Every inch of Jemma and Craig’s garden shed is in use: wild splatters of Irish seaweed and gouache are strewn across the ceiling; jars filled with fine-toothed combs and paint-stained brushes clutter the shelves; and rows of mesmerising sheets covered in vivid, intricate patterns suspend along the back wall. Setting up a marbling business in their Wiltshire home was an unexpected necessity made ever possible by social media (and visits from long-distance admirers).
Words below by Jemma.
I have always loved paper. When I was very young, I would make handbags out of paper by stapling together a folded piece of A4 and adding a paper strap. The best part, though, was decorating it with pens and paint! My favourite day at Art Foundation was the day we focused on surface decoration, and I always wish I had found a degree more suited to this rather than textiles, which I ended up studying.
I was born in Northampton but moved to Wiltshire when I was eight. I lived in Norwich for the duration of my textiles degree before returning home to Wiltshire, where I now live with my husband, Craig, who works with me full-time. It had always seemed to be on the cards that we would return to Wiltshire.
‘I’d like to think I’m more experimental with colours and patterns – bringing marbling into the 21st century.’
Ten years ago, I never would have considered that home would also be work. The decision to set up the marbling studio in my garden was fairly sudden, born of necessity to allow me to carry on marbling after being trained locally. I had been working at a bookbinders when an opportunity arose to learn marbling from a well-known marbler, Ann Muir, and I knew this was going to be the craft for me! I worked with Ann and her assistant for several months before setting up my own home studio. This was sooner than I had ever expected to set up my own business, as the bookbinders soon went into administration and Ann had sadly passed away a few months before. But I had fallen in love with marbling and knew I wanted to continue, even though there was still so much I had to learn.
Today, I marble in the traditional way and don't do much differently to how it was done hundreds of years ago. I do like to think I am more experimental with colours and patterns. Bringing marbling into the twenty-first century.
The workshop was designed my myself and my father. Now, ten years down the line, I am pleased to say that I think we did a pretty good job. There is not too much I would change. More space would be ideal, especially more worktop space as we often find ourselves moving things from one worktop to another and then back again! But, I am not sure I would want to move away from working in our little log-cabin at the bottom of the garden, just the two of us. It feels quite quaint but I think it fits perfectly with what we create. We often say, providing you have internet and a local post office (or courier willing to collect), you can work anywhere.
We have split the room into a few different zones. One side is for marbling and washing down the papers; this is the workshop’s messy side where paint splatter is thick and covers the ceiling! I use watercolour gouache and an Irish seaweed called ‘carragheen’ (this is the ‘size’) to float my paints on. Then, along the back wall we have our drying racks. Around to the other side, we have a large shelf full of marbled papers, an area to press the sheets, and some space for packing. In the middle of the room, we have a desk and a large worktop where papers get prepped prior to marbling.
I find inspiration everywhere, particularly colour combinations. I am working on a new collection inspired by a recent trip to Northumberland. It’s often the case that we don’t know what we are going to end up with until we begin the process. I don’t really record ideas on paper and I learnt early on that for me, where marbling is concerned, it’s better to work through ideas physically than to try to write them down.
I enjoy visiting London, but never had any urge to live there – though sometimes I do wish it was easier for me to meet up with London-based customers face-to-face, and attend more city events.
We get into the workshop about 9:00am and take all the papers down from the drying racks, created from the day before. These get lightly ironed and pressed. We do some admin over coffee then get stuck into some packing orders. We then start marbling, often after lunchtime, and often work on papers for different orders at a time. I would say we now seem to spend more time on packing! But things are also a little different in the run up to Christmas as we spend more time making marbled baubles and gift tags.
About half of our orders are requirements for our standard range patterns; the other half are looking for something custom, and for this we work towards their brief, often developing new ideas as we go. We always end up with far more than we ever send to the customer, but I enjoy the process of developing the designs organically. My favourite part always is lifting the sheet from the size – what I like to call 'The Reveal' – it’s often the part that people most enjoy watching. It’s a bit like a magic show; a blank sheet of paper can suddenly have the most intricate design on it. The least enjoyable part for me is the setup, which requires getting everything working together just right. It’s a balancing act and can be very time consuming.
I am always striving for a better work life balance. But, when I go into the workshop at 10:00pm to check that the papers are drying and end up checking emails and experimenting with something new, when I should be going to bed, I guess that is never going to happen!
‘If you are creative and willing to consider self-employment, then there are better opportunities now more than ever.’
Year by year, it’s an industry which is becoming more popular. I am seeing more marblers, bookbinders, calligraphers, paper cutters, and origami artists than ever before. I think this is greatly helped by social media, which is the perfect platform for creatives. We love Instagram and have been able to connect with so many wonderful people, many of whom we end up meeting in real life. We are grateful that customers are always keen to visit us and the studio. A few people came all the way from Australia and still found time to come and see us on their visit.
We have been lucky enough to work on some amazing projects with diverse clients. I suppose many of my favourites have been the unexpected ones, where the client is trying to bring marbling into the mainstream. A recent project which we had a lot of fun with was creating custom artworks for the book Useless Magic by Florence Welch.
Being more rural doesn't have to feel like you are cut-off from the world and potential customers. I would certainly say that if you are creative and willing to consider self-employment, then there are better opportunities now more than ever. That we get to work from home – I can't imagine having to travel to work anymore. If we have a productive day here and manage to finish a little earlier, there are some beautiful dog walks right on our door-step.
Favourite way to start the day: Being woken up by Milo the cat and Charlie the dog.
Favourite way to unwind: Glass of red wine and a good film.
I hope driverless cars become a practical reality in my lifetime.
Published on: 8 April 2019. Edited by Fields in Fields. All images courtesy of Jemma Lewis. ▪ Visit jemmamarbling.com.