Aunt Emily

Emily Bowyer Hammel was my father's older sister. She was the dearest person I've ever known. Over several adolescent summers, she patiently taught me how to sew and how to cook. I loved her. Sadly, she has been gone these few years and I miss her very much. However, I am carrying on her legacy of sewing and trying to carry on her legacy of caring.

Friday, August 21

Book on Laura Ashley

I'm just full of info today!!!

New book about Laura Ashley and her fashions. I'm a fan, this book sounds great. Review is from the Telegraph in the UK, visit link by clicking on title. No info on a North American publication date. Will have to watch for it.

Archive adverts and designs from 1970 to the early 1980s

It’s probably not right to speak ill of the dead, nor to harbour long and festering grievances towards a woman whose only real crime was to imagine that knickerbockers made from brown jumbo cord could ever be flattering, but, nevertheless, Laura Ashley has a lot to answer for. Before I even start on my floral-sprig-related issues, there is the fact that I blame her for my failure to pass my needlework O-level back in 1975.

When, at school, it came to deciding what kind of garment we would make in our timed practical exam, all the sensible girls chose undemanding shift dresses and simple shirts with minimal detail. Not me. I had developed a huge and irrational fashion-crush on Ashley’s Victorian- and Edwardian-inspired blouses, across whose dazzling white fronts cavorted every bit of fancy sewing trickery imaginable, from pin-tucks to pie-crustfrills, from cascading ruffles to buttons so tiny they were barely visible to the naked eye. A less sadistic teacher might have tried to dissuade me, but Mrs Brown was a dysfunctional sociopath who flossed her teeth with pinking-shears. And, anyway, I was bullish about my capabilities. How hard could it be?

Virtually impossible, as I discovered three hours later. When the teacher spat out a mouthful of pins and witheringly called time, all I had to offer was a half-finished cuff, with no sleeve and the main body of the blouse still in pieces. I was, like the reel of grubby white cotton thread criss-crossing the classroom floor, totally unravelled. It wasn’t so much the certainty of exam failure that upset me, as the fact that I wouldn’t have a lovely blouse to wear, like the models in the romance-drenched Laura Ashley advertisements with the flossy back-lit hair, the parasols and the wistfully dangled trugs heavy with cornflowers and wild poppies. For a girl from the wrong side of Birmingham, where the mention of leg-of-mutton sleeves in public would almost certainly earn you a slap, this was an intoxicatingly different, feminine look, and I wanted some of it.

Undeterred by my F-grade shame, by 1976 I had set my sights on an empire-line maxidress, replete with lace trim, abundant ruffles and ribbon ties. There was no way I could afford Laura Ashley prices (£2 for a dress? No way!), so I had to put in serious face time with

my cranky old Singer, a modified Simplicity nightie pattern and several metres of striped and sprigged cotton bought from a discount warehouse round the back of the Bullring. But it came as a harsh blow when it was made patently clear to me at the youth club disco that this wasn’t the style to go for, aged 16, if you wanted to pull boys. In retrospect, I can hardly blame them. One minute girls were wearing sexy, thigh-skimming Mary Quant miniskirts and tight jumpers, the next they’re dressing like Mrs Bridges. Even Pan’s People, gyrating on Top of the Pops in the early 1970s wearing Ashley’s high-necked green maxidresses, were hard-pressed to muster much sex appeal out of all that chaste, frilly yardage.

