Meet the Maker: Lellibelle
Helen Strutt from Lellibelle has a background in textiles and a back garden that opens out on to a nature reserve. Put the two together and her range of ethical cards and coasters featuring embroidered and appliquéd birds, animals and insects from the British Countryside feels beautifully fitting. Here Helen talks to jeweller and fellow Folksy seller Helen Duncan from Silver Nutmeg about how her creative business evolved, why she strives to make all her products as sustainable and planet-friendly as possible, and the value of simple gestures like sending a card, particularly at the moment.
To celebrate being our featured maker, Helen is offering a 15% discount on all Lellibelle cards and coasters with code MAKER15. Offer valid until Sunday 21st June 2020. Click here to shop Lellibelle on Folksy >
My Nanna taught me how to sew as a child; she was definitely of the ‘make do and mend’ generation. She made lots of clothes for my twin sister and me, back in the 1980s – so I have always been surrounded by colourful creative textiles.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
Hello Helen. Your designs caught my attention because the originals are created in fabric, which gives them a lovely texture and character. Could you start by telling us a little bit about your background in textiles?
Thank you, Helen. My Nanna taught me how to sew as a child; she was definitely of the ‘make do and mend’ generation. She made lots of clothes for my twin sister and me, back in the 1980s. I remember her smocking beautiful summer dresses for us and, as we got older, rah-rah skirts and knitted batwing jumpers – so I have always been surrounded by colourful creative textiles!
I’m originally from Cleethorpes, and after finishing my A-Levels, I completed a one-year Art Foundation Course at Grimsby Art College, specialising in Fashion. I then went on to study Fashion Marketing at Northumbria University (Newcastle). As part of my final degree I had to design and make collections of garments; you want to make your own mark, create something different and stand-out, so I had lessons with the brilliant textile tutor and started experimenting with embroidering some of the womenswear pieces. It was during the last few months of my four-year degree that I decided textiles was where I wanted to focus my passion.
I graduated in 2000 and later that year I went to New York on a graduate placement in a design studio as a textile designer, specialising in embroidery and beading for the ‘rag trade’! After four amazing months, I moved back to the UK to work in their London studio. Somehow a decade in the industry flashed by, before children changed my perspective (on life and my work) and experiments in both children’s clothing and homewares helped hone the skills I use now.
The products that I make as Lellibelle feature original designs that have been created through a combination of appliquéd fabrics and freehand machine embroidery, which are then scanned and printed on to cards and coasters. The name ‘Lellibelle’ comes from when I was little and my twin sister couldn’t say ‘Helen’, so she called me ‘Lell’ or ‘Lellie’ instead. This name stuck, and my mum and dad called me ‘Lellie Bell ‘for years.
I use a combination of appliquéd fabrics and freehand machine embroidery to create the original designs, which are then scanned and printed on to cards and coasters.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
Was there a lightbulb moment when you suddenly realised that textile designs would look great reproduced as printed cards and coasters or did the idea evolve more gradually?
The idea definitely evolved more gradually. I’m a bit of an over-thinker and a perfectionist, which has stopped me trying new things in the past, particularly starting up a new business. I was so worried that the new business wouldn’t be perfect, that for quite a long time I didn’t really commit to anything, but thought lots about it. My husband (who works in innovation) encouraged me to ‘just do anything’, helping me see that unless I tried something to ‘test the water’, I couldn’t develop and refine a more saleable product. He often talks about ‘prototypes’ and failure not being failure as long as you can learn from your experiments – seeing what works and what doesn’t, and what people will buy.
As the months go on, I am increasingly happy with my designs and new products, but with every new collection the way I use the colour and the sewing techniques is subtly evolving.
Freehand machining takes steady hands and lots of experience… fingers dance dangerously with the needle at timesHelen Strutt, Lellibelle
I imagine there are quite a lot of stages to your design process. Could you tell us a little bit about what goes on?
Yes, there are lots of stages to creating a successful design – and it doesn’t miraculously begin at the sewing machine. I love the whole process, from researching the subject matter, through to finalising the digital lighting levels with my amazing printer, a local friend in Cambridgeshire.
