I grew up in a poor-but-honest, small-country-town family where both parents worked hard to provide the best opportunities and example they could for their children. Although both my mother and father had fulltime paid employment (part-time work was rare in those days), the division of labour within our home was fairly much along traditional lines with my mother doing the bulk of the inside domestic chores and my father mostly taking care of the outside and home maintenance. Both my parents were good with their hands and were creative, resourceful, flexible, able to improvise, and proud of being able to make-do with very little. They encouraged their children, both directly and by example, to have the same attitude.
The times may have been changing in the 60s and 70s but things change more slowly in country towns. The expectation at school and in the community in general, was that every girl should learn to cook, clean, wash & iron, sew, knit and crochet, and these skills were specifically taught to every girl at Wynyard High School (well, not crochet, I took a special elective to learn that). They were referred to as the Domestic Arts or sometimes Domestic Science (playing with semantics to assist in pushing your own barrow has been around a while) and I enjoyed so-called women’s work, finding it skilful, creative, and satisfying despite it now being seen in a more negative light . My mother didn’t wait for the school to teach me these, or many other things, for that matter – (I distinctly remember learning to read at home) and I learnt to knit at a very early age.
When I was ten years old my mother decided that it was time for me to knit my first jumper (eleven by the time it was finished). It was plain stocking stitch, olive-green, round –necked, over-sized and very slightly disappointing because I made a mistake in the neck-band, right in the front and I couldn’t help but see this mistake every time I looked in the mirror. I still see it very distinctly in my minds-eye. (in retrospect, I have no idea why my mother didn’t fix it for me – maybe this was the fix and the mistake had been worse).
This was the start of what became an annual autumn ritual. Mum and I would visit our local general store, which stocked quite a selection (so it seemed to me) of knitting yarn and patterns – Patons and Cleckheaton, mostly 8 ply, but also 5 & 12 and some “baby wool”. I would choose a pattern and wool, we would take what was probably enough wool home, and if it became clear that we were going to need more, we’d have to hurry back while that dyelot was still available.
For the next 20 years I knitted at least one garment every year. It takes many hours of knitting to produce a garment and people knit while doing other things –watching TV, watching sport matches, sitting in meetings, chatting with friends, travelling, waiting for appointments. Every opportunity to knit a row was utilised and it didn’t feel like work, it felt very pleasurable. The garments I knitted were not intricate or difficult – function and durability took precedence over form.
My parents were both perfectionists in their own way and believed that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing properly. Patons wool was slightly more expensive than Cleakheaton but my mother insisted that if we were going to put all that time and effort into producing the garment then we shouldn’t compromise on quality. In my twenties, I purchased bags and bags of seconds from the Paton’s spinning mills in Launceston.
Also around this time, I bought a spinning-wheel (which has been sitting on top of a wardrobe since Tim was born) and took up hand spinning for a number of years. I made the significant men in my life completely handmade jumpers – I can’t remember why it was men, I didn’t make anything for myself. In my mind, I can still feel those gorgeous fleeces.
Knitting is essentially a very simple process – it involves making loops - and many knitters really don’t need to concentrate on what they’re doing much of the time. In fact, if you ask a knitter to show you how to do it, many struggle to work out exactly what they’re doing. Female teachers often knitted on yard duty or in staff meetings. Sometime in the 1990’s my friend Kath, who was a teacher, was taken aside by her school principal and told to stop knitting at school – it was “Soooo unprofessional”.
Gradually I stopped knitting. In fact, over the years, I gradually stopped all the “domestic” things I loved as I tried to perform super-human feats of juggling paid employment, household chores (inside and out), trying to be a good parent, wanting to keep up some contact with friends (whose lives were pretty much as overloaded as mine), and all the while desperately wanting to do something I enjoyed. I felt as though I was clinging to a round-a-bout which was spinning so fast that to let go would prove disastrous. Any unessential activity had to be jettisoned in order to keep the family ship afloat.
