamland on December 2.

‘As it’s just me running the business, there’s always a hundred and one little things to do, so it’s normally a pretty packed schedule, but I couldn’t imagine it being any other way,’ she says. ‘Even when I’m not at work, most of my hours are spent getting involved with something creative, whether it’s bookbinding, gardening, sewing or stopping by a local gallery or museum. It’s just what I love to do!’

Great British Life: Willow-weaved baskets made by Natalie. Photo: Trottiscliffe WillowWillow-weaved baskets made by Natalie. Photo: Trottiscliffe Willow

Sometimes crafting is all about discovering new passions and embarking on exciting journeys you may not have previously considered. This was certainly the case for sculptor Natalie McLay, who’s been running her weaving business, Trottiscliffe Willow, in rural Kent for almost seven years and in that time has never stopped learning and discovering new ways to do things.

‘I was first introduced to willow weaving over 10 years ago when I made a basket at a festival,’ Natalie reveals. ‘I truly fell in love with the craft, however, after I attended an animal sculpture workshop in Somerset. I then went out and bought some willow and began creating animals at home.

‘Before starting the business, I was a paramedic for 20 years, so it was a rather unexpected career change in my 40s, but one I couldn’t be happier for. Crafting has always been a favourite pastime of mine, but I had no idea before beginning this adventure that animals could be made from sticks!

‘For something that sounds quite simple, it’s surprising how much skill it takes. Every new animal I make requires different techniques and mastering a perfectly even basket is always one of the hardest things to get right.’

Some of Natalie’s sculptures can take up to several weeks to complete. The willow itself also needs to be soaked prior to use, which usually entails another few rigorous days of preparation. ‘I find working with such an incredibly versatile organic material is a great privilege. It’s also a very relaxing and therapeutic process,’ Natalie divulges. ‘Willow is an amazing plant. It has so many uses, not just sculpture and basketry crafts. Historically, it’s played a huge role in war efforts, has medicinal qualities and is used to make clogs, artists’ charcoal, cricket bats and even the bearskin hats of the King’s Guards.’

‘One of the best things about what I do is getting to host workshops and seeing people new to willow-making having a lovely day, learning about the material and creating their masterpieces.’

Natalie runs workshops most weekends at various locations around Kent and sometimes further afield. ‘When I’m not teaching, I’m at home working on commission pieces. Being a mum and walking my dog takes up a lot of what little spare time I have, but I’m always researching, reading, and exploring other willow-related crafts. Some may say I’m obsessed, but really, I just enjoy getting to spend my time doing something I love,’ she adds.

Great British Life: Peter has appeared on BBC One's 'Money for Nothing' previously and has more episodes in the pipeline. Photo: Peter Fournel Antique RestorationPeter has appeared on BBC One's 'Money for Nothing' previously and has more episodes in the pipeline. Photo: Peter Fournel Antique Restoration

This is certainly a sentiment shared by antique furniture restorer, Peter Fournel, who feels incredibly lucky to have a job that he enjoys.

‘I adore being my own boss and tackling the daily challenges that come my way,’ he comments. ‘The transformations I’m able to make to pieces can be spectacular, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see the results of your hard work.’

Peter’s foray into antique restoration began some time ago when he first realised office life wasn’t for him.

‘Antique restoration was something very different, and I liked the idea of working with my hands,’ he says. ‘I found out there were local courses for it and applied to Rycotewood College in Thame. I studied there for two years, earning a Higher National Diploma.’

Peter restores antique pieces of furniture to their former glory, preserves valuable heirlooms and breathes new life into old pieces that may otherwise be discarded.

‘Even now I’m always learning new things and it is a case of the more you practice, the better you get,’ he explains. ‘What I love most about the craft, though, is the variety – every job is different; some are straightforward, and others can be delicate and tricky. It’s astounding just how many designs there are for furniture. Chairs, for example, may seem the same, but when studied at length, you begin to see just how diverse their construction actually is.

‘Of course, it’s also important as well as being talented at what you do to be effective in business. It’s worth recognising your strengths and being honest about your weaknesses so you can work on them to improve.’

Peter has appeared on BBC One’s ‘Money for Nothing’ five times. In his first episode, which aired in 2019, he restored and reupholstered a chaise lounge.

‘It’s been incredibly exciting to be a part of the project and I’ve got some other episodes in the pipeline which I’m looking forward to,’ he notes. ‘I also attend The Weald of Kent Country Craft Fair at Penshurst Place once a year. It usually takes place on the first May bank holiday weekend. I’ve been doing the show for about 15 years. It’s great to chat with the public, meet other stallholders and get to talk shop and learn about what other people are doing and creating.’

And even if you’re not much of a crafter yourself, turning your hand to a small project or artsy hobby could open doors to a whole new world. It could leave you feeling inspired, help you escape reality even if just for a few short hours, or at the very least (if the creativity gene skipped your generation) produce some ‘interesting’ DIY pieces, great for a giggle at the next family gathering. After all, one of the most important things sometimes to remember in life is just to have fun!

 

Craft and creativity are no strangers to Kent...

  • Well of course as the Garden of England, the county is well-recognised for its number of hop gardens and rich beer-making heritage. Shepherd Neame in Faversham is one of Britain’s oldest breweries.
  • The region is also known for producing some of the country’s best local cuisine from Whitstable Oysters to Romney Marsh Lamb and Dover sole. It’s also impossible to ignore the plethora of orchards teeming with apples, pears and cherries which bear some delightful baked crafting results. It’s believed Henry VIII coined the name ‘The Garden of England’ after sampling a plate of Kentish Cherries and enjoying them so much.
  • Lots of famous creative faces have lived in Kent from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. It’s at Down House that the naturalist Darwin wrote his theory of evolution ‘On the Origins of Species.’
  • Dartford was also the hometown of Rolling Stones musicians Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.


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