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Day return to Milan: From design to Liberty fabric

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Early on Tuesday last week, I flew out from Gatwick with my three fellow #Liberty Open Call winners to Gorla Minore, near Milan, to visit Olonia Stamperia, the factory where Liberty prints many of its fabrics. Things were about to get real. We were going to see our Open Call designs transformed into Liberty fabric!

Olonia Stampera – the Liberty factory

We arrived just in time for an Espresso and Liberty biscuits with two of the designers that we’d met during our initial visit to Liberty London and some of the Italian design team.

They gave us a bit of background about the factory – it’s been there since 1969, and as well as printing Liberty designs on their famous Tana Lawn – a cotton fabric that behaves like silk – it produces materials for other high end companies, including Versace. The factory is committed to sustainability – it doesn’t use toxic dyes or heavy metals in the print process.


The factory tour that followed was fascinating. We saw how Liberty uses traditional screen printing and digital technology to make designs come to life and watched the whole process from colour mixing, though to printing. Once the fabrics have been printed, they are conditioned and washed, before being stored in giant rolls, ready for dispatch. Because of commercial sensitivities, unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any photographs, although we are promised some from Liberty, which I’ll add here if I get them.

After a delicious lunch – a pizza washed down with a nice Sardinian beer – we got down to business with our own designs.

Lunch over: Back to business

Liberty have made two designs from the image that I entered into the competition – one with chimneys and one without. They will be produced as separate Liberty fabrics for their 2019 summer collection. They are going to be called ‘Duncan Grant’ and ‘Small Town’.  For our visit, the Liberty designers had prepared a series of ‘strike offs’ for each winning design. A strike off is a print sample that is made to check design and colours before bulk printing is done.


For each of my designs, the team had produced about ten different ‘colourways’ on Tana Lawn and silk, with two versions of each colourway in contrasting intensities. We discussed our own and each others’ designs with the team – which ones we preferred, which ones we weren’t so keen on. But the final choices about which colourways will make it to production and onto the shelves, is down to the Liberty buyers, who know their customers and the wider market, as well as what will be ‘on trend’ for 2020. They will produce fabric in at least one colourway from each of our designs – so at least two for me – more if they really like them and think they will sell.  I haven’t heard yet which have been chosen but a camouflage treatment and a bright orange print seemed very popular on the day. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Left home at 3.30 a.m. back home at 10pm. A long but exciting day. I wonder where this journey will take me next. Watch this space!


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Nursery tales and ink drawings

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I find children’s rhymes quite fascinating – they are still one of the few things that pass down through the generations by word of mouth.

Before modern media and even widespread literacy, these rhymes told stories, shared humour and conveyed  warnings and moral guidance across populations. These same messages persist today in the rhymes that parents teach and their  children learn by heart, even though they probably give them little thought. And as I’ve found out that is probably no bad thing!

It’s been fascinating to unearth the kernels of truth that lie behind these rhymes (or the romantic interpretation) and to try express some of them in my drawing.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells,
And cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row

 There are several interpretations of what this nursery rhyme means. The most grizzly (and the one I’ve gone with in my drawing) concerns Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. She was a staunch Catholic, it is said that she persecuted, tortured and murdered many Protestants, earning her the title of ‘Bloody Mary’. The ‘garden’ in the rhyme is the ever expanding graveyard. Silver bells and cockle shells are  torture devices – look them up – and the ‘pretty maids all in a row’ are prisoners lining up to be executed at the ‘Halifax Gibbet’, a kind of guillotine.


Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?

There is speculation that  this also refers to ‘Bloody Mary’ blinding and executing three Protestant bishops, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, but they were burned at the stake, not blinded. It could be that their ‘blindness’ refers to their refusal to embrace Catholicism, but the whole explanation is a bit tenuous as the mice in the rhyme were maimed but not killed, and the first known date of publication of Three Blind Mice is 1609, well after Queen Mary’s death.

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells at Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells at Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell at Bow.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Chip chop chip chop the last man’s dead.

Just a lovely rhyme about the different sounds of church bells around London, right ….until those last three lines. Various theories have been put forward about the meaning of the sinister ending, ranging from child sacrifice and public executions to Henry VIII’s marital difficulties. But no-one really knows. The lines were added later and don’t appear in earlier published versions of the rhyme.

Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Again, there have been many suggestions about what this rhyme could mean. In Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meaning of Nursery Rhymes (2008) the author suggests that the rhyme records the attempt by King Charles I to reform the taxes on liquid measures. He was blocked by Parliament and so ordered that the volume of a Jack (1/8 pint) be reduced, but with the tax remaining the same. This meant that he still received more tax, despite Parliament’s veto. Hence Jack fell down and broke his crown (many pint glasses in the UK still have a line marking the 1/2 pint level with a crown above it). And Jill came tumbling after is then said refer to a gill (or 1/4 pint) which also reduced in volume as a consequence.

Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.

Mulberries do not grow on bushes.  They grow on trees. Local historian R. S. Duncan (no relation!) suggests that the rhyme originated with female prisoners at Wakefield prison. A cutting was taken from Hatfield Hall in Wakefield and grew into a  mature mulberry tree. Prisoners exercised around the mulberry tree in the moonlight.


You can buy my original ink drawings or prints made from the originals in the Gallery on this website. Search ‘Nursery Rhyme Series’.