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A Maker’s Story: how Speronella Marsh’s frustration led to fruitfulness – and fabulous fabric

In search of beautiful affordable textiles, the Hare’s Tail founder pulled a rabbit out her hat: she started hand-printing her own designs on antique linen sheets. Show us the bunny, we say…

Words
Sophie Barling
Photography
Rachael Smith
A Maker’s Story: how Speronella Marsh’s frustration led to fruitfulness – and fabulous fabric

Necessity being the mother of invention, it was only when Speronella Marsh found she couldn’t afford the kind of curtain fabric she wanted for her Shropshire home that she thought, “I’m going to do it myself.” But there’s a hint of something more like fate at play here too. Long before this Rome-born, self-taught textile designer ever thought of putting woodblock to fabric, she had been building up a collection of antique linen.

This, she now realised, was what it had all been for. Signing herself up for a natural-printing course at Chelsea Physic Garden, one on repeat patterns at West Dean, and “a lot of YouTube”, Speronella brought these freshly foraged skills back to her dining-room table, hand-printing ideas on to metres of vintage bed sheets. Before long, she had the print for her drawing-room curtains – on an acorn theme – and the makings of her first fabric collection.

That was in 2018. Since then, Hare’s Tail – as she named her textile company, after a furry-topped grass in her garden – has come on in leaps and bounds. Experiments for her own home and for friends have evolved into designs sought-after by decorators and private clients alike, among them William Yeoward and Amber Guinness. Her workspace migrated accordingly too – down the drive of the 19th-century house she shares with her husband and their children, to a unit on a former dairy farm opposite their front gates.

Here, fuelled only by Earl Grey tea (“I’ve banned coffee, I drink too much”), Speronella zips around the oxblood-red studio floor with all the verve of one of her compatriots on a Vespa, opening up scrapbooks and exhibition catalogues to explain the inspiration for each of her designs. The former are filled with the sepia-toned outlines of alchemilla mollis, courgette leaves, lupins, macleaya… “This is just me going around in my garden and natural-printing, basically. Because it makes me look at shape – that’s what I’m about. Everything is about shape and form.”

“I am not a plantswoman, but I used to work a lot with garden designers. I did 17 Chelsea Flower Shows. The first person I assisted was Tom Stuart-Smith in 2003, and I helped other designers plant their gardens too – Luciano Giubbilei, Arne Maynard, Jinny Blom, Dan Pearson… I think they appreciated the fact I’ve got an eye to see what sits right and what sits wrong. In my designs I can immediately spot how things work together. When I made ‘Acorn’, for instance, which went on to be my first successful design, I knew it was spot on. But quite a few of my early prints never made it as curtains, but they are now my most loyal tablecloths at home.

“Printing is quite physical work, but it’s nothing like working in a garden – especially when you’re outside in winter. I have worked in this studio when it’s been -2°, but it’s OK – I have my coat, my paint-stained mittens, and off I go. The only part that’s heated is the linen cupboard, which is where my babies live: I receive linen constantly. I have one fantastic person in France, who searches for me, and I get a lot from Ludlow antiques market too; I’ve struck up a relationship with the people there. There’s also a fantastic shop on the high street called Nina & Co. It sells vintage clothes but it has all sorts dealers there too. One, Margaret, does a lot of linen.

“The sheets I print on date roughly from the 1890s to the 1930s; I rarely work with anything later than that, because there is much more cotton – not that I don’t like cotton; I just prefer to work with linen or cotton-linen. Each sheet has its own identity, its own history. I’ve got a thing for the red monograms you sometimes find; I’ll tape them up so I don’t print over them. The bigger the monogram, the higher you were in the household, so it’s obvious who one was for. Each household or village would have had its own loom; that’s why all the sheets are different sizes – it depended on the size of the loom. Some of them have been joined by hand, to make a double.

“Hemp is really different to fine linen. Some hemp sheets, sometimes from the Eastern Bloc, are really rustic, but they kept you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Printing on them results in a different effect – the colour spreads a bit more. You can see the grooves on the fabric.

“I would say 90 per cent of my designs draw on nature, my garden, or on art exhibitions. I love going to exhibitions. My ‘Boat’ motif came about after the ‘Oceania’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2018. I was so inspired by the shape of the long vessels they had on display.

“There’s a big difference between drawing something and then actually cutting it into lino, attaching it to a block and then printing it. I often don’t know if something will work until it’s on the fabric. I’m creating a pine-cone design at the moment. It needs some work – it looks more like an artichoke than a pine cone at the moment! I might see you in six years’ time and say I’m still working on it… Or, one day it might just become an artichoke. That, for me, is the beauty of it. Things happen by accident here. And I’m OK with that.”

Further reading

Hare’s Tail

Hare’s Tail on Instagram

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