A passion for Letterpress printing with Mabel & Co

A passion for Letterpress printing with Mabel & Co

Social media can bring many gifts and discovering the new and unusual is one I never tire from. It's not often I get obsessed with brands but you will see why it's easy to with Mabel and Co. Makers and printers of our newly designed soap boxes and the handwritten Just a Note cards I send in every order.
This edition of Un Common conversations is guest edited by "The Curiosity Gap" blogger Galina Achkasova-Portianoi.
Please introduce yourself to the Skin Alchemists Following:

Hello, we’re James, Katie & Mabel. Katie was until recently a primary school headteacher; I’ve been too many things to list and Mabel has always been a cute Lhasa Apso pup, who sleeps on the countertop, but is secretly in charge.

Where does your passion for traditional printing practises stem from ?

When I was 19 or 20, I bought a six-volume set of books on printing and running a print shop, printed in 1933. I vividly remember sitting in the garden reading them. Quite what this says about me and my younger days I’m not sure, but I think it planted a seed that would sit dormant for 20 years. When we started our studio, we knew that we wanted letterpress printing to be a part of that, but I don’t think we anticipated that it would become such an important aspect. However, our interest grew and our customer and clients enthusiasm for what we do increased in tandem.

What are the main principles underpinning Mabel & Co business model ?

We unashamedly put the principles of the craft, sustainability & design first - literally everything else comes down the line. For us it isn’t about creating a product to a price or designing something for ‘a market’. Instead, we make what we like, in a way that we like to do it, using quality materials. We then put the finished product out there and offer it to people. Some don’t get it at all (including members of our own families!), but we are blessed that those that do get it, really get and love it. It’s not a route to riches, but it helps us sleep at night.

You are a man who knows how to use his hands to make and fix things. You are fixing an old loom and the treadle print. In the past your hands restored a boat. Tradition and nature are clearly important to you – do you feel like you are a minority when it comes to traditional practises and putting your hands to good, practical use ?

Well, I’m only a novice learning and there’s so much to learn. Like many people for years my work was largely head, book and computer-based and I still use every one of those each day, but there’s this missing link for me if you’re not using your hands. And as I started to get to know people who had worked with their hands all their life, I realised that there was so much experience out there, untapped and frankly unvalued.

So for the last few years I have tried really hard to explore this world of material transformation - be it paper, wood, fabric or metal. Hopefully, as Mabel & Co develops, it will be this space in which we can explore all these things and, when we have got them right, offer the fruits of our labours to others.

Recently Estee Lauder announced an Uber partnership, guaranteeing 25-minute delivery in some areas. It seems that consumers are becoming idler physically and tend to prefer to delegate physical tasks to others. How do you feel about speedy deliveries and wanting everything immediately? Do you think that traditional businesses like Mabel & Co, showcasing manual craft, old traditions and attention to detail & patience will remain relevant in the coming years ?

If it’s speed you are after, please don’t bother phoning us (although we do get the deliveries from our web shop out in a day or two!). Part of the gift that Mabel & Co is giving me – albeit it’s an on-going process – is the realisation that these things take time. Hidden inside me is a pretty frenetic person, who likes everything done today and now, but that’s just not possible when you are working with a press from 1860!

What kind of paper do you use to make your stationery and does it matter ?

It’s crucial, but also complex. In an ideal world I would use a handmade British paper, which gives outstanding results. However, it’s made from virgin cotton fibres, the pesticide heavy farming of which has a horrid impact on both cotton farmers and the environment.

The reality is that my ideal, a recycled cotton or linen paper doesn’t yet exist (although I know someone who is working on it) and for us sustainability and ethics come first, so we use a lot of UK & EU 100% recycled cards, as well as British FSC coloured cards.

What does sustainability mean to you in the context of sustainable living and business ?

As I already said it comes first. That’s not to say we’re 100% perfect, but when we are making decisions or planning products it’s the decider. Can we make this or that, using some form of sustainable materials? If we cannot, it goes on the back burner until we can

Do you think pandemic has made a significant difference to how and how much we consume things and how do you as business minimise ‘waste’ and negative impact on the environment ? 

