Sarah Phelps is a print and stationery designer who uses her printing press Maude to bring her ideas to life. Her studio companion is Willow, a beautiful whippet, who she shares lots of photos of on her instagram account, alongside images of her colourful work. I've been fascinated with letterpress since, like Sarah, I had the chance to try it out at uni. It's such a satisfying process and I love the tactile results, so it was great to chat to Sarah all about her love for letterpress and of course her sweet pooch Willow.
Tell us about when you first tried letterpress printing - was it love at first print?
It really was love at first print! I was studying for my degree in visual communication at Edinburgh College of Art, and a couple of our projects involved learning about traditional print processes, including letterpress. The university print studio, with it’s antique presses and drawers full of wood and metal type, felt like another world, and I loved that the letterpress process was so hands-on.
Unfortunately, the practicalities of earning a wage and paying off a student loan meant that after graduating I had to leave printing behind and head into the design agency world, so letterpress became a bit of a distant memory. I fell into it again around 5 or 6 years ago while living in Canada. I was looking for something fun and creative to do outside of my design agency job and I discovered that the local art school ran letterpress classes. That was it, I fell in love all over again, and I haven’t stopped printing since!
The Maude in your business name refers to your antique printing press; how long have you been working with Maude and how did you find each other?
Yes, my partner in crime is an antique print press, and no I’m not crazy, it’s actually an old printing tradition to name your press! Maude is a Golding Pearl Improved # 11 press, originally manufactured in the USA in 1912. She arrived in the studio in spring 2014, just six months after I moved back to the UK with my other half.
I’d been planning to invest in my own press for a couple of years, but when I started my search I was preparing myself for a bit of a challenge. The surge in popularity for letterpress in recent years has meant press prices have really shot up, so finding the right press at the right price can be tricky. But luck was on my side, and shortly after I started my press search I stumbled across Maude on eBay, and just a few weeks later she was in my studio.
Considering her age she’s pretty easy to work with. She has her stubborn moments (don’t we all?!) but all she really needs to keep running is a bit of oil and machine grease every now and then. Having my own print press has opened up so many more possibilities for my work and she makes my job so much fun. I’m incredibly lucky to share my studio space with such a beauty.
When and where did you get your dog Willow? Did you always know you were going to get a whippet and where does her name come from
Willow came along just a few months after Maude, so 2014 was a busy year! We’d wanted a dog for a few years but the circumstances were never right – living in a ninth floor apartment, freezing cold Canadian winters, and both working full time. Once we were settled here in the UK, and I was all set up to work from my studio in our little house, we felt the timing was finally right for a dog. And after doing our research we knew a whippet would be a breed that really worked with our lifestyle.
As with Maude fate seemed to step in, and within a week or two of borrowing a copy of “Puppies for Dummies” from our local library, much sooner than we’d planned, we were on our way to visit a litter of beautiful whippet puppies. It was love at first sight. We’d like to think that we picked Willow, but in truth I think she absolutely picked us.
Her name is influenced a little by a cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid back in the 80’s, called Willo the Wisp. When we were talking about names Willow popped up as an option, and straight away it reminded me of the cartoon name. We thought about it and it just felt right. Plus Willow the Whippet has a nice ring to it.
What difference does it make to your daily life having a dog around?
I worked in my current home studio for a year on my own before Willow arrived, and while I never minded working quietly on my own, it’s so much more fun to have her around. She’s my little studio buddy and she’s great company, even if she does spend most of the day sleeping! On a typical day in the studio you’ll find her curled up like a cat snoozing on her bed. And on those not so great days (the ones when you feel like a failure and that everyone else’s work is better, etc) she’s always there, by my side, ready for a snuggle.
Willow is also great motivation to get out and about. Working from home can make it so easy to stay indoors all day, especially if I’m super busy. So it’s really nice to sometimes break up the day by putting our coats (yes, Willow has a coat) and heading out for a walk.
What are some of Willow's quirks?
I think her quirks make her a very typical Whippet. They’re well known for being loving and affectionate couch potatoes, and Willow definitely takes that to another level. She always likes to be close by when I’m working (I call her my shadow), and is happiest when curled up right next to me fast asleep. She has fantastic timing, and seems to know precisely when it’s 5pm so we can stop work and head out for “walkies”. She loves peanut butter biscuits, watching wildlife shows on tv, and a good stretch after a nap. Oh and she LOVES attention!
Tell us a bit about your design process from initial inspiration to final printed piece.
My design process hasn’t changed much over the years to be honest! I’m an old-school scribbler, so a project always starts life in my sketchbook before I get anywhere near my computer. Once I’m happy with my rough sketches, I develop my designs digitally, occasionally incorporating hand-drawn elements, and edit them before sending a final pdf to be turned into the photopolymer plates that I use for printing. Before printing can start there’s usually paper to trim, and I also hand mix all of my inks to match specific Pantone shades. Printing with an antique press means that I can only print one colour at a time, so designs with multiple colours require multiple trips through the press – and as Maude is powered by a treadle all of that printing is a great workout for my legs! Once printing is complete there are usually some finishing touches to be made (paper to crease or fold, holes to punch, or twine to be trimmed) and then I’m finished.
How do you balance your bespoke service with wholesale orders and selling to individuals? What are the best and worst bits about working on bespoke orders?
Honestly, it’s a real challenge! In any given week I can be working on a logo or branding project, designing wedding stationery, printing new greeting cards for my collection or printing orders for stockists. And don’t forget the never ending list of small business owner tasks like accounts and bookkeeping, post office runs, emails and admin… My secret weapon is really just planning ahead where possible but keeping flexible as things can (and will) go wrong. I won’t deny that after five years of doing this I still struggle to find a balance, but I get to do something I love every day, and that makes me incredibly happy.
The whole process is really a giant “best bit” to be honest. From sketchbook scribbles to pulling prints off the press, whether it’s wedding stationery or business cards, it’s an absolute pleasure to head into the studio and work on really fun creative projects for some amazing clients.
The worst part is the one that is totally out of my control – putting a finished bespoke project in the mail and it being at the mercy of the postal gods!
What's the creative scene like in Birmingham? Do you have any favourite independent shops or Birmingham-based creatives?
Birmingham is packed with so much creative talent and so many great local craft markets too! I have to admit that when we first discovered we were going to be moving to Birmingham I knew nothing about the city, apart from it being the home of Cadbury’s chocolate. After almost 4 years of living here I have to say it’s a great city, with such a rich history of traditional craft, trades and manufacturing.
There are so many super talented local creatives that I’ve got to know in my time here, but to name just a few… Frilly Industries (@frillyind), Sparrow and Wolf (@sparrow_and_wolf), and Ceramic Magpie (@ceramicmagpie) all create amazing work.
Who are some of your favourite instagrammers who share photos of their craft and their pets?
I’m a dog person, so I do lean more towards crafty canines! Aside from following your adventures with gorgeous George, I love seeing updates from @frillyind and their handsome studio pup Louis, and the whippet lover in me adores posts by @belindalovelee and her beautiful pup Moto.
Thanks to Sarah for chatting to me. I love what she says about having a dog around the studio, this interview series was inspired by having our dog George around for company while I'm working from home and it's been really nice to connect with other pet owners through Crafty Critters. Dogs have such a healing quality and I find having George is such a good excuse to go outside on days I might otherwise be stuck indoors all day! Catch up with what Sarah's doing on instagram and pop over to her website to read more about her bespoke serices and a link to her lovely shop!