Suffolk: The Tweeter and the tax investigator . . . two crafty ladies and Halfpenny Home

Emporium. It’s exactly the right word to describe a former Suffolk glue factory that’s now a riot of colour. Steven Russell nurses an obligatory mug of tea, sinks into an armchair and hears the story of Halfpenny Home

NICOLA Gouldsmith is the woman who came back from holiday one June with a bold vision and abandoned her unpacked suitcase until Christmas while she pursued her dream. She’s got a thing for cakes, rides a vintage bike that once belonged to a clown, and loves her allotment and chickens. She’s addicted to Twitter, too – even being known to Tweet from the hospital casualty department when she had a prang on the day of the royal wedding and from the loo at Asda. (Too much information – Editor.)

Jacqueline Mann has long been obsessed by buttons. She’s got loads, colour-coded in Kilner jars. As a girl she cut up her mum’s catalogues and made little families of dolls. Today she’s having a run of bad luck with electrical goods, having witnessed the expiration in the past three months of the dishwasher, hair-dryer and – horror of horrors – her hair-straighteners. This morning it was the kettle. Jacqui used to be an Inland Revenue inspector and is now a tax investigator for a firm of accountants.

The ladies’ natural habitat is a former maltings that became a soap factory and later an electrical wholesaler’s gaff. Today it’s artistically homely: festooned with bunting, ribbons, yarn, fabric, feathers, jugs of buttons, knitting needles and 1,001 other surprises.

For this is the dream made reality: an arts-and-craft empire called Halfpenny Home. There’s the colourful shop, a web site, and classes and workshops for activities such as knitting. New is a book of 35 step-by-step projects – everything from rose and geranium soap to a denim windbreak – that taps into a growing desire to make our own stuff and enjoy both the finished product and a sense of satisfaction at a job well done.

How did they come to be business partners in this venture? Credit mutual friend Lisa – one of Nic’s allotment neighbours and Jacqui’s yoga teacher – who twigged that the two women shared a passion for crafts. She brought them together by forwarding to the latter one of the former’s emails and the rest is history.

At that stage – about this time in 2009 – Nic was thinking about taking on this barn of a place in Station Yard, Needham Market, and her embryonic musings were not common knowledge. Jacqui fired off an enthusiastic two-page email to this person she’d never met, suggesting she could do some paint-effects courses were the project to get off the ground. They met later in the building – when there was still racking in there from the electrical business. “Jacqui was looking all smart and I was covered in mud!” remembers Nic.

Most Read

Their mutual friend was right: they did get on. Today, the haberdashery shop is essentially Nicola’s baby (it’s open three-and-a-half days a week) while the website and book are joint ventures.

Lisa has a neat analogy to describe the pair. One she compares to a Victoria sponge and t’other like raspberries-with-Greek yogurt – delicious eaten separately but spectacular when combined. Apparently, she hasn’t ever said which one of the ladies is the sponge and which is the fruit . . .

Nic’s Big Idea had been taking shape in her mind for about three years. She’d wanted a change – a chance to be a bit more creative – after 22 years making soft furnishings.

About to go on holiday to Cyprus, she’d phoned up about the building, could hardly get the notion out of her head during her time away, and was ready to forge ahead when she got back to Suffolk.

“I came back in June, literally wheeled my suitcase in the door and it stayed there until Christmas. I put the computer on, and then went to Mid Suffolk” – there were details to sort out with the council about change of use – “and just started, really.”

The shop opened in the October of 2009 – Nic facing a battle against the clock. Hence the ceiling still being half-painted. Still, no-one seems to mind.

It sells all kinds of haberdashery-type things: from linens, cotton poplin prints and vintage trimmings, zips, threads, scissors, gingham bias binding, giant mother-of-pearl buttons, jumbo ric rac (the kind of ribbon trim shaped like waves in the sea), handpainted bamboo knitting needles and specialist yarns.

Speaking of which, Nic passes across a turquoise-and-sparkly ball of thick yarn. “Bet you can’t resist squishing it,” she challenges. True enough. It’s called Mermaid Caf�, from Knit Collage, and is a particular favourite – 75% wool and 25% mohair. It costs �24 – but, then, it does take two hours to make a 125g skein, apparently (a skein being 35 yards) and the flowers within the yarn are crocheted by hand.

Part of the Halfpenny Home ethos was to establish a haven for artists and crafters, so the calendar has included courses on knitting, sewing and similar activities.

Clubs have proved popular, with waiting lists for some. There’s knitting and hooking on Wednesdays – crochet and rag-rugging – and a mixed gathering on Monday nights of anyone making anything: patchworkers, knitters and so on. A knitting group during half-term saw folk aged from 11 to 72.

“People generally underestimate the benefit of sitting and making things. Psychologically, it’s really good for you,” says Nic.

The website has followed, and – between about May and November of last year – they put together the book A Green Guide to Country Crafts after catching the eye of a publisher. Jacqui and Nic took care of the styling and the photographs were taken in and around Suffolk.

The book very much reflects the Halfpenny Home philosophy: that the enjoyment of making something is as important as the end result, and that a gift made for a loved one is priceless.

The ladies say they’ve tried to take the mystery out of craft and want to encourage us to have a go.

“It’s not about being perfect or following fashion,” they stress, “nor is it about having a host of expensive equipment. It’s about taking what you have – finding the beauty in under-valued, unused and forgotten items and using them to create something that you will treasure and that is personal to you.”

