Meet Polly Benson from This Thing Is String
Polly Benson from This Thing Is String makes homeware, décor and oddities from humble household string. Polly talks to fellow Folksy maker Sarah Kay about how it all started, the pitfalls of trying to run a sustainable creative business, and how her wonderful ‘Strinsel’ (string tinsel!) came to be…
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Hi Polly. Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Hello! So… I’m Polly. My pronouns are she/ her, I live in Nottingham with my partner, my two offspring and two cats, and I make things out of string.
Under the headings ‘Homewares’, ‘Oddities’ and ‘Décor’, I make and sell hot water bottle covers, kitchen cloths, flowers, plants, garlands, decorations, random objects like an aubergine, Christmas decorations… all made out of string. Wire, fabric dyes and jute are also involved in the making of my things, but humble household string is the constant.
By the way, only some of these are in my Folksy shop at the moment, but I’m working on getting it all on, I promise!
Wire, fabric dyes and jute are also involved in the making of my things, but humble household string is the constant.Polly Benson from This Thing Is String
When and how did you discover the potential and possibilities of the humble string?
A good question with a long and convoluted answer. I’ll try to be succinct.
I started working as This Thing is String in September of 2020. I’m a fine art graduate and, before caring for my children full time, I’d worked as a tiler and decorator within the film and construction industries. I’ve always been a “Jack of all trades, master of none” kind of person – a skillset that came in very handy when working on film sets but not something I felt able to reconcile when struggling to redefine myself once my children started school and low self-esteem had taken root.
So, I turned to one of my hobbies: knitting. I’m not a pro-knitter by any standard, but I enjoy it, especially the fact I can pick it up and lose myself in it, even on the days when I don’t have much to give elsewhere. The problem I had with knitting was the cost of good quality natural yarns. I’d sometimes get lucky in charity shops, but these finds would often be acrylic blends at best or occasionally lambswool, which irritates my eczema-prone hands. I couldn’t conceive building a viable small business around knitting.
Then I remembered a project I’d done a while back. The pattern was for a moss stitch satchel-style shoulder bag knitted in household string. I’d made it and, although knitting it was tough going (cotton string doesn’t have the same give or stretch you find with typical knitting yarns), I liked the finish. But what I REALLY liked was the idea of knitting with something as basic as string.
In the beginning I would use any old ball of string, and just make swatches of different knits. In September 2020, in fact it was on my 41st birthday, I randomly bought myself a Prym French knitting machine – just a little hand-cranked thing – and had a go at making lengths of knitted string cord with a view to maybe making coiled dishes, placemats, something along those lines.
I can’t think of the exact moment I hit upon the idea of inserting the cord with string and sculpting with it, but I promise I’m not claiming to have invented this. Since starting TTiS and being active on social media, I now know for a fact that many people work in this way and have been doing so long before I came on the scene!
It was so validating to know other people not only liked the simplicity of a string thing but were willing to buy them too.Polly Benson from This Thing Is String
Anyway, it was coming up to Christmas and I had friends who sold their own creations at markets and in online shops, so I thought about making and selling some Christmas decorations – holly, mistletoe, stars, that sort of thing. It wasn’t until I put up my own Christmas tree that I though about making a tree topper. So, I figured out how to make this simple star shape and, as I wanted a tighter coil than I’d seen on most tree toppers, I coiled the excess wire round a wooden spoon handle. It worked, so I photographed it, put it on “an online selling platform that shall not be named” and come January 2021 I had sold over 150 of them. It was so validating to know that other people not only liked the simplicity of a string thing but were willing to buy them too. This made me realise This Thing is String had potential, and I’ve spent the last two years working out what that potential might be.
I now use a variety of different grade and weight Everlasto strings and twines, depending on what I’m making and the finish I’m looking for. For French knitting I always use Natural Cotton String as it’s softer, more malleable and available in the right width and weight for passing through my little machine. Most of my household knits – hot water bottle covers, kitchen cloths – are hand knitted in Polished Cotton Twine: a tighter, firmer string that holds it shape well and produces great, chunky knits at the higher weights.
What’s your creative process? Do you start with an idea for a project or shape and then see if it’s possible to create it in string or is it more organic?
I think it’s both. Once I’ve hit upon a technique, for instance the String Stems sculptures, I’ll be inspired by the upcoming season and want to try out that flower. I desperately want to have a go at making sunflowers but I’ve been really busy this year and it seems people still want to buy daffodils and tulips in August!
I’ve tried to make a rose before, and I just couldn’t capture the layers. I’m learning that this method of creating 3D objects using only an outline seems to work best with objects that are easily recognisable for their overall form, rather than internal detail. I think that’s why the banana and aubergine work so well.
I absolutely love the challenge of seeing whether something will work on not though. Even with my more straightforward knitting projects, I love amending patterns to suit different sizes, features, and accommodate preferences.
Some of your pieces are dyed in different tones. Can you tell us about that?
The way that I use colour in my work has evolved over time and I have developed different dye techniques to suit each project. When I first started experimenting with colour, I was using off-the-peg Dylon sachets to immersion dye skeins of string, which I would then either hand knit with or make into lengths of icord. I found it difficult to achieve the right colours and wanted more control over mixing and fixing the dyes, so I found out what the pros use and switched to that.
There are several ways I achieve the different tones and ombre colours in my 3D work. One way is to produce what I call “ghosts” – flowers sculpted in undyed string icord. These are cleaned, soaked in soda ash solution, which acts as a fixative, and dip dyed in a dye bath, gradually being lifted out of the dye in stages so different parts of the sculpture are exposed to the dye for different durations, creating the variegated effect. When dyeing flowers that only need a hint of colour, like the lilies, I paint a stock solution of the dye on to the pre-soaked flower, put it in a reusable plastic bag and hang it a certain way up on the washing line, depending on which way I want the dye to bleed. When I’m making the Monstera Stems I sculpt them first in a light, base green icord then over dye the soaked stem with a darker green stock solution, avoiding certain areas and allowing the over dye to bleed into them.
I’m always finding new ways of doing things though. Most of the time I’ll come across a technique that’s new to me when I’m trying to find a more efficient way of doing something else, and vice versa. I’m constantly learning.
What’s been the most fun piece to make?
Hands down my Peeled Banana! I’ve only made two of them so far and one of those I sold at an in-person market. I think the person who bought it was a bit tipsy, and it really tickles me to think of them waking up the following morning and thinking “what the…?” when they realise they’re now the proud owner of a string banana!
I think the person who bought my first Peeled Banana at a market was a bit tipsy, and it really tickles me to think of them waking up the following morning and thinking “what the…?”Polly Benson from This Thing Is String
I love your Strinsel! What’s the story behind that?
Ha! I don’t know which I’m prouder of, the product or the name?! It was the spiky little off-snips of string that would amass while working on other projects that got me thinking about tinsel.
As a child, Christmas for me was NOT a time for tasteful hygge charm; it was a time for twinkling lights and sparkly things, and tinsel was very much a part of that. So, after the success of my Simple Star Christmas Tree Topper, I guess it had been at the back of my mind that there might be other classic Christmas staples that could be part of a #plasticfreechristmas.
So, I played about with some of the off-snips, seeing if I could sew them together and if so, did they look like the kind of thing that would sit proudly on a Christmas tree or did it look like scraps of string on a thread. Fortunately, the effect was more ‘festive garland’ than ‘old mop’, so I started developing a technique that would make it a feasible product and experimenting with which type of string worked best. The name just sort of… followed? At first it was going to be ‘Stringsel’ but that ended up being a bit of a mouthful, so I contracted it to ‘Strinsel’ and that’s what seemed to stick.
The feedback I had selling it at markets last year was wonderful; the name alone made so many people chuckle. I’ve even had people asking for Strinsel outside of Christmas, so there has been ‘Springsel’ for Easter and ‘Prinsel’ for Pride Month.
Is all your work motivated by eco concerns?
This is a tricky one. I fully support individuals and companies that legitimately use terms such as ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘planet friendly’ etc, but these terms are so vague and so open to overuse by well-meaning individuals and misuse by companies wanting to greenwash their practices, that I tend to avoid them.
I will call from the rooftops that my stuff is plastic free, because I conscientiously work with materials and process that don’t contain plastic. But even then, there are pitfalls I can fall into. The bungs in the hot water bottles I supply with the knitted string covers are plastic as I haven’t been able to find ones that aren’t. I’m sure they exist, but the likelihood of them being financially viable as a resale item when buying in the small quantities I would need is remote. But sitting with a hot water bottle during the day has got to be better for the environment than turning the central heating on, even if it has got a plastic bung.
I will call from the rooftops that my stuff is plastic free, because I conscientiously work with materials and process that don’t contain plastic. But even then, there are pitfalls I can fall into.Polly Benson from This Thing Is String
At the end of the day, the things I make are not necessities, they’re quirks, fripperies. The only way these could be eco friendly would be for them to not exist! Avoiding plastic and glue is just something I have chosen to assuage my guilt around bringing more not-strictly-necessary tat into the world and the last thing I want people to feel is that I’m looking down on them from a position of higher worthiness. I struggle as much as the next person to live a “good life” and am constantly plagued by the feeling that I’m not doing enough.
I think the focus should be more on sustainability, and this is more than just an environmental consideration; it’s also economic and social. As makers we put time and consideration into what we do and how we do it, and all this happens on such a small scale that our environmental impact is already minimal. Those who support us by buying our things are actively choosing an alternative to mainstream, mass-produced products and avoiding marketing-campaign led trends. We’re already making choices that support a more sustainable way of life and for that we can all be proud, regardless of what materials we use.
But yes, my things are made without plastic and that’s something I strive to maintain, even though it’d be a hell of lot quicker to get the glue gun out half the time!
Do you have any new products or ideas on the horizon?
Yes! I’ve yet to put any of my string necklaces in my Folksy shop, so they will be coming soon. I didn’t set out to make jewellery, but a trial on the French knitting machine with one of the thinner Polished Cotton Twines resulted in an intriguing square tube (a squube?) that immediately made me think on chain links. So now I make these chunky chain necklaces made of string. I call it my String Bling.
And I really want to have a go at making some ridiculous tree toppers – I’d love to see the Peeled Banana on top of a Christmas tree.
Oh, and I must get round to trying out a sunflower.
Finally, what does craft mean to you?
Another good question, without a simple answer. Sorry, none of my answers have been simple. I guess for me, craft refers to a production method that involves skill and expresses the individuality and integrity of the person involved.
I do tend to make a distinction between hand assembled and handmade. I consider both to be craft, but it usually takes more than just visual appeal to pique my interest. Whilst aesthetics undoubtedly plays a part, it’s usually the skill, the story, the practicality, the personality – or indeed, the purposeful lack thereof – that I really appreciate.
Get 10% off This Thing Is String with discount code FOLKSYMAKER10, until Sunday 11th September 2022
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is artist Sarah Kay, an artist based in the Shetland Islands who creates resin jewellery and homeware made with shells, sea glass and other finds that she gathers along the coast.