MEET THE MAKERS | James and Katie from Mabel & Co
An inside look at the craft and creativity behind Suffolk-based letterpress studio – and Object Story partner – Mabel & Co.
I’ve always felt an affinity with Mabel & Co, the makers behind our beautiful range of cards, notebooks and archive boxes. Founders James and Katie work from an old wheelwright's shop and village store in Suffolk, using lovingly restored printing presses – one of which dates back to the 1860s.
As a design studio, Mabel & Co in many ways speaks to timeless craft practices. Its oldest presses are operated by a foot-powered treadle, and even its larger powerhouse – a 1960s German-made Heidelberg – which they use to cut the card, is a relic of a golden age of print. Meanwhile, the typefaces that James and Katie draw from are redolent of mid-Century modernism, with the communal, industrialised feel of times gone by.
Yet, this is also a brand that has eyes firmly on the future. Driven by a commitment to sustainable values, Mabel & Co is pushing the mantle of what can be achieved with recyclable, FSC certified, British-made paper. It’s growing, not in terms of scale, but with new ideas of what letterpress, as a craft, can achieve.
I really enjoyed catching up with James recently, to find out more about he and Katie’s pioneering business model (which, in case you wondered, is named after the couple’s resident Lhaso Apso, Mabel). Here’s what he had to say.
Mabel & Co’s story is very organic – we were a weaving business initially.
We found two Harris Tweed weaving looms in an abandoned house on the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, which we brought back to Suffolk. We were having an open day, and we wanted to create some information cards for it. I thought, “Wouldn't it be fun if we letterpressed them?” So, we produced some cards, which then led to a small run of Christmas cards. We sold them all, which was a surprise to us.
A couple of shops and galleries really liked what we had produced, so what started out as a casual idea quickly bloomed. Eventually, we got to the point where we couldn’t keep up with orders using a table top press. So about four years ago, we bought an 1860 treadle press from eBay, which I restored.
Then the pandemic struck, and we were unable to get to our studio, so we asked if we could use the village shop in Thorpeness, the seaside village we live in, which had big front windows and had been empty for over six months. We moved in and started to use it as our new studio space.
Over the past two years it has turned into a shop and studio and we've got three more presses (including an 1959 proofing press from Berlin, another 1890 treadle press and the bigger 1960s Heidelberg press, based in our other original studio). Letterpress has become 90% of what we do, and we struggle to find time for the weaving.
I’ve done little bits of design work over the years but I’ve had no formal training.
We're fairly new and young to the letterpress process, which is exciting. I’m a real perfectionist, so I tend to deep dive into the learning and then work to ensure the presses are printing spot-on. But I also love the creativity and freedom they give us. It’s strange waking up one morning, having an idea, and then six months down the line, we're putting it on the shelves.
In terms of learning how to print and create, it’s been a trial and error process over the last four or five years. It began with a mentality of, “Ok, let’s give this a go” and then refining until we got the quality and look we were after. Operating an old treadle printing press is not as easy as it looks. You have to get into the rhythm of treadling and feeding, as well as getting over the fear factor of crushing your fingers!
We get a lot of support from the letterpress movement, which is global and very progressive, with lots of shared values. It’s great to connect with other people with lots of skills and knowledge, particularly on the Heidelberg and the proofing press. The community tends to be made up of people with a really strong social conscience that they’re channelling via design. A lot of them are printing for the sheer joy of it, too.
As well as commissioned work, we sell to mainly shops and galleries. We have a really nice selection of wholesalers who tend to fall in love with the product, and want to have it in their space. Alice, from Object Story, for example, has such a refined and beautiful aesthetic: it just fits. We love the fact that she stocks us.
Our aesthetic is mid-Century British modernism with a utilitarian feel.
Our house typeface is Johnston Sans, which is the London Underground typeface: it was designed in 1913 by a man called Edward Johnston. The other typeface we use a lot comes from old British Rail signage; once upon a time, it was also used by the NHS and other major companies and airports. Our telegrams are very popular, and they’re all about nostalgia and fun. It’s such a regimented way of communicating from a Swallows and Amazons era (a book that I love).
So, we use typefaces that are part of Britain’s visual language and heritage. The style is very recognisable, and there's a familiarity there that helps people relate to the product. Our work definitely harks back to days when there was more harmony, and a sense of shared ownership, in the public sphere. It’s a style that leans on the British aesthetic, with values of communal living.
I often get inspired by an accidental aesthetic: for example, if you go down into the kitchens at a National Trust property and you find all these boxes with 17th or 19th Century lettering on the front. Or perhaps a Russian rubber box from the 1950s. Anything that’s utilitarian and simple, with an unintended beauty, is likely to catch my attention (more so than specific designers).
Our social conscience comes through in the way that we source materials.
We want to create things through a craft process that is both aesthetically pleasing, and has a strong environmental and social grounding. We try to use as much 100% recycled British-made card and paper as we can: that's the gold standard that we’re aiming for. The problem is, it's not always available as we need it (for example, in heavyweight versions).
So, the recycled specific letterpress card that we use a lot comes from Germany, but we also source from Stoneywood Mill on the river Don near Aberdeen: it’s been going for over 250 years and produces some really nice recycled paper. And we get card from James Cropper in the Lake District. They are very forward-thinking when it comes to sustainability. For example they have a hand papermaking mill, and their coloured weight cards are FSC certified (we only ever use FSC certified materials). Our ink is also linseed oil-based sourced from small British companies, and all our packaging is either compostable or recyclable.
We’d love to do more handmade papers, but we won't use virgin cotton fibres from a sustainability and social standpoint. So we're always encouraging mills to try and use recycled fibres, or non-cotton fibres, and things are changing quickly. It will be very exciting when we can use proper handmade paper for our hand-printed goods.
Mabel & Co. is a craft model rather than a retail model: our presses are slow.
We’re definitely not about getting faster machinery so that we can knock out products more quickly. And nor are we comfortable with the idea of employing lots of people, and leaning on them to deliver our expectations. So, we can’t make a lot of anything: we have to be quite selective and curated with what we do.
I have a lot of ideas, but not all of them will make it into products; and that could be for a whole variety of reasons. Finding a balance between new and existing products is an ongoing process, and it’s a learning curve, too.
While a lot of letterpress companies are just printers, we only print our own designs. Often this is for our own projects and products, but also working with others, such as makers, museums and galleries, to develop products or print work for them.
Another unusual facet for us in the letterpress world is that all our design work is done digitally. Typefaces that are old and good are hard to find; but we're not restricted to the typefaces and spacing that somebody happens to have in their cupboards. I have access to anything I can find and purchase a licence for. And I adjust the spacing digitally, so I can lay things out until I'm really happy with them.
As for evolving, we’re about developing more complexity rather than growing our capacity. So we’ve started to explore areas such as book binding, poster work and more intricate designs. Also my wife, Katie, quit her job as a head teacher last year to join the business full-time and she’s had huge creative input. We’re suddenly finding ourselves doing more colour, for example, with seed packets in a quite fancy shade of blue, or pink notebooks, which adds something modern to Mabel & Co – and that’s all part of Katie’s creativity.