They believe there’s a whole generation – possibly even two – that has missed out on the excitement and fulfilment that comes from making things with one’s hands.

Happily, they reckon the pendulum is swinging back the other way – although, unfortunately, many people don’t have the opportunity to learn fundamental skills from grandparents or parents.

“It’s the best antidote to stress that we know! We want to fly the banner for handmade, to celebrate it and show that handmade most definitely does not mean second-rate. We want craft to be seen as art, which we truly believe it is . . .”

OK, the pair share core values – both coming from “crafty” and thrifty families used to making things – but what do they really think of each other? There must be differences . . .

Well, Nic smiles, her Halfpenny partner has a reputation for being late (though she was bang on time today), but business meetings at her house are always great because Jacqui cooks such lovely food.

“She’s the most patient person in the world. She doesn’t freak out when I ring up and say ‘How much are we worth? I’m applying tor Dragon’s Den!’” (She’s not really.)

They do get on well, with the odd tense moment usually caused by trying to do too much in too short a time.

It’s not unknown for them to have planning meetings and Halfpenny Home-related discussions in the car, on the way back from somewhere and perhaps accompanied by sushi-on-the-run.

Nic’s allotment is about halfway between Needham Market and the village where Jacqui lives. They’ve got a kind of handy dropbox there, where they leave each other notes . . . and magazines . . . and cakes . . .

For her part, Jacqui reflects of her partner-in-craft: “I’m the kind of person who wants everything just so, and Nic’s taught me an important lesson: that sometimes you just have to let things go and just be. I can try to be too organised and ordered, but sometimes it’s lovely to say ‘Let’s just see how things turn out.’ She’s taught me that.”

“Ah, that’s nice,” says Nic. “Any more and you’ll make me cry . . .”

And they both roar with laughter.

Web links: www.halfpennyhome.co.uk and www.halfpennyhome.blogspot.com

Meet the girls: Jacqui Mann

Born in Suffolk

Had about a year in South Africa as a child, when parents moved there to work

Today, lives near Needham Market

Her nan was a seamstress “and always had time for me. So did mum. I had a godparent, too, and I’d sit down and make comics with him. I was an only child and had to content myself with what was around; didn’t have a lot of money, growing up, so I’d sit and cut up mum’s catalogues and make dolls’ houses and families, and cut out dolls. It stems from there, really”

Started work in an office, though continued to dabble in crafts in free time

The need to do something artistic intensified

Jacqui went part-time at work and towards the end of the 1990s signed on at Otley College

She studied paint effects and interior design for three or four years

Jacqui began enhancing furniture with painted effects and hand-stencilling, and attended craft fairs

In the summer of 2009 she met Nicola, and the Halfpenny Home story began

Jacqui still works three-and-a-half days a week at her non-craft job

She used to be with the Inland Revenue as an inspector but later joined a firm of accountants, doing tax investigation work

“The contrast couldn’t be wider. I said to Nic: ‘It’s like two different people, in a way”

What is the most precious item she’s made?

“For me it has to be the Blue Peter theatre I made as a child. So much love and care went into it that it still makes me smile today”

And what’s all this about an obsession with buttons?

“If I see them at a car-boot sale, or wherever, I just have to have them.” Does she actually use them? “I do but, ooh, it’s a hard thing to let go of them! I’ve got them in big Kilner jars, colour coded. I use them on cards; for making jewellery”

Meet the girls: Nicola Gouldsmith

Grew up in Tiptree

Used to work at Wilkin & Sons’ jam factory in the holidays and spend her money on Sindy dolls

Made clothes for them

As a schoolgirl she made fingerless gloves and sold them to friends

Her family moved to Suffolk in 1985

Nic originally planned to study textile art and design at college, but late on saw an advert for a Youth Training Scheme position with a lady making curtains and other soft furnishings

Spent four years there, before working with another woman in the same line

Worked for herself from 1998, making high-end soft furnishings

After 22 years she felt she needed to change gear and do something more creative – hence the idea for Halfpenny Home

She lives in Needham Market and has a 17-year-old son who plays in bands and is studying film and media

Tell us about that bike . . .

It was bought from a man in Hackney and it was love at first sight (with the bike, not the seller)

She thinks it’s about 80 years old

“When I took the sign off, to have it painted up, you could see where somebody had put stickers on. It had ‘Clown Bert’ written on it”

Anything else we should know?

Nic’s always been pleased with the fancy dress costumes she’s created

“My best friend, Danda, has been both a great Queen Amidala (a Star Wars character) and damsel in distress”

Son Miles has been a Dark Magician and Buzz Lightyear

“I still have very fond memories of the Marshall amplifier dress that I made for myself!”

A GREEN Guide to Country Crafts is published by Cico Books at �16.99 and, as the title suggests, has an emphasis on recycling and reusing materials.

It features a variety of craft projects to try at home: such as learning to make soaps and a lavender shampoo bar; discovering the art of patchwork to create projects such as an appliqu�d cushion; a quilted deckchair cover; transforming old jeans into a denim patchwork windbreak; and weaving with fabric to make a cushion.

There is also a section on natural dyeing, using plants such as woad, madder, weld and reed heads, and one on breathing new life into oldish items like picture frames and linen napkins.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter