Blodwen: putting Welsh design on the map

Denise Lewis is on a mission to revive the traditional skills of rural Wales, finds Emily Jenkinson

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The Independent Online

'Blodwen' might be a common Welsh girl’s name, but there’s nothing common or run-of-the-mill about Blodwen, the online store, where traditional Welsh crafts such as clog-making, wood-turning, knitting, book-binding, weaving and other dying rural skills have been revived to produce a stunning array of goods, including sumptuous Welsh blankets made from local wool, hand-woven willow baskets and earthenware made in Wales’ oldest surviving pottery.

The woman behind the business is Denise Lewis, the latest in a long-line of strong Welsh matriarchs, who, two years ago, swapped a London-based 20 year corporate career in mobile telecoms for a return to rural life in the Cardigan Bay area of west Wales, where she grew up and now runs Blodwen.

“In the course of my travels around the world, it struck me that I’d grown up with craftspeople and artisans that could make as good, if not better, products than I was seeing elsewhere. I wanted to reconnect, showcase Welsh produce and talent to an international audience and try and put Wales up there alongside its Celtic cousins, Ireland and Scotland, who have done a brilliant job of promoting and nurturing their artisans, craftspeople and designers.”

Although Lewis mulled the idea over for ten years, it wasn’t until she came across her “flamboyant matriarch” grandmother’s handwritten notes, detailing how to make home-made hand and face creams, that she was spurred into action. “I started off by wanting to focus on the therapeutic stuff, but, as I realised there was much more to talk about, I broadened it out into a whole lifestyle brand. Now, I’m aspiring to be a Welsh Ralph Lauren - though I know I’ve got a hell of a long way to go.”

Retaining a Welsh identity is a central to the Blodwen ethos, says Lewis. “It’s a Welsh company, we are a product of rural Wales, we are Welsh speakers and we focus on Welsh craft and Welsh craftspeople – even our packaging and labelling is completely bilingual in Welsh and English. It’s important because the whole company is based on trying to revive and preserve traditional Welsh skills.”

But where do traditional skills such as clog-making, coracle-making (ancient one-person rowing boats) or basket weaving fit in a modern context? “We have a hugely rich cultural and historical hinterland that provides all these wonderful makers,” says Lewis, “it’s just a question of bringing a design focus.” How can this be achieved? “I’ve started this initiative with the Welsh West Wales School of Art’s textiles technologies people to map out the patinations of traditional Welsh blankets,” she explains. “We take examples of the ones we really like and develop them using contemporary designs, contemporary colours and perhaps softer cloths, so that you’re drawing on that hugely rich historical background, but making it relevant to today and today’s customer.”

There is a growing appetite for products that tell a story among today’s consumers, notes Lewis, who cites designs - featured on some of Blodwen’s tapestry throws - that can be traced to Amish communities in America, Patagonia and other far-flung places where the Welsh diaspora found itself. “People today are so much more interested in provenance. They’re moving away from disposable consumerism towards products which have quality. They’re more interested in buying things which are beautiful, which last, which you can hand on and which have an inherent beauty in them, and that’s what Blodwen is all about.”

By employing local Welsh craftspeople and designers, supporting dying industries such as textiles and pottery and engaging whole-heartedly with rural communities and organisations in Wales, Lewis is putting this oft-forgotten part of Britain’s design history and culture in the limelight, where – if the Blodwen range is anything to go by – I strongly suspect it will stay.

Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for the mydeco marketplace, an online shopping experience where you can search hundreds of home furnishings and accessories all in one place