Open Story

Lorna Wheeler Crafts

By David Prentice - Added 05/05/2014

Lorna Wheeler
Lorna and her husband decided to buy their house on the Isle of Scalpay while on holiday in the Western Isles. Initially intending to convert the property into a self-catering cottage, they quickly fell in love with the landscape and the culture, and so decided to keep the house as a holiday home for their own use. Following a burglary at their house in Yorkshire while they were up here decorating, the couple decided to hand in their notices at their respective jobs and move to the island indefinitely.
‘We both had excellent jobs back home, I’d worked in local government for twenty-odd years and Jezz had worked for Network Rail for almost thirty years, but there comes a time when money isn’t everything, and since the kids had grown up we decided that it was time to do something for ourselves.’
Eight weeks later the couple moved to the island. Despite the fact that neither Jezz nor Lorna had jobs waiting for them, Lorna says that everything about the move felt right:
‘Coming across on the ferry, I can only describe it as a weight being lifted, that we were finally here. We were fortunate in that we came here mortgage-free and were able to buy the house outright, and we both felt so sure that we’d made the right decision that we didn’t care what jobs we found, so long as they paid the bills.’
Lorna tells me that the drama of the Hebridean landscape and the constant presence of the sea were both huge factors in her enthusiasm for their new home:
‘Now I can’t imagine living anywhere that’s not next to the sea, I can’t imagine looking out my window and not being able to see the sea. I just love it, I never get sick of driving around the island, the light is always changing and so the rocks and the heather are different every time I see them. We’d both done a lot of travelling prior to moving here; we’d seen a lot of Greece and Europe, and I still say that the beaches here are the best I’ve ever seen. The only thing I do miss,’ she laughs, ‘are the trees. There aren’t a lot of trees here.’
The proximity of the sea and the beaches play an important part in Lorna’s artwork, as they are a source not only of inspiration, but also of the raw materials -driftwood, shells, slate and, sometimes, bones - that she gathers and transforms into the unique, handmade items which she sells from her shop, The Cottage Garden Workshop.
Speaking about her workshop, which she designed and built with the help of her friend and fellow craftsperson Karen, Lorna says that it naturally came about as a result of her intention of focusing more time on her lifelong passion of arts and crafts, something which was made possible by her move to the island:
‘I’d always been a hoarder, and I’d always kept things that I’d found on the beach as a kid. My mum was a seamstress and she made stuff with us when my sister and I were young. I’d always loved sewing so when I came here I knew that I wanted more time to put into my crafts. The only difficult thing was that I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, because there were people here already making and selling craft work. ‘
Aside from not wanting to encroach on the work being done by local artists, Lorna also wanted her own crafts to stand out, and she quickly found a unique and interesting way to solve both problems:
‘Nobody was doing anything with driftwood, and I had mountains of driftwood that I’d collected, and since nobody else was doing anything with it I started going to the craft fairs in Tarbert in the first year that I moved here. I’ve been doing it for seven years now and Karen had been doing it for five. The Cottage Garden Workshop came about because there weren’t very many craft fairs outside of the summer season. We decided we wanted something more permanent from which to sell the things we made throughout the year.’
Located a short distance from Lorna’s home on Scalpay, the Cottage Garden Workshop is open throughout the year and provides a space for Lorna and Karen to create, display and sell their work:
‘We (Karen and I) do different things; she has her felting, I have my driftwood, and together we both love sewing, and so we set up the shop firstly so that we wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes, and secondly, to be different. It works perfectly; we split the week between us in the shop and use our spare time (when I’m not working) to make our crafts.’
Since opening the workshop, Lorna has received an overwhelming response from both tourists and local people. The success in their first year exceeded even Lorna’s expectations, and signalled to her an indication of welcome from the local community:
‘We have been busier than we ever imagined. And the nice thing about that, for me, is that we haven’t just been busy through sales to tourists, but to local people as well. That to me is more important: it’s a different kind of success, and in a way it’s confirmation that you’ve been accepted by the local people. I’m busy right through the Christmas season with commissions and orders, and they’re all coming from local people. That to me is worth a huge amount.’