Sometimes the hardest part is deciding which British animal or bird to do next! Once I’ve decided, I research and draw the creature by hand, then transfer the design on to Bondaweb, select swatches of fabrics and thread palettes, iron the pieces of Bondaweb on to the selected coloured fabrics, cut the pieces out, arrange them, iron them down, machine stitch around the outline, then finally freehand machine embroider to create the feathers, fur or spines. Freehand machining takes steady hands and lots of experience… fingers dance dangerously with the needle at times! I often add final details with hand embroidery: the final life-affirming glint of light in the eye, delicate whiskers. The best bit is seeing how the final design comes together from a patchwork of seemingly unconnected parts. I’m not always clear from the outset if a composition will work, so every new design is an experiment (and I’ve only had to start again from scratch a handful of times).
My children found a perfect, albeit sadly expired bumble bee, by our back door last June. It was the first time I had really looked at this beautiful insect in detail. I used an old sari fabric for the wings, and added the details inside them by hand.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
I have some favourites among your designs: the butterflies with their hand embroidery and the badger whose stance you’ve captured perfectly. Do you have particular favourites and is there a reason why?
One of my favourite designs is the buff-tailed bumble bee. My children found a perfect, albeit sadly expired one, by our back door last June. It was the first time I had really looked at this beautiful insect in detail. It was so fluffy, and I had never realised how long bees’ legs were! I used an old sari fabric for the wings, and added the details inside them by hand. A friend of mine commented how lovely to have been able to preserve this tiny insect forever in a design, something that hadn’t even occurred to me! It’s amazing how studying something closely sets off a new train of interest – we planted several packs of bee-friendly flowers in the garden earlier this spring.
I also love the new wren design, particularly how its brown feathers look against the new background colour – an experiment at the time. I am so glad I was ‘brave’ enough to try out new colours for the backgrounds, rather than sticking to my established grey wool backdrop.
From the outset I have been mindful of unnecessary plastic and wanted the business to be as environmentally friendly as possible… The majority of fabrics that I use in my designs are from boxes of fabrics that I have collected over many years, supplemented by clothing from charity shops.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
One of the things that really struck me about what you do is the importance you place on principles of local, ethical and sustainable. Could you talk a little bit about how you put those principles into practice?
I only started Lellibelle last year, and from the outset I have been mindful of unnecessary plastic and wanted the business to be as environmentally friendly as possible, and to support UK suppliers where I can. All of my cards are printed on recycled card, have recycled envelopes and are protected by fully biodegradable and compostable display bags or, when requested, sent out directly to customers ‘naked’. The majority of fabrics that I use in my designs are from boxes of fabrics that I have collected over many years, supplemented by clothing from charity shops. My brand new coasters are manufactured with a sustainably sourced Eucalyptus board base, and are manufactured by a brilliant company only 40 miles away from me – the closest I could find. I try to send out orders in second-use parcel bags and recycled padded envelopes.
I also support the Just a Card campaign, encouraging people to support, value and buy from artists, designers, independent shops and small businesses by reinforcing the message that all purchases, however small, even ‘just a card’ are so vital, not only to the prosperity and survival of individual businesses, but to the creative diversity that inspires us all.
We are very lucky to have a beautiful nature reserve behind our house, and often spend our weekends walking, exploring and playing as a family in the woods. I love wildlife and nature, and we encourage our children to really look and listen to it.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
Your cards, and indeed the whole ethos of your business, seem to embrace a real desire to bring happiness into other people’s lives. I’m interested to know what makes you happy and what do you enjoy most about what you do?
I think my main source of happiness is time spent with family and friends. While the current crisis has put some aspects of this on hold, in many ways it has amplified others. Becoming a mum has brought so much happiness into my life and I have never been so busy. We are very lucky to have a beautiful nature reserve behind our house, and often spend our weekends walking, exploring and playing as a family in the woods. I love wildlife and nature, and we encourage our children to really look and listen to it. I have also recently started running again, having had a break from it while the children were little. It’s a perfect way for me to totally switch off from all the domestic jobs that constantly need doing!
