by Faith Eckersall
Her textiles tap into the national craze for all things vintage; reviving memories of bracing swims, Blytonesque picnics and days out on the pier, and they also tap into the craft boom. But Ann is ahead of the game in another area, too. She is one of Britain’s estimated 400,000 ‘olderpreneurs’; the one-in-six new business owners who started up after scoring their half century.
Her design company Cockles and Mussels officially began in 2007 when she decided to see if the images she’d painted of the Dorset coastline near her home could be transformed into fabrics.
Ann and her husband, Mark, were idling on the beach at Bournemouth that summer when they noticed a family; “Sitting on the municipal deckchairs, their bags all around them, staring at the Isle of Wight.
“I remarked that they must have checked out of their hotel because it was the end of their holiday and they were just lapping up the last few hours of sun before they had to go home,” she remembers. “I thought it was such a shame they couldn’t take the deckchairs with them as a kind of keepsake, and wondered if I could paint views of coastal beauty spots and transpose them onto deckchairs for people to buy.”
The idea was one of several she’d been toying with following her early retirement after a hearing problem made teaching young children too difficult. “I couldn’t hear what some of them were saying!” she says.
Ever since quitting art college to have her family, Ann had always hoped to earn her living from her talents but was realistic about the income. “I’d done study after study of Avon beach near here and knew I could sell them as paintings but it takes hours to produce just one and you can’t possibly make a living out of that,” she says.“I knew there must be a more commercial side to it.”
After spotting ‘a rather splodgy’ orange and brown painting at Southampton City Art Gallery, Ann had her brainwave. “I thought that would make a fantastic rug which you could sell in Marks & Spencers and realised that textiles are a way of re-selling the same image over and again.”
Armed with her sketches of Mudeford Quay -- her favourite weekend stamping ground -- Ann researched UK textile design. “I think this point was the real difference between the dream and the reality,” she says. “I had to find someone to print the designs and learn how to do the layouts.”
After studying screen printing at art college, Ann hoped to be able to use this technique but found it totally impractical with the colours and the way she wanted the fabric to look. “In the end it didn’t work with all the detail in my scenes, so I opted for digital printing instead,” she says.
Her first products were the deckchairs which she had made up by Dorset Enterprises, which employs skilled disabled workers to make its products. However: “They were bulky and expensive to despatch, so I started looking around for other things to make.”
This search lead to her creating more mail-friendly items, such as bags, tea-cloths, key fobs and cushion covers. Ann also realised the value of adding to her range, creating a design starring Mark’s old VW camper van and one featuring ‘The Old Gaffers’, her affectionate tribute to the red-sailed yachts that stream out of Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. “For some reason that design really seemed to strike a chord with my customers, they always want to know more about them,” says Ann.
Family life, both now and in the past, inspired other designs. “I remember being driven through Canford Cliffs in Bournemouth and being told ‘That’s where Max Bygraves lives’ or ‘Mantovani (the conductor) lives in that house’.” Memories of this encouraged her to include ‘a tiny glimpse of Max Bygraves’ and a Beverley sister (Joy Beverley was married at Poole) into her ‘Sandbanks’ design.
‘Smugglers Cove’ nods to the influence of the Dorset-based writer Enid Blyton, featuring a parrot, Ann’s family dog, and an affectionate portrait of Ann’s mother in full 1950’s garb. Bournemouth Pier is all pastel stripes and wavy blue seas and Seaside Express celebrates the days when steam trains such as the Bournemouth Belle opened up the routes for holidaymakers to enjoy the resorts along the British coastline, complete with donkey rides and Punch and Judy.
However, all businesses must expand and adapt to grow and after a stint basing her store above the Save The Children shop in Lymington, Ann felt inspired to launch another creative enterprise; boutique handbags constructed from charity-shop tweed jackets, reclaimed leather belts, silk ties and old shirts.
This enterprise started because: “I really can’t bear to see anything chucked away,” and because: “In trying to design the label for Cockles and Mussels I soon realised how difficult it was to come up with exactly the right look for the words and the background and felt I couldn’t bear to see labels thrown away and unappreciated!”
Deciding that some embroidered labels were simply too nice to discard, she started trawling the charity shops for shirts that were going for rags. “I bought them and cut out the labels and any other useable bits for handbag linings,” she explains. Silky, colourful and with whimsical embroidered lettering, the labels became part of the handbag lining, stitched over with the name of her new label ‘Shirt Off His Back’ over the front.
Her dream is to open a small manufacturing base, employing: “Out-of-Work teens and injured ex-Service people.” But, until that time, she will continue to sell over the internet and at exclusive sales.
“You do learn a lot along the way and one of them is that the designing part of designing is the smallest bit,” she says. “Sourcing, connecting and selling is the biggest part but if it combines the things you love doing then it’s definitely worth going for.”
And with a seventy per cent success rate for businesses started by the over 50s - compared to 28 per cent for younger start-ups - the future looks as bright and optimistic as a Cockles and Mussels design.
*For more information go to http://www.cocklesandmusselsdesigns.co.uk