The success of her arts and crafts marks the realisation of a lifelong passion for Lorna, one which she wasn’t able to fulfil during her career in local government back in Yorkshire. Having spoken about the important role her mother played in kindling Lorna’s enthusiasm for sewing as a child, I’m keen to find out if her love of crafts stems from the same place in her background:
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘We were really poor, and even though we were really poor my parents always made sure that we had at least one holiday a year. It was camping, that was all we could afford, and when we went camping it was always to Scotland. I’ve been coming up to Scotland since I was a baby. We couldn’t afford to go to ‘paid amusements’ or anything like that, and so what my mum did was to take a cake tin and a second-hand book with us each time we went on holiday. The book would be on the subject of wild grasses, or sea shells or what have you, and we’d spend part of the holiday going out to see how many things we could collect and identify. My mum kept these tins until me and my sister were into our thirties, all these biscuit tins in the attic full of seagull’s skulls, eagles’ feathers and absolutely all sorts. So that’s where my love of collecting and hoarding comes from.’
‘On the making side, because we weren’t well-off, we often had to make our own clothes; my mum would teach us to sew clothes for ourselves, and so that sparked in me an interest in making things from early on. At Christmas time we’d make gifts for each other by hand, design and make our own Christmas decorations. Everything was home made because we couldn’t afford to buy them. That’s where it stems from, I suppose, I’ve always made stuff. ‘
Now on Harris, Lorna still collects and sources materials for her arts and crafts directly from nature. The enjoyment that she takes in making things for people by hand and the time and dedication involved signifies, in many ways, the continuation of a family tradition and the value that she places on imaginative and innovative ways of giving:
‘Even though I didn’t have a wealthy childhood, I had a fantastic, very happy childhood, and it was all home-made, hand-made entertainment. I suppose that’s why I’m having such a good time now, because in a different way I’m still carrying that on: I’m still collecting things, I’m still beach-combing and I’m still making hand-made gifts for people, even though I might never learn their names. I get such a buzz out of it,’ she says, smiling.
Lorna’s enthusiasm for the opportunity she now has to express her creativity far outweighs any desire on her part for profit:
‘I’m certainly not in it for the money!’ she laughs. ‘That’s one of the hardest things I’ve found; I went to university to study business and finance and then I was involved in business and finance throughout my career, but when it comes to pricing things myself, I’m rubbish. In doing the kind of thing I’m doing, you never get your money back, time-wise. You might have spent six hours making a cushion, say, what’s the minimum wage for example? And then the price of your materials? You cannot charge an hourly rate for the things you produce, so I find it very hard to get that price right. I’m permanently being told that I should charge more than I do. But as long as I cover the costs of the materials, and I make a little for myself on the side, I’m happy.’
While it may be time consuming, Lorna takes enjoyment in making each item and in finding new ways to make experiment with her designs and materials. The hook for her, she says, lies in doing something for the first time, every time:
‘Every single piece is unique. I source materials from all over; with my cushions and embroidery some of it has come from as far away as Korea, simply because I want it to be different from what I’ve made before. However, I’m producing on a small scale, and so I’m only buying enough to make one or two pieces. Even with a maximum of two pieces sourced from the same material, I’ll combine them with different materials or use them in different ways, so that each cushion is unique.’
‘In a similar way, each piece of driftwood I use is exceptional, because it’s shaped by nature and can never be reproduced in the same exact form. Nothing I make can be replicated on a large scale, and I like to think that that’s part of the appeal for anybody buying my work: they are getting something that is a complete one-off, and there’ll never be anyone out there who owns the same thing.’
