Interview: Helen Morris and Sabina Rose of Stencil Library

A KITCHEN table business has come to mean anyone who takes control of their own future by starting a home-based venture.

Sabina Rose, left, with Helen Morris, and some of the jubilee design bags at the Stencil Factory in Stocksfield.
Sabina Rose, left, with Helen Morris, and some of the jubilee design bags at the Stencil Factory in Stocksfield.

A KITCHEN table business has come to mean anyone who takes control of their own future by starting a home-based venture.

In the case of former model turned stencil expert Helen Morris and her long-time friend and artistic collaborator Sabina Rose, their latest enterprise really is a kitchen table concern.

For it’s from the cosy kitchen with its range cooker, low ceilings and thick stone walls that lies at the heart of Stocksfield Hall in Northumberland’s Tyne Valley that Helen and Sabina are handcrafting one of this season’s most sought-after and stately lifestyle accessory ranges.

The quirkily named For Queen and Corgi is a collection of unique tote bags inspired by this year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Hand-stencilled (Helen is one half of the creative duo behind the acclaimed Stencil Library which has its base at Stocksfield Hall), the canvas carriers have a distinct vintage feel to them that harks back to the Queen’s early years on the throne.

Designed to be cherished long after the jubilee festivities draw to a close, Helen and Sabina’s inaugural collection stands out for all the right reasons against the predominantly tacky tide of royal and Cool Britannia memorabilia that is currently flooding the high street.

The stylised and stencilled images of the twenty-something Queen and her favoured corgi dogs that are reminiscent of antique silhouettes, have certainly caught the imagination of London’s fashion cognoscenti, who have homed in on the bags as rare examples of jubilee-inspired taste and elegance.

It’s good news for Helen and Sabina, but also now often means sharing mealtimes around the circular gold stencilled kitchen table (practically every inch of Stocksfield Hall has been adorned with the most fantastically intricate painted patterns from walls and floors to ceilings and doors) with brushes, inks and cut-outs of the Queen.

Having said that, it’s not every day you can claim to have sat down for dinner with the monarch, even if this one’s conversation is a bit flat and red, white and blue around the edges.

Each bag – which is finished off with a hand-written label displaying the name of the person who stencilled it – takes Helen, 52, and Sabina, 64, around an hour to make, so the ‘limited edition’ tag is no idle marketing ploy.

But it certainly adds to their exclusivity and desirability, although prices are far from being in the designer league: they range from just £26-£30.

Launched in February this year, For Queen and Corgi (“we thought the name was unusual, memorable and raised a smile,” Helen says) is tapping into jubilee fever in an idiosyncratic manner.

There is no doubt the timing has been perfect and has dovetailed with the public’s renewed interest in the Queen and the royals in general.

Yet For Queen and Corgi’s Genesis began long before the Diamond Jubilee had entered the nation’s consciousness and the appetite for patriotic-inspired souvenirs surged.

“It was a germ of an idea that started a couple of years ago and was actually a project I originally set for a group of Newcastle College students to see if they could grow a business from start to finish.” Helen explains.

“The original plan was for stencilled products like cushions, bags, tea towels and kits. The royal connection was just one of many ideas.

“I thought if it didn’t work, at least the students would have had the experience of trying to set up and run a business.

“In the end it never got off the ground at all, but I thought it was a really nice idea and different to what the Stencil Library normally does.

“But I knew I was never going to be able to do it myself. I whined on for a bit about it never happening unless there was somebody there to help me and thought of Sabina who I have known and worked with at the Stencil Library for 22 years.

“Then Chips (Helen’s husband Michael Chippendale who founded the Stencil Library with his wife 24 years ago) made us a couple of stencils of the Queen which we really liked.

“So Sabina and I said OK, if nothing comes of this we will at least have some nice bags and we might just make enough to get a decent lunch out of it.”

Just over two months since launching, it’s looking like they will get one or two decent lunches out of For Queen and Corgi.

Helen doesn’t regard herself as being an out and out royalist, but does have a small collection of original souvenir mugs and plates depicting both the Queen’s coronation and that of Edward VIII who, of course, abdicated in 1936 so he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and was never actually crowned.

“Why do I have them? Because I like them,” Helen says. “I don’t know why I do, but I always have. Probably when I was a little girl I pestered an aunt for them or something.”

The current For Queen and Corgi collection harks back to that pre-Coronation image of a youthful Elizabeth II and fits in with a current retro 1950s trend.

As jubilee fever heightens as this June’s celebrations approach, Helen and Sabina are preparing for an upsurge in orders.

The current collection will only be available until October, however. But Helen and Sabina have other “quirky stencilled” ideas up their sleeve. They may not have anything to do with the Queen or her corgis, though.

For the time being, it is all Helen and Sabina – a Canadian by birth who came to the UK in 1970 and moved to the North East in 1989 with husband Albert Rose and their two children – can do to keep up with orders.

“Sales are going exceptionally well,” says Helen, “but there is only the two of us doing it and only so much you can do sat around the kitchen table.”

The bags’ popularity have taken Helen and Sabina by surprise. There has been no conscious effort to advertise them; word has spread on the grapevine.

“I was demonstrating stencilling recently at the Country Living show and I had a stream of people asking me where the bags were from,” Helen says.

“Surprisingly, a lot have been bought by men, presumably for their wives.”

Helen thinks the bags have hit a nerve with people who want a souvenir of the Diamond Jubilee but have been unimpressed with much of the commercial merchandise.

“People have said ‘I want a souvenir but I don’t want what’s available.’ They have said these are the nicest jubilee keepsakes they have seen.

“They’re novel, they’re a bit Cool Britannia and they are modern but with that fashionable vintage edge. They’re also hard-wearing, washable and useful.”

But what does Helen think the subject of the bags herself would think of them? “I have a friend who works for a friend of the Queen. The Queen and this friend were getting together for lunch and my friend said ‘give me a bag and I’ll get it to her.’

“But I thought that was a bit grubby and I didn’t feel comfortable about it.

“Buckingham Palace knows about the bags, however, but they would never say you have been given permission as that would imply you have a Royal Warrant.

“But I would like to think the Queen would approve of the bags. She must be delighted that millions of people want to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in whatever way they can.”

For Queen and Corgi’s bags are available from the Stencil Library, Stocksfield Hall, Stocksfield, Northumberland, NE43 7TN, 01661 844844, www.stencil-library.com, or go to www.folksy.com/shops/forqueenandcorgi

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