Every now and then, particularly in the autumn, over the past 20 years I have had the urge to buy some wool and knit something. Mostly I resisted knowing that I would just be adding to the pile of half-done (at best) projects. One autumn, a number of years ago, I met Annie Stephenson who hand knits professionally. I toyed with the idea of having her knit something for me. I didn’t because I was vaguely aware that I really wanted to produce the garment, not just own it.
I recently mentioned Wilhem Jakob’s short film which used The Cup&Mug as a one of its locations. Tim and I attended the screening of this and the other films produced by the 3rd year fashion design students at RMIT and of course the mainly young audience were overwhelmingly dressed in all sorts of amazing, handmade, (probably self-made) unique garments. I was so inspired, I mentioned to Tim that I really wanted to do some knitting or sewing. However, I thought of the cupboard of unfinished projects (some unstarted) and didn’t allow myself the luxury of even fantasising that I might try to stuff something more into my life.
Three days later a miracle happened! Off-and-on for years (twenty something years) I have met with a group of friends – people come and go but the core group has stayed the same – some Friday evenings, to play music together. The standard of our playing has slowly deteriorated, much like our bodies, but we hope not our brains. We enjoy the convivial atmosphere and stimulating conversation and the playing together gradually became secondary. This particular Friday night I arrived late, to be informed that we were not playing - Philippa was learning to knit before becoming a grandmother (that was not on the immediate horizon but her son was interested in a girl and she thought learning might take some time) and we were all knitting squares for her first project, a blanket.
Someone handed me a ball of 8 ply and a pair of needles. I was in heaven. It felt so unbelieveably good to be knitting. Our ever attentive host, Sue, kept asking me if I was OK because she had never known me to be so quiet. Knitting is immensely soothing.
That marked the end of our musical attempts.
We quickly moved on from Philipa’s blanket. Some women are crocheting, some are knitting. Some are producing very beautiful, elaborate baby shawls, others are experimenting with an endless array of different “granny squares”. There have been hats and scarves and larger garments produced. It’s fun, creative, productive and inspiring.
I haven’t yet succumbed to the temptation to buy a gorgeous pattern and yarn for a new project. Instead, I’ve taken my half done projects, unravelled them all, and am determined to use them up before embarking on any other knitting venture.
I’ve been harping on for some time about my theory that many more people would be much happier if we used our own hands to make things. A few weeks ago someone from our knitting group sent me an email saying “you were right!” and included this link to an interesting article in The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/knitting-your-way-to-a-healthier-happier-mind-46389 .
Not only does it feel good to make things yourself, but to own something skilfully or lovingly made by someone else gives you a sense of connection and continuity. I’ve always loved second-hand goods (much to my mother’s disgust, she tried very hard to shame it out of me) and I now realise that I was drawn, certainly in part, by the fact of them having passed through someone else’s hands.
…….. And I guess this is one of the reasons I love our beautiful, handmade pottery.
One of our customers, who is a fashion and design student, recently made a short film as part of his course. Willem used The Cup&Mug as one of his locations and we were very happy to support his creative endeavours. We’re really looking forward to viewing the end result and here are the details if you would like to see it too.
When: Tuesday June 23rd
Time: doors open 6:30 for 7pm showing
Where: RMIT Storey Hall 336-348 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Entry by gold coin donation and there will be light refreshments available.
We are often asked by new customers if we make the pottery in the shop, or occasionally if we offer pottery lessons - unfortunately we aren't that talented.
However, in order to further my pottery knowledge, and feed my love of all things hands-on, I have been going to weekly pottery classes at “Slow Clay” in Collingwood. These lessons have been very interesting and as well as making some of my own pots, (not yet of saleable standard of course, but I can always dream), I have learnt many things about pottery that wouldn't have even crossed my mind before.
The process of course, starts with clay. That stuff in the yard that is incredibly hard to dig when you are gardening in summer, slippery as ice in the wet winter months and no good whatsoever for growing anything in. It happens though, that it is a wonderful substrate to work with. It is easily malleable; creating both regular and irregular shapes. It is recyclable; if you mess up (before firing) you can reuse it. It requires very few tools to work; just a pottery wheel and few accessories. Clean up is pretty much as easy as wiping down your bench.
