Emma Dolan is a Leeds-based contemporary textile artist who creates adorable teacups and saucers from iconic fabric known as ‘Harris Tweed’. Her unique cups won the ‘Best New Product’ award at the Scotland Trade Show, and I was fascinated by her creations, and went along to her studio – in a lovely converted mid 19th Century schoolhouse – to find out more.
Tell me about your creations
I make dainty tea cups from Harris Tweed. They are purely for decoration, and are inspired by a variety of traditional tea cup designs – from Charles Rennie Mackintosh through to Wedgewood. Mass-produced cups and saucers used to be based on the designs of tea dress fabric, so I love the circular idea of these tea cups being made out of fabric.
Emma has extended her range to include funky lampshades like the one above
How did you get into this very niche area?
To be honest, when my children had gone to school, I was determined to avoid doing something I didn’t love. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was clear about what I didn’t want to do. And just around this time, the idea for my business came to me.
The island of Harris in the Hebrides, home to Harris Tweed (image courtesy of Emma Dolan)
I have been visiting the Hebrides in Scotland for many years. Mackintosh imagery is everywhere, and Harris tweed is the fabric of choice there. I am a collector of china, and one day my love of ceramics, and of the island of Harris, and my design experience seemed to come together into this sudden urge to make a fabric teacup! Although I am a surface pattern designer by training, I hadn’t done any designing for 10 years, and I surprised myself by how clear an image I had in my head of what I wanted to create. And so my first Mackintosh-inspired teacup was born!
Your studio is full of retro toys, old furniture and nostalgic knickknacks. What has inspired you to gather it all?
I love mid 20th Century design, and am a bit of a hoarder. I collect things – homewares, packaging, everyday objects and like to surround myself with them. And I use the furniture to display my creations.
My image of Harris Tweed was a heavy thick fabric, usually grey or brown, that my granddad would wear. How have you worked with it to create something so delicate-looking?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with white Harris tweed, but it is extremely rare. In order to be authentic ‘Harris tweed’, the fabric must be woven in a weaver’s home on the island of Harris.
Traditionally the weavers have always been men, and every length of fabric they weave has to be quality approved by the Harris Tweed Authority. So I took myself on a research trip to Harris to source this fabric, and called in at one particular mill there.
Emma was captivated by the beauty of Harris, in Scotland (image courtesy of Emma Dolan)
Quite by chance I stumbled into the middle of a business meeting where the Mill Director was present. I explained what I was looking for (and why) and to my delight he gave me a roll to experiment with. It is about £25 per metre so this was a very generous gesture. The woman in that meeting was my very first customer. I had no idea how much to charge her, so I asked for £14. She gave me £40 instead, and in that moment taught me to value my work properly. We are still in touch now.
Emma in her studio – a converted schoolhouse dating back to circa 1870
What is your favourite part of your job?
I love the making part. The business side is necessary, but I would rather someone else did my admin!
Where do you sell your work?
I sell it directly via my website and through high-end retail outlets (such as museum shops), and I also take commissions.
How do you juggle work and family life?
My studio hours fit around school hours. I do the admin side of things at home, and concentrate my time in the studio on making. Given the nature of my creations I can pick up where I left off – with cutting or sewing etc – and am not limited by the kind of time constraints (firing, drying etc) that are associated with traditional ceramics. This flexibility is a real benefit of working for yourself.
Emma and her family visiting Harris in Scotland (image courtesy of Emma Dolan)
What is your next big dream for your creative business?
To drive across America with my family teaching teacup workshops.
To find out more about Emma visit her website here.
[This interview was first published on Do What You Love on October 20, 2011]