Thursday, 21 April 2016

Laura Ashley and Pretty Floral Home Accessories

I've just finished reading 'A Life by Design', a biography of Laura Ashley, written soon after her tragic fall, from which she never regained consciousness, at the age of 60. 

I read the book when it was first published in 1990 but at that time, I read it from the point of view of a Laura Ashley Home Furnishings customer, having used gallons of Laura Ashley Navy paint in the refurbishment of my Edwardian home in Norwich. I even painted the outside of the re-sprayed, genuine ball-and-claw-footed bath that we found in an outhouse when we bought the house. 

And here's the 'Laura Ashley Navy' front door of my next (Victorian) home!

But this time around, I read it as a designer, more specifically a surface pattern designer with a strong interest in designing textiles for fashion and home furnishings.

And it was as if I was reading it for the first time. So many things jumped out at me that hadn't really interested me back in 1990.

First and foremost, I was quite shocked to read that Laura Ashley wasn't exactly a designer! Neither she nor her husband, Bernard, could draw and of course, they started their business well before the days of computers!

The legendary little 'sweater scarves', table mats and tea-towels that they printed on the kitchen table of their Pimlico flat in the 1950s, ('fixing' the colour by baking in the oven, where some fell down and burnt!), these small items had bold geometric shapes a patterns, which was all that their rather primitive printing equipment could cope with.

But they sold well, because Audrey Hepburn had popularised the 'sweater scarf' in the popular film, 'Roman Holiday'.

However, Laura was already intensely interested in tiny floral printed and striped fabrics. She had worked as a secretary at the National Federation of Women's Institutes and when she visited one of their handicraft exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert museum, she realised that women were capable of working at home to produce textiles that were of museum standard. She was particularly struck by the patchwork and scoured the shops to find suitable fabrics so that she could make her own while awaiting the birth of her first child.

As we moved through the 1960s, fashion trends changed dramatically. Out went the full skirts with hooped petticoats and in came the mini-skirt and sharply cut dresses and coats with geometric patterns. In case that was before your time, you can get a flavour of the era HERE 

And it was in 1968 that Laura Ashley - or rather, Bernard, her husband, opened their first dress shop, selling dresses that were almost shockingly different! Bernard oversaw the printing, dealt with the marketing and business side of things - so, given that she was not a designer, in the usual sense of the word, what part did Laura play?

Well, she did supervise the making up of the garments in Wales and researched patterns to use, spending a great deal of time in libraries and museums, pouring over antique pattern books and so on. 

But Laura's essential contribution to what was becoming a successful business venture, was her 'unique idea'!

Coming from a Welsh non-conformist background, Laura Ashley had her 'puritanical' side. But she was also a romantic, she loved the countryside and nature and she was more drawn to the fashions of bye-gone ages than to the current trends. She may have had some rather naive ideas about how a working farmer's wife would have dressed in days of yore, but her dresses were based on earlier styles and the fabric patterns were, at least to begin with, mainly historical.

She firmly believed that women were more interested in dressing to look beautiful than in following the latest fashions. And she also took the view that the more you cover up - long skirts, long sleeves etc - the more alluring you will be! 

Put those two beliefs together and you have the classic Laura Ashley dress of the late-Sixties and Seventies. 

'Pretty but Prim' would be how I would describe those early dresses that turned the Laura Ashley brand into household name. 

I remember my first visit to a Laura Ashley dress shop, when I was staying with my sister-in-law in Oxford - to me it was heaven on earth! In fact I never bought a Laura Ashley dress because I loved dressmaking and made my own in similar styles. But I do still have a full-length Laura Ashley nightdress, complete with pin tucks, tiny, concealed, pearl buttons, and lace-trimmed high collar and long sleeves. It's somewhat the worse for wear now but somehow I don't want to turn it into a cleaning cloth so it stays at the bottom of my drawer!

Looking back, it seems strange now that the only fashion choices at that time were limited to 'bold geometric' or 'romantic with frills'! Today's fashion trends are far more eclectic so that you could almost believe that 'anything goes'. 

But even so, I think those two main, sharply contrasting, trends are still around.

Alongside the 'funky', 'quirky', sometimes bordering on 'outrageous' fashions, you only need to delve into Pinterest or visit an online store such as Etsy to see that nostalgic, romantic and downright 'pretty' is still as popular as ever.

Of the two design strands, the nostalgic, vintage 'look' is easier to live with in the long-term. Eventually, in the 1980s, Laura Ashley branched out into Home Furnishings. I'm only surprised she left it so long. 

I used Laura Ashley Brick Red wallpaper on the staircase, above the dado rail, in my Victorian home in Hereford. 

And the colour was the perfect backdrop for the pictures I hung on that wall. 

I also still use a Laura Ashley tea-cosy! Like all of her products, the quality is head and shoulders above most others.

Sadly, I've never found a good replacement for my Laura Ashley heavy cotton lace curtains, that looked fabulous, hung over slimline, navy blue Venetian Blinds, in three different homes, from 1987 - 2013, when they finally started to fall apart, as you can see by the hole down near the hem!

Bright, bold and minimalist is exciting, but perhaps more suitable for clothing than for home furnishings, which we expect to last somewhat longer than a dress, bought and worn today, possibly discarded a few months later! That is not to say that the more 'modern' style doesn't look great in an office building or a city apartment.

But for a home, especially a period home, the vintage, 'shabby chic' is much more comfortable to live with, day in day out, for a number of years.

I'm far from suggesting that we decorate and furnish our homes as faithful replicas of times gone by. But our surroundings do affect our mood and some of the more outlandish patterns currently available seem to have an almost 'aggressive' feel to them. Whereas a few 'pretty things' can soften the edges of our daily existence.

So here are a couple of my Home Furnishings Collections - not exactly 'Laura Ashley' but also based on floral designs and patterns -

100+ Floral Coffee Mugs - some ready to personalize:

Click on the image below to see the full Coffee Mug collection -

100+ Floral Pillows or Cushions - arranged by colour:

Click on the image below to see the full Pillow collection -

And just by the way, a floral mug or throw pillow or cushion, would make a wonderful Mother's Day gift or a birthday present for your mother!

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