Former head of design at Liberty Fabrics, Emma Mawston has relocated to Somerset. We embrace her colourful arrival and hear all about her creative collaborations across the West Country


On the day I drive to meet designer Emma Mawston in her new home town of Somerton, rain is pouring down in great sheets of water making it hard to distinguish between the grey sodden tarmac and leaden skies. Emma’s front door however is a welcoming pop of bright green amidst the gloom and as I enter her warm – and mercifully dry - hallway I am engulfed by waves of colour from brightly-patterned cushions and upholstery covered in flowers, trees and bees. It is like stepping into an indoor meadow - hardly surprising given this is the home of the former head of design for Liberty Art Fabrics. Emma warmly greets me with apologies for her noisy and exuberant dogs and ushers me into her drawing room, painted a deep and peaceful green. A table in the corner is scattered with designs, not only of her latest collections but from her time at Liberty and as an art student. The story of her life as a designer told on scraps of paper embossed with bright colours and patterns.

Great British Life: Emma Mawston and Will Bees Photo Emma MawstonEmma Mawston and Will Bees Photo Emma Mawston

Emma moved to Somerset over the summer, after nearly 20 years in London but has immediately been made to feel at home by her Somerton neighbours. The shop next door has been supplying her house-renovation workforce with refreshments, they have been thrown a welcome party and she has been bowled over by the kindness of strangers. Despite her recent move out of London, Emma is no stranger to West Country life, having been print designer for the Devon-based business Will Bees Bespoke. Will Bees (yes, his actual name) traditionally crafts unique, handmade accessories with embossed leather, personalised in his Salcombe shop while you wait, or ordered online. The pair met at Chelsea Flower Show and soon embarked on a collaboration that has produced a series of collections, each with its own story and inspired by nature, flora and fauna, with a strong focus – naturally – on bees. Emma says: ‘We all work as a team discussing the designs. Will and I are both craftspeople in the way we work, and I can’t think of a more lovely company to work for than Will Bees Bespoke.’

Great British Life: Emma Mawstons designs at Somerton House Photo Emma MawstonEmma Mawstons designs at Somerton House Photo Emma Mawston

The bee theme is apparent in their first collection, ‘Bumblebee Garden’, an initial foray into the world of pollinator planting and the stunning gardens of the South West, hand drawn in Devon and Cornwall and then painted on to paper handmade in Somerset. Emma’s designing is labour-intensive and carefully constructed, ensuring that the story of the end product is told in chapters. Indeed, Emma describes herself as a ‘textile novelist’. She says: ‘Exploring so many different design concepts while I was at Liberty led me to where I am today and enabled me to be the textile novelist I have become. People often say my style is very Liberty, but I actually created that as a Liberty style when I was there. It is very flattering that it is considered so archival.’ The entire creative process champions the cause of pollinator planting, natural beekeeping and bee guardianship.

Following in the footsteps of this bee-and-flower-theme, in order to derive inspiration for her second collection (aptly called ‘Bee Story’), Emma invited 24 gardening collaborators in the form of bee ‘guardians’ from across the country, including Somerset’s very own Forde Abbey, to choose two of their favourite pollinator flowers. Emma then created a hand-cut paper flower garden using these pollinators, which was subsequently arranged into beautiful fabric repeats on sumptuous and high-quality Italian velvet, all interwoven with different types of bees.

Great British Life: Emma Mawston designs Emma Mawston designs

It is Emma’s third collection, however, that seems to instil the most pride in the designer. It is called ‘Women and Bees’ and brings together over 25 female bee saviours, conservationists and keepers, all of whom were asked to choose not only the trees and flowers that they felt were best for pollinators, but also the variety of bees whose cause they wanted to champion. The collaborators all have one thing in common – a great love of bees and a desire to convey an important environmental message about bee guardianship through the planting of pollinator flowers and trees. The trees that were chosen inspired Emma’s design of ‘The Bee Tree’. Here the different trees are woven together with their flowers and – of course – a number of different varieties of bees, each with their minute but marked differences. Once more, this design and its final product – as well as it’s sister collection ‘Bee Meadow’ (created to promote the planting of meadows) - have been honed and crafted like a work of art over several months from conception to creation. The designs end up not only on plush velvet in the form of bags and cushions, but also on lampshades and fabrics.

Emma believes such close collaboration gives the design integrity. The Women and Bees collaborators have come from every corner of Britain and include such luminaries as beekeeper Jilly Halliday from Tresco in the Scilly Isles, Somerset-based award-winning garden and bee writer Jean Vernon and international bee expert Paula Carnell, who was recently head beekeeper at The Newt in Somerset. Paula says: ‘I decided to take part because I loved both Emma's work and Will Bees Bespoke products. As soon as Emma shared her idea for the story of beekeepers woven into a fabric design with our favourite bees and plants, I couldn't wait to get involved, as well as connect and meet the other bee ladies. My favourite bee has to be the brown banded carder bee. And dandelions produce my favourite variety of honey, so it was easy to pick!’ Paula has lived in Somerset for over 30 years. She says: ‘I started beekeeping 13 years ago, and that gave me greater awareness of the landscape and plants in my environment. I love all the blackthorn and hawthorn in the hedgerows to feed my bees, as well as the brambles. Somerset is known for its willows along the levels, a fabulous early pollen and nectar source for bees. That would have to be the ultimate Somerset and bee connection.’

Great British Life: Emma Mawston's Art Table Photo Will Bees BespokeEmma Mawston's Art Table Photo Will Bees Bespoke

Back in Somerton, Emma is not only focusing on future designs for Will Bees – 2024 sees the 200th anniversary of the RNLI and the team are working on a vivid commemorative design that incorporates iconic seafaring and coastal imagery – but also her ongoing house and garden project, a labour of love. Built in 1820, the house was once a bank and still has vaults in the cellar. It is slowly being transformed into a family home. So too is the garden, which will feature a ‘London Wall’ of plants that Emma brought from their previous city home. Emma says: ‘Although I am still a novice when it comes to bee knowledge, my garden will be planted as a haven for all pollinators, especially bees. Through my collaborators and design research I have fallen in love with so many flowers and trees that I might have otherwise overlooked.’ Of Somerton itself, Emma truly feels that she has arrived at her forever home. ‘We really feel that we belong here and that all roads have led us to moving to Somerton, which is one of the most lovely, welcoming and beautiful places.’

Great British Life: Emma Mawson Photo Imogen YeomanEmma Mawson Photo Imogen Yeoman