Initially I thought clay might be a little 'boring' to use compared to wood which has been my material of choice for hobby use. When wood turning, irregularities in a piece of timber, such as knots and figuring in the grain, can be both a nuisance and a potential focal point, often heavily influencing the final shape of a piece.
I was fascinated to discover that also in pottery the actual material can play a large role in determining the final form of a piece. For example, the iconic Japanese bowl shape, with the narrow base and a wide opening, originally developed not as an aesthetic choice, but was dictated by the available clay. 'Old' clay, which we have in Australia, only shrinks around 10% between the wet, just - thrown stage, to the final fired and dry stage. 'Young' clay as found in places where there is more seismic activity, including Japan, can shrink up to 20% between the throwing and the end of the firing. This necessitated using the small foot typical of Japanese bowls as a larger foot would cause the bowl to crack upon firing.
A skilled artisan, or even a talented hobbyist, will make their craft look easy. A skilled potter will transform a piece of clay into a pot in what appears to be just a movement or two. It isn't quite that simple though, and there is in fact a lot going on that an observer can’t easily see. We all know that our eyes can sometimes deceive us, and of course our smell, taste (clay doesn't taste good!) and hearing are of little use in telling you what is happening to clay that you are throwing. Pottery is a very tactile and kinaesthetic based skill, from the initial centring of the clay to the final pass over the walls of the piece to get an even thickness. I dare say even at this early stage of my pottery throwing development, I could throw a bowl (of sorts) with my eyes closed.
During the first term of classes, I was of course, a raw beginner. Making something was an achievement in itself. In fact, the bowl I produced on my first attempt has made it through the rigours of trimming, applying a slip, bisque firing, glazing, a final firing and the trip home wrapped in a towel on the back of my bike.
Second term, by contrast, has been a different type of challenge. I’ve upped my expectations and instead of being happy to have produced anything that is vaguely recognisable as a household vessel, I have probably recycled two thirds of the pieces that I have thrown. A few were complete failures, but most were just not quite right (or a lot not right!). The skill is not necessarily in the production of an individual piece (you can always say you intended it that way), but rather in the repetition of creating pieces that are the same (or as close to it as handmade items can be). Even though the appeal of handmade is often the fact that no two pieces are quite the same, and that there are always going to be little imperfections, to produce a set or repeat something deliberately is harder than it looks.
During the lessons, Jane explained in passing that of all the household items, the hardest shape of all to perfect is the teapot. A teapot requires numerous pieces to fit together ‘just so’ and to be joined together (the body, the lid, the handle and the spout), and needs to be both light and strong. Needless to say I don’t intend to tackle a teapot until at least next term!
It’s funny the way that life rarely turns out how we might envisage. Why do people make their five year plans and tell everyone that is the only way to achieve anything?
In year 12 I studied Biology, Chemistry, Maths, History, English and Hospitality. I was the dux of hospo and achieved a study score of 40 for English. I then went on to do a science degree majoring in genetics and chemistry.
What part of my formal education do I use now? Not the science, although it still interests me.
My English skills and my hospitality training have proved to be the most useful.
In fact, it is amazing how many skills and personal traits I do use in the shop.
I use my practical skills painting, hammering, fixing dripping taps, keeping the coffee machine running smoothly. I use my hospitality skills making what I hope are really enjoyable hot and cold beverages and taking on the role of food safety supervisor (fortunately Mum is very conscientious and I don’t have to be on her back about doing the right thing) . I write facebook and blog posts. I read stories to small children so that their mother or grandmother can shop for pottery. I even put my first aid training to use when an elderly customer was choking on a piece of apple in his muesli (he goes for banana these days).
I use my social skills to make people feel at home in our space and to help them find the pottery they’re after. I have some idea of business red-tape, including council permits and importing goods. I no longer feel so reluctant to write on our sandwich board (despite the fact that an artist friend of Mum gives me a hard time about my artistic skill deficit) and in order to educate myself about pottery I’m going to pottery classes.