The pandemic I think has had an impact, although like all things I suspect it has impacted different people in different ways. I would love to say that it has made consumers more interested in where their goods come from. I am sure that certain people have indeed become more interested in this, but has it created a cultural change? Sadly, unlikely. That’s a bit depressing I realise, but I think there is a lot of vested interest in getting us back to the status quo as quickly as possible and making the ‘new normal’ look a lot like the ‘old normal’. We’ll see, time will tell.

For us the pandemic has been a huge time of change, we have taken on a shop on the coast in Thorpeness, Suffolk, where people can come and observe us print, see what we make and why. Katie has also come to join me full time, all of which is hugely exciting.

Waste is something that weighs on my mind. We don’t generate vast quantities, but any activity that changes one material into another usually creates a side-piece that has no immediate use. Likewise when we set up the presses we always generate prints that are stepping stones to the one’s we are happy with – it is the process.

The good news is that our waste is easily recycled and was usually recycled beforehand, so it’s ‘closed loop’. But nonetheless we’re looking for creative ways of finding another use for it and have shelves of thins strips of paper and card that will become something!

When it comes to your own shopping practises, what informs your choices - be it in food, clothes or home/lifestyle ?

So clothes are easy - we only buy second-hand or occasionally make them ourselves or buy from craft makers. That’s something we have been doing for years (maybe even decades now). Food wise we try to buy as much as possible organic and local, ideally both – we’re both veggie. We don’t fly etc, all the usual cliché things I guess.

I think for me it’s about dropping this idea of entitlement. It’s really interesting because the media often portray the younger generation, the one after Katie & I, as somehow being entitled ‘snowflakes’ – a horrid expression. And yet when I look around it seems to me that it was and is the generation ahead of us, our parents, who have the idea that we are entitled to a certain lifestyle, no matter what the environmental or social impact. To me young people just feel they are entitled to inherit a planet that isn’t dying. Our own generation is stuck somewhere in the middle of this uneasy mix, with us seemingly going one way or another. Of course all this is a horrendous generalisation; you get many older people who are passionate about the environment and young people who couldn’t give a damn!

What is your favourite product in Mabel & Co e-shop and which one are you most proud of creating ?

Well, if I am honest, it’s always the latest thing and that’s true in this instance, but actually for a good reason. We set out wanting to offer a sustainable set of writing paper and matching envelopes, but quickly realised it didn’t exist! So we ended up making one, using 100% recycled paper from Stoney Mill in Aberdeen, where they have been making paper since 1770.

We custom cut the paper and then send half to Yorkshire to be made into envelopes by a small-scale producer. Once they are back with us, we make our own recycled boxes, wrap it in recycled tissue paper and letterpress an information card and label. We’re really proud of the way they look, work and the environmental credentials and I think they prove a more positive future is possible and doesn’t have to be ugly!

What are the books or TV programmes that made a lasting impression on you in the last year ?

We don’t watch a huge amount of ‘normal’ TV anymore, but we do really enjoy following along with YouTube vlogs of people living in unusual places or doing interesting things. These sorts of videos can be a double-edged sword, as you can get a bit envious that you are not living in a tent on a raft in Sweden (My Northern Story), or opening a café on a canal boat (Holly – The Café Boat), but they do also remind you that such things are possible and done by normal people, just like you and me. It stops your mind from closing off possibilities, even if your own adventure is very different.

Why should consumers choose to support smaller businesses, rather than large or well-known businesses ?

A lot of damage happens in the unknown & complex. We don’t know how our clothes are made and it is a complex process, so a lot of abuse of people, mainly women, can be hidden. We don’t know how our food is grown and the products sprayed on them are complex, so the effects of intensive farming on the environment can be hidden. Craft and small makers are knowledgble and so are their processes. People can come and see how we print things. I know where the paper and the ink have come from; I know that you can recycle the cards and things we make. You can come and speak to us and ask questions to fill in the unknown. Try doing that in Primark or Tesco. Small is beautiful and also might just be the answer.

What or who inspires you ?

So many things, so many people. William Morris of course, although he was imperfect in many ways. I have a huge respect for Greta, in part because of what she has achieved, but mainly because of her extraordinary strength and determination (snowflake, huh!?!). Various faith leaders, who I have met or read. But also the anonymous woman of mature years who, bent-double over a walking frame, takes tiny steps down a busy street to pick up a paper or a loaf, what incredible courage.


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