Since my youngest child started school in September, I’ve really enjoyed the simple pleasure of ‘me’ time in my studio – creative headspace that helps me to focus on creating the kinds of designs that I am truly happy with, and begin to experiment with ideas for my next collection.
The biggest challenge I have had to overcome in my creative business is confidence in myself and my products – I’m not sure that ever goes away.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
Have there been any particular challenges you have had to overcome?
The biggest challenge I have had to overcome in starting my creative business is confidence in myself and my products (I’m not sure that ever goes away!). I can also be very critical of my work, and can agonise over a design for hours, particularly a pet portrait commission, which in my mind cannot be anything other than perfect!
I do find it hard working on my own, often needing a second opinion on a layout or background colour. My first port of call is to ask my twin sister for help, who I worked with as a textile designer for a number of years. I regularly send her a photo of my emerging designs for a fresh pair of eyes. My husband (a product designer) is also very supportive, and always happy to offer suggestions.
When you start a business, you have no concept of the number of new skills you need to develop that you never imagined. I wouldn’t describe myself as very IT savvy, yet I learned to build a website, edit photos, create two online shops, use Google Analytics to improve the performance of my marketing activity, and create a Linktree account to link my website, sales channels, and social media accounts.
I’m always interested to know what people listen to while they are designing or making. Are you a music person or do you like to have on radio programmes or podcasts? I would love to know what sounds accompany you at work.
I am definitely a music person. I listen to music all day, both on the radio and favourites such as Coldplay and The 1975 (who we saw live at a festival last year). For a long time I listened to Radio 2, but I have recently migrated back to Radio 1. I can occasionally be found beavering away in my little sanctuary on a Saturday evening, energised by chocolate and dance anthems from the late ’90s!
Oh, did I mention my husband’s drum kit in the corner of the studio…?
Three years ago, we converted a room at the back of our garage into a bright, spacious studio. This means I can leave everything out and click straight in where I left off.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
Can you describe the space where you work?
For many years I worked at our dining room table – every day unpacking my sewing machine, getting fabric out, trying to remember where I left off, then packing everything away once it was dinner time.
Three years ago, we converted a room at the back of our garage into a bright, spacious studio. This means I can leave everything out and click straight in where I left off. The best bit is I try and switch off from work when I’m in the house – but as anyone who works in a creative industry knows, design isn’t a neat 9-5 job, mentally or physically and, of course, school hours go quickly. I try to split my time between admin/sales in the morning, and then reward myself in the afternoons with creative work away from the computer, washing, and general tidying up after small people, in the studio. I often start again after 8pm once the little ones are in bed, joined by our cat, Molly, who comes to help (no doubt attracted by the latest British Birds collection!).
While many people have suffered sadness over recent months, I remain inspired by how the uncertainty seems to be reminding us all how important it is to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, to create happy family homes, and the value of simple gestures like sending a card.Helen Strutt, Lellibelle
With so much uncertainty at the moment it can be difficult to think ahead, but do you have plans for the future of Lellibelle that you can share?
Home-schooling over the summer has certainly added a new dimension to my working day! This year I have experimented with new colour palettes and backgrounds, but there are lots of new British countryside animals and birds that I would love to recreate, and I have transferred some of the designs to coasters – the first of what I hope will be more homewares. I’m passionate about lovely independent shops and galleries, and the livelihoods they support, and would love to connect with more potential stockists.
While many people have suffered sadness and difficulties over recent months, I remain inspired by how the current uncertainty seems to be reminding us all how important it is to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, to create happy family homes, and the value of simple gestures like sending a card.
Enjoy 15% off on all Lellibelle cards and coasters – just add discount code MAKER15 when you check out before midnight on Sunday 21st June 2020.
Meet the Interviewer
The maker asking the questions this time is Helen Duncan from Silver Nutmeg. Helen is a jewellery designer, creating pieces in silver mindful of our beautiful world.
Shop Silver Nutmeg on Folksy – https://folksy.com/shops/SilverNutmeg
Read our interview – https://blog.folksy.com/2020/05/26/silver-nutmeg-jewellery