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An Interview with Jemma Lewis Marbling

The whole Anna Wright team adores Jemma Lewis' incredible hand marbled papers so it was a real treat to be able to sit down and pick her brain about what it's like running a creative business and how she's tackled difficult situations when she's been faced with them.

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Can you tell us a little bit about your company?

Jemma Lewis Marbling and Design is a small studio based in Wiltshire which produces hand marbled papers in the traditional way (meaning we don't do much differently to how they did it way back in the 18th Century!)  The sheets of decorative paper we produce are called 'Marbled Papers' and you may have seen these types of papers covering and also inside Antique Books. The business is run by myself and my husband Craig and April next year will mark our 10th Anniversary.

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What was the inspiration behind it?

Although it may sound a bit sentimental I believe that marbling found me. I've always been a lover of colour, pattern and surface design, (more so than Textiles, which is what I ended up studying at Norwich School of Art and Design). After university, I came back home to Wiltshire and took a short-term job at a traditional bookbinders, working in the office. This turned into a job which lasted several years and serendipitously led me be sent to work at a local marbler's studio, Ann Muir Marbling, as she wanted to sell her business and retire - and the bookbinders were keen to buy. I remember my boss once saying to me that if I enjoyed marbling and had an aptitude for it then maybe in 5 to 10 years I may be in a position to start my own studio.

Little did I know that this would actually happen! In less than a year sadly the bookbinders went into administration and Ann Muir passed away after a short illness. My Father suggested we set up a little studio in my back-garden where I could continue to marble and to learn the craft whilst hopefully starting to fulfil some orders for papers too.

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Where did you go for advice when you were starting out?  Were there specific people, websites, companies you turned to?

I was very lucky that my Father came from a business background and as we set up the business together I had someone by my side who knew just what we had to do from the beginning, from planning the layout and requirements of our log cabin to setting us up as a VAT registered business. We worked together nearly every day for several years, until he finally decided it was time to retire!  Marbling is a very niche craft so there wasn't really anyone I could talk to for specific advice. It was very much a case of learning as we went along, by trial and error, and we are still learning new things all the time.

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What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced? Or a problem that you hadn’t foreseen at the outset?

Marbling can be challenging in itself so it’s always stressful for us when we have a tight deadline to work too and things just won’t co-operate, it can feel totally out of our hands sometimes!  I also hadn't anticipated how hard it would be at times to get the supplies and materials we need, for example our Carragheen Moss which is the most important element for the marbling process.

Can you give us an example of a time when something went terribly wrong and what you did to sort it out?

When things go wrong it seems to be mostly the marbled papers themselves that cause us issues. One time I produced a whole day's worth of a very pretty design on white base paper with bright magenta spots, but unfortunately when we came in the next morning and the papers were dry the magenta had bled and dyed the white paper baby pink! We had to completely re-do them all as well as making sure we fixed the issue so the same thing wouldn't happen again. It really is a case of trial and error.

And the biggest highlight of your business journey?

I think for me it’s not just one highlight but my constant amazement as to the directions that marbling has taken us and the wonderful clients we have worked with and projects we have been involved with.  But... if I had to pick a highlight I met HRH The Prince of Wales in May at a special event in London for the 'Transylvania Florilegium' an impressive and huge tome containing Botanical Watercolours for which we handmade the custom marbled papers for the covers.

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What are the perks and the drawbacks of being your own boss?

I always thought that being my own boss would mean that I could just work when I wanted to: I had visions of lie-ins, summer days spent out and about and long Christmas holidays!  As it happens when you work for yourself you work harder and longer - I find it hard to take time off when I know there are people waiting for their papers! Working at home can also be hard as you are always at your place of work. I remember answering the phone once at 7am on a Sunday morning and it was a potential customer in Australia wanting to discuss placing an order! However, the perks far outweigh any cons and the satisfaction we get from knowing that we make a wage by being creative and making things with our own hands is great - and the
commute is pretty good too!

What do you enjoy most about having your own company and having seen it
grow over the years?

That you can directly benefit from all the time and hard work that you put into your business. All the decisions about how you want to take your business and develop it further are down to you. I've loved seeing how the business has evolved and how more and more people are becoming aware of paper marbling and marbled papers.

How did you learn about the aspects of business that were new to you?

Business management and how to best run the business came from my Father and we spent a long time setting up a structure of systems and procedures which is his forte! Good systems and procedures are the foundation of a business. Other areas were developed over time due to experiences. You don't need to have everything in place on day one and sometimes you don't know what you don't know until you come across that particular situation.

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What problems do you think entrepreneurs of creative businesses face in
particular?

That people can often not appreciate the worth of a handmade item and the time it has taken to create it.  There is a lovely quote which I see often on social media which says "when you buy from a small business an actual person does a little happy dance" which is so true.

How do you use social media in your business and how important do you
think it is?

We love and use Instagram regularly. Having your own business can be quite lonely so it’s lovely to be able to connect with other creative people and share knowledge and experiences. Our regular customers and suppliers often feel like our colleagues.  It’s great to be able to give people an insight into the daily goings-on in our studio and to show little marbling demos which people would not normally get the chance to see. I follow many other creative businesses on Instagram and find them very inspirational.

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What are your next goals with the business?

I'd love to be able to do more workshops and increase the range of products that we have to offer.  I'd also love to work on more collaborations with other artists and crafts-people.

What general advice would you give to the entrepreneurs of today?

Don't be afraid to go for it and to take a chance, but you will need to plan effectively and work hard.  Set realistic goals of what you would like to achieve and try to steadily build the business up. If necessary you may find you can build your creative business up whilst still in full-time employment and receiving an income.

And one piece of more specific advice?  In a nutshell I think the most
important thing is ….

To really love what you do!
To have the desire to get up in the morning and go to work!
The love for your product will be reflected in your work.

Thank you so much Jemma! For more info on her gorgeous papers visit www.jemmamarbling.com or follow her on instagram @jemmalewismarbling