People sometimes assume that I work in the shop as a stop-gap until I can get a real job. Maybe they’re right - maybe this is not a real job, as I never have that Sunday-night (Tuesday night , in our case) sinking feeling.
Oops …. Did I say “I work in a shop”? sorry, I mean, I’m an “entrepreneur” …..
During our January closure, Mum sent me to the UK and Ireland for 3 weeks of pottery education. Of course, one of the must visit places for me was the Nicholas Mosse Pottery, in Bennett's Bridge, Ireland. Many of you will have seen their lovely pieces in our shop and we’re surprised how many customers have actually also visited the factory.
Before travelling to Kilkenny I stayed a few days in Dublin. Co-incidentally, this was the weekend of the “Showcase” trade show, featuring Irish designs and craft and I met Nick and co. there.
The Nicholas Mosse website, conveys the impression of a most welcoming and warm environment. This couldn't be more accurate - such a great bunch or people making and selling a fantastic product. Interestingly, having asked Nick about how much 'hands on' work he gets to do, he mentioned being up at midnight sticking on the lion heads (on the new soup tureens). So some things never change. Whether you have a business established for 40 years, or like us, a new one, sometimes there are just things that have to be done, regardless of the hour, and usually there is no one better to do it than yourself!
I had thought of hiring a car as transport prior to my trip but my age quickly put a stop to that idea - the young driver excess would have cost more per day than the car. Public transport from Kilkenny where I was staying, to the pottery in Bennett's Bridge is scarce at best, and not available at the time I was travelling. This left the option of walking (about 2 hours) or hiring a bicycle, which would usually rather please me, but it was 3 degrees and raining. I know from firsthand experience why everything in Ireland is so green and beautiful!
I arrived only just on time, having stopped twice to adjust the hire bike, and having under estimated how much further my route along the back roads would be compared to the main roads. A bit damp in body and spirit at this point, I was certainly glad of the warm welcome (literally and figuratively) at the pottery.
The pottery is most appropriately housed in a beautiful old flour mill, formerly owned by Nick’s family. I was shown around by Billy, the accountant at Nicholas Mosse Pottery, who was most knowledgeable about everything; be it history, the throwing of the pots or the decoration and firing.
My favourite part of the production line was watching Francis throwing the clay. The morning I was there, he was throwing the new soup tureens. It is enthralling to watch a highly skilled artisan at work. The rather humble Francis told me that he is still learning (which I'm sure is true, but doesn't mean he isn't a master of his craft) some forty years after he started his pottery throwing journey. The precision and speed at which pots were turned out was truly remarkable - I could have watched all day.
Here is a link to the Nicholas Mosse website http://nicholasmosse.com/how-its-made which will take you from the raw clay to the finished piece.
Another stop on the tour, that was of particular interest, was visiting Michael, who is in charge of designing the patterns that you see on each piece. While I was there, he was working on a commissioned piece which looked like a water colour painting, but on a piece of pottery, and it hadn’t even been glazed and fired yet. It would look stunning when finished. Also on the go were some of the prototypes for the new lawn patterns, which are a little different to the other pottery, but brilliantly compliment the rest of the range. (These are currently only in the larger pieces and we have a few pieces in stock. They also look lovely with our Polish Pottery.)
Using a lift to access the different floors of a building isn’t a particularly novel experience these days. It was pointed out to me though, that the lift here was a relatively recent addition, installed sometime in the last 15 or so years, and that the pottery used to transition between floors of the building on a forklift! Surely there can’t be too many scarier jobs than sending pottery up a floor or two on the front of a forklift!
Having set up our shop, in what we feel is a very homely and slightly rustic way, to suit our wares, I have often looked at other shops and their set up with a more critical eye than I previously would have. Here though, I walked in and immediately felt like I was back in The Cup&Mug (well not quite, but close).
Anyway, scones and tea called, which, being a true boy, was a matter that needed to be attended to.
