When Denise Lewis set up craft-based retail business Blodwen, she looked to one of her home-country’s native exports, the Welsh blanket, for inspiration. We asked Jo-ann Fortune to find out more about the continued appeal of this interiors staple.
All images courtesy of Blodwen
By Jo-ann Fortune
The Welsh blanket: a timeless aesthetic
Adding warmth to many a sleek mid-century chair or sofa, a Welsh blanket, or ‘tapestry blanket’ can be found in plenty of the homes featured in MidCentury magazine. Unlike the furniture it’s draped over, the Welsh blanket, a traditional double-cloth textile, has changed little since the mid 1880s. So why then was it so key to the mid-20th century design aesthetic?
I posed this question to Welsh-born Denise Lewis, founder of online artisan craft and homewares store Blodwen, which sells vintage and heritage-inspired Welsh blankets. “While the patterns on Welsh blankets have remained largely the same over the ages, new colourways were introduced in the 1950s. Manufacturers started to experiment with artificial colours – candy shades such as apricot and greens, and the most garish combinations were the most popular”, she explains. “The tourist trade also boomed in the 1950s. Soon every woman had a tapestry cape, coat or, if they were very swish, a matching suit and accessories, and everyone seemed to want a Welsh tapestry bed cover.”
The Welsh blanket: the birth of Blodwen
Five years ago, Denise Lewis was travelling the world as Group Director of Corporate Affairs at Orange™. But while introducing the telecoms brand to 24 different countries and in turn being introduced to their traditional artisanship, she began to consider all that her home country had to offer. “It occurred to me that we have a great heritage of craftsmanship in Wales that’s not being channeled properly, so after the birth of my first child I decided to change direction and create that platform, launching Blodwen on St David’s Day in 2010.”
Rather than being dedicated to anyone in particular, Denise chose the name Blodwen, whom her children refer to as ‘the fat lady’, as it brings to mind an image of a generic Welsh matriarch. “Everyone in Wales has a Blodwen in their life – a steely woman that runs the show.”
And Denise Lewis seems fit to take that title. In just three years she has created her own Welsh empire, on a mission to revive Welsh craftsmanship using Welsh materials, Welsh skills and Welsh workshops. Splitting her time between trade shows and business meetings in London and her coastal home in Wales, Denise designs all of the products sold by Blodwen herself, filling the rest of her long working hours sourcing Welsh artisans to bring her ideas to reality.
The Welsh blanket: still a best-seller
Welsh blankets are one of the brand’s best sellers, and for Denise they represent an area of great personal passion. “Like every young woman in Wales I was given a chest of Welsh blankets when I turned 18”, she recalls. For Blodwen’s most recent textile range, the Heritage Blanket Project, Denise is fulfilling her mission to “revive and preserve traditional skills by giving them a contemporary design focus”, working with a local textile college and mill to digitally visualise and produce two new Welsh blankets inspired by designs from a 1700s pattern book, but brought up-to-date with contemporary colours.
The Welsh blanket: modern patterns
She’s also planning to work the same magic on a mid-century pattern, but until then, MidCentury readers can choose from Blodwen’s range of new ‘Carthenni’ (tapestry blankets and throws) and vintage Welsh blankets. She explains, “the very fact that they were once so commonplace in Wales has actually made Welsh blankets increasingly difficult to get hold of, as they’d be used as dog’s blankets or thrown on the backs of horses.”
According to Denise, the 19th century ‘Caernarfon’ pattern was the most popular in the 1950s and ‘60s and continues to draw attention today. “When I showed enamelware featuring the pattern at a recent trade show, Japanese buyers thought it was something to do with space invaders and others thought there was a Bauhaus influence.”
The Welsh blanket: a renewed popularity
Speaking with genuine regret for the country and craft she loves so much, Denise tells me that of the 300 mills in Cardiganshire in 1895, now just four remain. But with demand for traditional Welsh blankets on the rise again, Denise proudly attests that the business is gathering momentum in the UK as well as abroad. So, why the renewed popularity? Denise sums it up, “Today’s consumer is moving away from conspicuous consumption and is more interested in provenance, lasting quality and craftsmanship – and the tapestry textiles have got it all!”
To buy vintage or new Welsh blankets, visit Blodwen General Stores
Learn more about the Heritage Blanket project here
To see British interiors featuring the Welsh blanket, check out our articles
A Retro Holiday Let in Dorset: The Garden House Studio and
Jo-ann Fortune runs website and blog vintagebrighton.com
Read Jo-ann Fortune’s article on Mid Century pattern design and the Sheila Bownas Archive