I’m curious to find out more about the way in which Lorna uses driftwood that she finds and collects on the beaches of Harris to create the signs, clocks, lamps and other decorative items she sells from her workshop:
‘Some of the pieces may have been up on the shoreline and have been able to dry out naturally in the sun, whereas others I’ll find in the water and so they’re soaked through. I bring them home, wash them, and dry them out. Then you can either sterilise them with white spirit to get rid of any bacteria, or if the pieces are small you can put them in the oven and the heat will sterilise them. Then I sand them down.’
‘As for what happens next, again it differs from piece to piece. With some of the driftwood I’ve collected I’ll have an idea of what I want to do with it straight away, whereas I still have pieces that I collected five years ago that I still haven’t used because the right idea hasn’t come along yet.’
Many of the finished pieces of driftwood that Lorna uses bear inscriptions that range from the practical, ‘Please shut the gate’, to the inspirational. These may take the form of family mottos, which she does by commission, as well as quotes, proverbs, maxims and motivational standards for living. In much the same way as she gathers driftwood and other materials for her art, Lorna also travels everywhere with a book in her handbag, ready to write down the perfect inscription at a moment’s notice.
The way Lorna inscribes each piece of driftwood with her chosen message is suitably unusual, and one which I had never heard of before meeting her. Using a technique called pyrography (which literally means, ‘writing with fire’) Lorna applies a super-heated tool to the driftwood, burning the letters into the surface. By varying the temperature and the width of the tool, she can achieve a wide range of different shades and tones. Lorna is the only person on the island who uses this technique, meaning that each piece she sells bears not only a unique inscription, but also Lorna’s own artistic signature.
For most of the artists living on Harris, the natural beauty of the landscape is a constant source of inspiration and interpretation. However, Lorna’s artistic relationship with the landscape is itself unique, in that her art contains the landscape, rather than being a reflection of it. Everything item she makes is sourced exclusively from the island. What she offers to tourist is an opportunity to leave Harris with more than a souvenir; they are literally purchasing a piece of the island itself, labelled with the location and the time of year that it was found. As for locals and people living here, they have the chance to see their home reimagined through the eyes of an artist with a unique ability so detect the potential for beauty in the small, often neglected details that nature leaves daily along the shoreline.
The most rewarding experiences for Lorna occur when she sees that another person is just as engaged by her artwork as she is in producing it. These shared moments of enthusiasm are the reason that she resists the temptation to keep some of her favourite works for herself:
‘The buzz I get from creating things in the first place is when I see somebody who’s engaged and likes my work enough to buy it. Even if I’m madly in love with something I’ve made, I always want somebody to come in to the shop and love it as much as I do. I take far more satisfaction from that than I would by keeping it and putting it in my own lounge.’
By experimenting with different mediums, whether it be embroidery, pyrography, metal work or carving, Lorna is able to sustain a fresh approach and a level of innovation that might escape artists who dedicate themselves to one particular means of expression. Scornful of repetition, she prefers to work in phases, alternating between decorative pieces and ones, like the fishermen’s priests which she makes out of stags’ antlers, or the candleholders crafted out of whale vertebrae, which have a more practical function. Equipped with a wealth of raw materials and the imaginative capacity to ‘make something out of anything’, her output shows no sign of slowing down:
‘Personally, the quirkier something is, the better I like it. I don’t want to be tied to any one thing; I like doing different things and experimenting. Like anything in life, if you do the same thing over and over, it becomes monotonous and your creativity and your inventiveness suffer as a result. By working in phases with different mediums you find a way to keep your ideas flowing and it gives your mind a chance to keep coming up with fresh ideas.’
I ask Lorna if she has any favourite locations to visit to collect her materials and inspiration. She does, she says, but she won’t tell me! And maybe that’s for the best. Lorna has no pretensions to high-art, and aside from her skills at sewing, there is nothing in what she does that can be taught in a lecture theatre or a workshop. Her gift, and her talent, resides in her ability to observe what the majority of the resident and visiting population continue to overlook. She has carried her inspiration with her from the Pennines of her childhood across the water to the beaches of her new home. If there is something to be learned from her example, it is for those of us lucky enough to live here to look again at what we have, and make something of it.