Words by Rosie Cattrell
“I think I have finally found my place. Ever changing, but always present.”
© John Hersey Studio
Laced with romance and an age-old nostalgia, ribbons carry with them a wonderful intention, a heartfelt expression of thought and feeling. There’s something about the physical act of undoing a carefully tied ribbon made of fine cloth in anticipation of what lies inside that brings with it a childlike joy, an unadulterated excitement and curiosity that is so often missing from the rush of modern life. Among the oldest of adornments, ribbons have been used throughout the ages of civilisation to bring the ultimate finishing touch to all manner of things, and were even passed between lovers to treasure as a token of affection as far back as the 16th century. Over the past decade, Sian Cornish, Founder and Creative Director of Lancaster & Cornish, has reclaimed the art of the ribbon in a style all her own.
“Lancaster & Cornish came about after a career as an environmental consultant in the construction industry, and following a career break after my second daughter was born over ten years ago. After much soul searching, I followed my instincts which drew me naturally to textiles. Throughout my life, wherever I have travelled, the first thing I always do is wander local markets, admiring the beautiful fabrics. Whilst in India with my husband 20 years ago, I visited a sari factory and it was quite shocking to me, the lack of health and safety and the disregard for sustainability at the time.”
© John Hersey Studio
“So, when I started the business, I chose to buy and sell organic fabrics, promoting a sustainability message that was really important to me, but I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled. I’ve always been interested in natural dyes, in colour and textiles, in sustainability and the environment, but there was no one thing bringing all that together. As my business evolved, I received a request from a florist to create plant dyed silk ribbons, and the lightbulb moment happened.” And so began Sian’s self-taught journey into plant-dyed silks, and her opportunity to reach the fulfilment she sought. “It’s one of those careers where you never really stop learning, there’s so much information, a great wealth of expertise, and you just learn and grow and you make mistakes and embrace imperfection and learn again.”
Unbeknownst to Sian at the time, a deeper root to her connection with silks that went back over 100 years had been waiting to be uncovered, laying the foundations of a destiny that seems to have realised itself. “I never knew I had a family background in textiles. When I first started Lancaster & Cornish, it was simply a passion – that feeling of fabric through the fingers, finding the gorgeous grains hidden in the silks and experimenting, creating depth from the textures. It was only many years later that I found out that it’s in my blood.”
As it happens, Sian’s grandfather and great grandfather founded D.M. Lancaster at the beginning of the 20th century, a three-storey fabric emporium in George Street, Manchester, sourcing fabrics from all over the world. “I had a letter from my auntie Eileen, who’s 90 now, telling me all about the family history and how my grandmother’s wedding dress, and those of the bridesmaids, were all made of silk from the family shop. My great grandfather was a cotton weaver and it’s amazing to think that 100 years later I’m experiencing the same beauty and simple satisfaction from my own personal experience with cottons and silks every day. There are tales of my dad sitting around as a toddler on great rolls of silk, and that letter pretty much cemented in my mind that I was doing the right thing.” Sian is continuing the heritage laid down for her with the support of her own family, her mum assisting with packing orders in the studio, and her daughters modelling for her from time to time.
With a degree in Geology from Oxford, and a Master’s in Environmental Science, Sian found herself intrinsically linked to the landscape around her, taking inspiration and physical materials for her own creative processes.
© John Hersey Studio
“During lockdown, when I had a lot more time to think, I really started to make more connections between what I was foraging and finding, and not just the plants themselves, but also other elements of the landscape. I walked up and down the river Fowey in Lostwithiel almost every day in winter lockdown, and that led to the development of several of my seasonal collections, because I really started to feel a strong connection to the landscape and wanted to somehow show that through colours and markings. It’s hard to express in words, indeed I’m still working out how to describe it, but the sensations is of feeling into the landscape and expressing that connection through the cloth.”
Time spent wandering the wilds of the Cornish landscape is an important element to Sian’s creative process, often foraging for the plants she’ll use to create the enchanting colours and patterns that come through in her naturally dyed silks, while intuition and experimentation play a key role in the end results. “It’s part of my work that I want to grow and develop and share with other people a bit more. For a long time, much of my work was centred around weddings and events, replicating colours and patterns, leaving less room to be free and to allow for imperfection and for creative visual development, but I feel free to do that now. Whilst I still love creating for weddings, I also really enjoy experimenting, I love the actual dyeing process, it can be very meditative. My work as a natural dyer evolves with the seasons. I often use ancient recipes of natural plant-based colours, infused with romance and a little bit of magic, to create colours from the landscape flora.”
“The first step in my dyeing process is to forage and gather the dye materials. It’s not all foraged and found, I do use processed sustainably sourced dyed materials as well, including a pre-ground chestnut dye and madder root. And then it’s about infusing the plant matter in hot water to allow the colour pigments to be released, imagine you’re making an enormous pot of tea. It’s wonderful to see the colours that come out in the silks, and there are so many different techniques; I use bundle-dyeing to achieve the golden yellow prints using Coreopsis from a local flower grower, Flower and Fawen in Lerryn, and shibori style indigo work with silver birch branches collected from the river Fowey.”
Whether it’s capturing the colour of the sun shining through the forest canopy, or the happy accident of an unexpected hue that yearns for replication, the hand-dyed ribbons of Lancaster & Cornish are each divinely unique and have earnt themselves an invitation to the most unexpected of places. “Working on the ribbons for the 2020 Universal Pictures film Emma is one of the more memorable and exciting projects so far; working to crazy timescales, producing hundreds of metres of bespoke ribbon and leading to other exciting works for me,” explains Sian. “The film has a very strong colour story, there are three or four colours that they use over and over, I had a lot of fun working on that.” From Cornwall’s own The Garden Gate Flower Company, to Jam Jar Flowers in London, Lancaster & Cornish has built a reputation that draws a host of loyal customers from all over in search of something truly special.
But what exactly is it that has attracted us to the ribbon over the centuries, and seems to remain today? “I think it’s a sense of luxury, a finishing touch,” explains Sian. “It means that some thought has gone into a gift or arrangement, you’ve taken the time to finish it, and some brides have said to me that they have kept the ribbon from their bouquet to wrap a special box of mementos, with fondest memories of their special day embedded in the texture of the fabric itself. It’s the physical process of tying and untying a ribbon that’s symbolic, I’ve had clients use them for Celtic hand binding ceremonies. I think they’re very versatile, and just so pretty. I mean, who’d have thought I’d be a romantic person, but it turns out, maybe I am.”
With such an unusual and creative skill under her belt, finely tuned over the years, Sian isn’t one to keep the secrets of plant dyeing to herself. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching and sharing my passion with anyone who’s interested, spreading the word about slow fashion and sustainability, and I do lots of physical workshops, but now I’m looking to develop online workshops and memberships that can be accessed by people in the comfort of their own home, using very simple equipment, to enjoy colour, creativity and to delight their senses wherever they are.”
“As a visual artist and a mother, I spend much of my time seeking connections. I am drawn to the links between disciplines and the invisible line between art and science as a way to understand the really big things in the context of our everyday. These connections might be stories of love, of people and of lands. They might be tales of colour, extracted from plants, and woven into history. They might also be stories of the earth, our solar system and indeed our universe. Creating my work makes me feel grounded, joyful and helps to make sense of everything around me.”