But this is where Laura Ashley identified her strength as a label; filling a gap in the high-street market that wasn’t catered for by the funkily streetwise Barbara Hulanicki or Mary Quant, with their racy hemlines and youthful hot pants. Her clothes were for ordinary women, but they carried in their abundant floral folds the promise of some bucolic idyll far removed from the urban cool of Biba. And Ashley was a shrewd commercial operator. It was no mistake that the launch of her romantic Victorian- and Edwardian-inspired ranges coincided with the huge popularity of such television series as The Forsyte Saga and Upstairs, Downstairs, followed by Brideshead Revisited in 1981, and this appetite for nostalgia and a dream of country living was massively profitable. 'We find anything with a nostalgia about it sells; it’s always a winner,’ she said in the mid-1970s. 'They’re not particularly clothes for making a splash in a dramatic place; they’re simple garments to wear at home, and when you get home perhaps you need the security of nostalgia.’ She neatly summed it up by often reminding her staff, 'Now, remember, we’re in the camouflage business.’ (Ironic, then, that one of the most famous photographs of the 1980s showed Lady Diana Spencer, then a nursery assistant, wearing a transparent Laura Ashley skirt. Not much camouflage going on there.)

Laura Ashley’s outlook wasn’t always so prim. In the early days, when she and her husband, Bernard, first started producing prints from their kitchen table in Pimlico, they came up with boldly geometric designs that would bear little relation to the chintzy conservatism for which they became famous.

With no formal training or design experience, they produced block-colour screen-printed table-mats depicting vintage cars, cinema posters transposed on to tea towels, and uncompromisingly modern furnishing fabrics for hotels, universities and cruise ships. One such fabric (for P&O) was a fabulously directional black and white design showing a detail of Humphrey Lyttelton’s jazz band – a keyboard, drums, double bass and trumpet valves. Not a meandering rose frond in sight.

And so it might have remained had Bernard – spurred on by an impressive £2,000 turnover in their first year and the opening of their first shop, in South Kensington – not acquired the kind of sophisticated equipment needed to print the intricate feminine florals with which the couple made their name. As a young woman Laura had worked as a secretary in the handicrafts department of the WI, loving the idea of patchwork, but bemoaning the dearth of small florals and tiny stripes. Here was her chance to produce her own range. She described many of her designs as coming from 'my own special world of fruitful flowers, mythical animals and small geo-figurations’. Victorian end-papers provided a rich source of ideas, and often random finds – a detail from a Minton floor tile, or a fragment of broken china – inspired a print.

Archive adverts and designs from 1970 to the early 1980s

Right up to her untimely death in 1985 Ashley was a private woman, unshowy and homely, with a lifelong love for Wales, where she was born and spent a great deal of time with Bernard and their four children. She was a charitable and maternal employer, and would often serve up apple crumble and custard to her staff at design meetings. Despite this homespun image, she was driven and commercially astute: when she died the business had a turnover well in excess of £100 million and more than 200 shops around the world, and employed more than 4,000 people. With the successful launch of a Home Furnishings Room Planner and catalogue in the late 1970s, Ashley revolutionised interior design for the ordinary shopper. She replaced the limp parsimony of the preceding years with swaggy, billowing decadence.

Who knew curtains could require so much extra kit? Swags, tiebacks, pencil pleats, pelmets with fringing and matchy-matchy trim. Distressed gold finials, anyone? Ashley introduced curtain porn to the high street and, boy, were we grateful. After several decades of embracing the chintz-slip-cover and bolster-cushion excess endorsed by Ashley, I now like to think I have moved on to things more minimal and pared-down. And yet I seem unable fully to banish Ashley’s presence from my life. We bought our current house off a woman who had worked for an interiors magazine in the 1960s and 1970s and had been an enthusiastic champion of Ashley’s work. So it was hardly surprising to find, at our first viewing, that virtually every wall was covered in prints ranging from mildly noisy to downright deafening. We recoiled, mimed violent trajectory vomiting and resolved to redecorate immediately. Ten years on, just one room – my study – remains in its original state. Far from finding the mad riot of pink climbing roses disturbing and inconducive to normal neural functioning, I have come to regard it as strangely calm and comforting. If wombs were subject to interior design makeovers, this is surely what they’d wear on their walls.

I thought I was over Ashley, but she is all over my room, so clearly I’m not as sprig-purged as I thought I was.

'Laura Ashley’ (Frances Lincoln, £35), by Martin Wood, published on 10 September, is available from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1515; at £31 plus £1.25 p&p

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