This signalled the end of a fascinating and inspiring experience. (So much so, that I have enrolled in some pottery classes myself, but that might be the subject of another blog.) Then full of tea and scones, and once again warm and dry, it was time to venture back out into the rain on the bike. At this point I realised that I had been too busy taking everything in, and hadn’t taken a single photo as we were going. The first thought at this point was of course 'Mum's going to kill me', which wasn't far from the truth. Inspiration though will last a lot longer than photos and hopefully it means I might just have to go again.
One of the things I love most about having The Cup&Mug, as many of you know, is that it allows me to me indulge in one of my greatest pleasures – people watching. We encounter all sorts of interesting people and situations and here is the tale of one such occurrence.
At home, I have a reputation of being very gullible. We’re all still laughing about the time that the 14-year-old Ashley took me in, hook, line and sinker when, completely straight-faced, he said he’d learnt at school that adolescent boys grunt because their jaws are literally slack and it is physically difficult for them to speak. I’d like to think I only exhibit this credulity when I'm in the company of people I know well and trust and that I am a touch more healthily suspicious in other circumstances.
Although a very broad range of customers pass through the doors of The Cup&Mug, there have been only a handful of times when my intuition has switched to “high alert, though not alarmed” mode. One of these few occasions occurred recently.
A young couple came into the shop late in the afternoon, when I happened to be there by myself, and looked around at the pottery. The attractive, very out-going young woman declared it beautiful and said “What is your name?” and told me hers. It’s not at all unusual for us to exchange first names with customers but somehow this was way too early in the piece and without good reason and I was immediately on guard. I wondered if she was “a bit simple” or under the influence of some substance, or casing the joint.
Their reaction to everything was completely over the top: the tea samples smelled like the best tea you could ever encounter; this was the most unforgettable shop - they’d walked past but just had to return; this was the most amazing chai latte (despite the fact that she didn't want it sweetened and Tim assures me that no-one has unsweetened chai latte) and when I said my son-the-barista had taught me all I know they asked to meet him so that they could compliment him themselves.
Would I like to join them at their table? I politely declined.
The man said very little, but the woman was extremely forward with her questions: Was I the business owner? How long had we been here? How was the business going? Are we intending to open another shop? Why did I open this business? What did I do for a living before? What do I like about working for myself?
She was very smooth and flattering – told me that I am obviously a very perceptive and together person and someone like herself, running my own business and being in control of my life. At first I tried very hard to stop the flow of questions by answering as minimally as possible without sounding rude. It was quickly obvious that approach wasn't working so I remembered the number one tactic from my childhood basketball days - offence is the best form of defence- and started on my own 20 questions. She told me she has a business and was visiting Melbourne to learn more about this amazing business model.
After 15 minutes or so, she asked me if she could take 15 minutes of my time to explain her business which I might like to be involved in. By this time I’d guessed it to be some sort of pyramid scheme and said that I didn't want to be offensive but I have no interest in being involved in something which is not inherently worthwhile. She assured me that this is inherently worthwhile because it gives people both money and freedom to enjoy their life without the pressure of a 9-5 job.
When I stood my ground she asked if my son is an open minded person and could she have his phone number. I politely said I wouldn't give his details to her but if she wanted to leave her details I’d pass them on.
I felt completely scammed even though I gave them nothing but time. If they’d come to my front door at home or rung as a telemarketer, I wouldn't have given them 2 minutes but because they came to my shop I felt trapped.
In retrospect, I saw where all the questions and flattering comments had been leading and felt as though I been cheated by having to a play a game where they knew what was coming but I was kept in the dark as to the true meaning of their engaging with me. They weren't at all unpleasant but it was the insensitive zeal of the newly converted and manipulative “evangelising” tactics that I found offensive and distasteful. I’d bet money that she was trying to prove to him that she could sign up a new recruit in less than an hour.
