In 1974 I was asked if I had any ideas for items for sale for our local charity stall that friends were setting up together at a local country horse fair. It didn’t take much thinking about........
The year before I had moved from London to a place in the country near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, England, specifically to work on setting up a charitable organisation called Green Deserts which had a very strong ecological base added to high idealistic concepts - the refertilising of desert wastelands using natural energy technology combined with organic husbandry.
Bury St Edmunds is a small market town set in rural East Anglia and being a girl from London I was fascinated by the auctions in the livestock market area. Halfway through the market day on a Wednesday morning I would join in the bidding in what was known as the deadstock auction, mostly bric-a-brac, items from house clearances, old bicycles, pieces of furniture, all sorts were sold under the hammer for very little money. Carpets and mirrors were my fascination and I would go home with two or three each week. I didn’t really have any idea what to do with them until the local fair came along and I thought I could make a few bags for the stall in aid of the Charity Green Deserts.
I took the old pieces of carpet along to the only launderette in the town at the time. In the corner front window of the shop stood two of the largest washing machines I had ever seen. The friendliest of lady attendants used her knowledge of laundering and carefully washed the pieces of carpet for me. I took them home and hung on the washing line to dry in the orchard of the farm house where I was living. Of course they took an age to dry but once they did they had been transformed into a wonderfully soft luxurious deep pile fabric.
Just before I left London a very creative friend had rescued an old treadle boot makers sewing machine off of a skip in the street and given it to me and somehow it had worked it’s way to Suffolk with me. With this and the carpets I set to making the simplest form of bag to allow for the limitations of the carpet material and the sewing machine. I could just about manage to sew one seam before I had to rewind the bobbin, re threading the machine was a tricky business aided by a long hooked piece of wire. It was laborious but the beauty of the machine was that it could stitch through several thickness of carpet. Once I’d mastered the technique I sped along and made about twenty bags all the same basic shape but all variant in size and type of carpet, some were soft Belgian cottons whilst others were thick Wiltons and Axminsters with the odd Persian carpet thrown in of which I had little knowledge. They were a delight to work with, such interesting designs and all so different, when I had finished stitching them up I just sat back and feasted my eyes on the plethora of colours. I called in two good male friends who helped finish the bags by banging in heavy duty sale eyelets that I had and we threaded through a solid rawhide belting similar to that we use today and thus the “Cosmic” bag, as it is known today, was born.
At the Bungay May Horse Fair my selection of Cosmic bags went on to the table of Green Desert’s stall for sale. It was a glorious English summer weekend and a good time was had by all. My one disappointment was that only one bag had sold and that was to the friend that was helping man the stand! There had been plenty of interest in them but I had no idea how to cost them so I had priced them according to the ones I liked best in increments of £2 from £2 to £20. Cheap at the price I had thought.
Not to be defeated the next day I took the selection to London and sold half to Liberty of Regent Street at the other half to Harrods all for £10 each. A week later I had a call asking for more.
One room of the farm house was given over to the making of these individual items and after a few weeks I asked two sisters from the local village to help with the making of the bags, and began collecting old pieces of carpet. I loved to see the transformation from an almost unrecognisable dirty old piece of carpet to a beautiful patterned rich pile fabric carpet bag. Recycling was a concept dear to my heart and fitted in very well with the ideals of Green Deserts and it was very pleasing to pull a piece of discarded carpet from a rubbish heap and wash it, make it into a bag and sell it to the top stores in London.
Over the years it became increasingly more difficult to find the old pieces of patterned carpet people were becoming accustomed to and so we moved into making bags using tapestry material that we bought on the roll. It was the closest aesthetically we could find to carpet. Also known as upholstery or furnishing fabric it needed some strengthening to compete with the carpet bags. We found a method of laminating the tapestry which made an incredibly strong fabric, hard-wearing but very light in weight. We had great success with this and launched into clothes and especially waistcoats which became very popular at the time. We launched a whole trend in the tapestry bag market and found our designs and even the fabrics we were using being copied by the big stores. We were proud of the fact that we were a small cottage industry making everything locally and individually as this fitted well with our basic ecological philosophy and in those early years we were a basic support business for the charity.
Some years later, as we expanded, we came across the carpets we currently use. They are copies of old Persian silk rug designs and made from cotton and viscose giving them a wonderful silky sheen whilst maintaining durability and lightness. We still craft each item individually in outworkers homes in Suffolk andfrom our home base in South Norfolk we have our office, run the website and mail order side of the business, alas the recycling aspect of the business has sadly gone but we maintain high standards of workmanship and materials and still produce unique hand-made quality items that are functional, pleasurable and a sight to behold.
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