Anyway, no harm done and hopefully I'm a tad wiser. As a result of checking up on the information provided, and following a few leads on the internet, I now know quite a lot more than I did about pyramid schemes (which are illegal in Australia), multi-level-marketing and the grey area in between, which seems to be pyramid schemes masquerading as multi-level-marketing. There is no end of people sharing their bad experiences on forums on the web.
Tim also now has a slight knowledge of such things and a few nights later was able to reply to the request from a friend “Do you want to contribute $10 to my pyramid scheme” with a resounding “No” which also killed the subject dead for those present who had never heard of such a thing.
Most days bring new, interesting people or experiences our way. We just enjoy the lovely ones, feel sorrow at the sad ones, laugh at the tricky and sticky ones and try to learn as much as we can.
“ Success is relative: It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things. ”
— --T.S. Eliot
I can’t believe it’s been a year since we opened the doors. The time has flown.
There are many things about working in The Cup&Mug that have been quite a surprise to me.
There was the unsolicited advice we received at first – a bit like being a first time parent, I suspect: “no-idea’” is obviously emblazoned across your forehead and every passing stranger feels at liberty to tell you where you’re going wrong and how to rectify the situation.
What an interesting and diverse array of people pass through our doors. I have been pleasantly surprised at how social working here is. I’m not a shopper and didn’t expect to get to know people by name and engage in pleasant conversation – Tim had to tell me quite early on that I should stop talking to the customers because their coffee was getting cold.
I’ve loved friends coming in by themselves, ostensibly for a coffee or piece of pottery, but also as an opportunity to catch up. I’ve enjoyed my friends bringing their friends or relatives and then I meet them as well.
I’ve discovered how lucky I am to have such a talented, versatile, personable, jack-of-all-trades as a business partner.
However, I think the aspect which has most surprised me is the complete randomness of each day. We sell Polish (and Irish) Pottery combined with a small drink and food operation but in what proportions the day pans out is completely unpredictable. We have had a few days where we have sold only food and drink and no pottery, a few almost all pottery and no food days, and every other possible permutation - lots of food and lots of pottery, lots of pottery / little food, lots of food and drink / little pottery, lots of small pottery sales only, a few bigger pieces only, batch after batch of scones and no other food, only other food and no scones: the combinations seem endless and just when I think we’ve experienced them all another variation appears.
Some days we have an endless trickle – one person after another where we’re not exactly busy but not really at liberty to accomplish any other tasks. Other days we have hours with few people then we’re run off our feet for two or three hours straight.
At first I kept looking for patterns and routines, but honestly, there are none. At one stage we thought we could confidently declare that a Friday before a long weekend is bound to be bad or Sunday afternoon is afternoon- tea time but no sooner do we think we’ve worked it out and the theory is proved quite wrong. I remember being a new parent and my mother telling me to stop trying to work out the meaning of every episode of the baby sleeping or not sleeping, crying or not crying, happy or not happy. She told me not to bother because by the time you work it out the child’s on to the next stage anyway. Maybe business is like babies! Extrapolating from his restaurant experience, Tim assured me that business is random and just go with the flow.
Some people, even if they are not regular customers, will comment on the activity level. The person who happens to come when we are very quiet, thinks we are always very quiet. The person, who happens to come when we are busy, thinks we are always busy. Sometimes the person who already loves Polish Pottery and thinks they’re in heaven when they find us, will say, on being offered a cup of coffee, “Oh, you serve food and drinks, do you?” The person who is there for a social catch-up will, after being prompted about the true nature of the shop, will eventually tentatively ask, “Do you sell this?” as they vaguely wave in the direction of the pottery. We all see the world from where we stand. Is it possible to do anything else?
If you always come when things are quiet, how could you assume that things must be busy sometimes, or if you always see the bustling moments why would you assume there would be very quiet times. If you’re after a coffee you notice a café; if you’re already a Polish Pottery tragic you will recognise a Polish Pottery shop as you wizz past. How do we know that everything in life is not like this – maybe we can only see things from our own point of view much of the time. And how do we know when we have the whole picture?
May be I just think too much!
The Cup and Mug
The adventures of a small business (more interesting than we would have ever guessed!)