For artisan printmaker Molly Mahon, block printing was simply a hobby before a girlfriend commissioned her to print some wallpaper for a shepherd hut...
Having spent most of her career running an events company in London, Mahon had relocated to the countryside with her husband and children and her pace of life had slowed right down. As someone who thrives through creative endeavors – she grew up with a mother who was always busy creating – it sparked the idea of turning this ancient art into something more commercial. “Slowly, but surely my kitchen table business has grown,” Mahon reflects. She runs her namesake company with her husband and now designs, creates, and offers beautiful, and original fabrics, wallpapers, and functional art pieces for the home.
Mahon also runs regular sell-out workshops around the UK and has also started doing block printing tutorials for children (or, more to the point, parents searching for new ways to entertain children in lockdown). Subscribe to her newsletter to receive her latest upload via YouTube or follow her on Instagram).
Mahon works with two printing companies in India, which is one of the traditional birthplaces of block printing and travels to the country twice a year (“I feel alive with adventure when I travel there”). Here, we talk through the beautifully imperfect process of block printing; why the slow and meticulous process involved in block printing only adds to the beauty of the cloth; and the launch of Mahon’s first book House of Print, which has launched today and is, in her own words, a “love letter to block printing.”
Go to www.mollymahon.com
You're entirely self-taught - can you tell us a little about how you came to do what you do?
I have always loved creative activities-it started as something we would do on a Saturday at home with my mother, to pottery classes during my degree and then experimenting with various workshops alongside my job in London. I was quite lost when I first arrived in London and fell into an event organising role, which I found I enjoyed. This culminated in me and a friend starting our own company, Atmosphere Events, which we ran successfully for six years. It was perfect as it gave us a way into beautiful venues across London, opened doors to the worlds of weddings and floristry, great cuisine, and talented musicians.
This all changed when I married and then had my first child. I lost interest in late nights, crazy hours, and the fast pace and I found I was more interested in homemaking and having children!
There was a pause between this time and my business beginning where I was content with small toddlers and moving to the countryside, but I still wanted to be creatively busy and this was when I happened upon block printing. I attended a course and was smitten. Block printing was purely a hobby before a girlfriend commissioned me to print her some wallpaper for a shepherds hut. It was the result of this that sparked the idea of something more commercial. Slowly, but surely my kitchen table business has grown.
Were you always creative and visual as a child?
My parents still live in the same house that I was born in, down a dusty dirt track in Surrey. Our upbringing (I have two sisters) consisted of ponies, the great outdoors, and creative experiments. My mother was always busy with something from marbling, to embroidery to bookmaking and so on. My father was eternally in his vegetable patch. We had endless summer holidays in Scotland and we would always have a creative project on the year changing from one year to the next.
India is one of the traditional birthplaces of block printing and you now work with two printing companies there. Can you tell us about your first ever visit to India?
Well, yes, because it will stay with me forever! That moment when I stepped off the plane into the warm dusty air and then out into the bustling streets. I felt like I had fallen into a romantic novel, the noises, the colours, the energy, so different to home and so enthralling, exotic and appealing. I really fell in love from the moment I arrived. What was a one-off trip has become a bi-annual pilgrimage, that excites me.
Block printing is quite special because it is so traditional and hand-crafted. Tell us about your phrase 'perfect imperfections’...
Life is so complicated these days and it feels like there is a constant strive for perfection (whether that be where we live, our car, the layout of a room, etc)… all of this almost makes me anxious and block printing has offered the perfect panacea to this. The technique is in fact very simple and with no machinery involved very little can really go wrong. Then you have the mark of the maker, the printer… pattern is built up by a repetitive loading and printing of a wooden block. Each printer had a slightly different finish and I love that, over time you can almost tell who printed which piece of cloth. Sometimes the block may not land absolutely perfectly and again to me, this feels more real, creates something more relaxed, and less restrained. Life is not perfect and my home is certainly not perfect, but I wouldn’t want it to be. I adore the perfect imperfections of a beautiful piece of block printed cloth, to know there is a story there and that no two prints will ever be the same.
Are there any challenges when it comes to running a large commercial business that relies on such a laborious, handmade process? How do you combine the traditional and the commercial?
We are still relatively small! It’s actually quite incredible how much fabric can be printed with an organised set up. We now work with block printers who have 12m tables. The fabric has to be washed, ironed, and then meticulously pinned to the tables, before the printing commences. Each colour is applied with a different block which will determine how many times the printer goes up and down the table. The fabric is then hung to dry in the sun before being steamed and washed and ironed again. Only then is it ready for shipping. Yes, this takes time, but again we have grown to expect everything to be so speedy. The slow and meticulous process involved here only adds to the beauty of the cloth and in my mind is certainly worth the wait. We try to hold a constant rolling stock, but we can have long lead times due to the nature of this master craftsmanship.
Your business started at your kitchen table and has now expanded to include not only paper and fabric but also wallpaper, furniture, a flagship store, and an upcoming book. What's next on your list of dream projects?
It’s all so exciting… it’s happened quite fast though and so I really want to bed in now and make sure that I am doing everything as best I can. I love to design and come up with new collections so I will be very happy if I can keep doing that! My book launching is a big dream is coming true. ‘House of Print’ is my love letter to block printing and I’m excited to share it with everyone.
You have three children at home - do they like to try their hand at printing?
Oh yes! We often go to the workshop at the top of the garden. They have a little area where they display their work. My nearly teenage daughter loves to re-style her clothing with prints which is great. I was busy printing when Orlando was born so he accepts it completely as something Mummy just does – I often hear him saying to friends/family so nonchalantly “Oh Mum, she just prints all the time”. The boys join in occasionally, but really they are happier on their bikes whizzing around the workshop while Lani and I get creative.
How has motherhood influenced your approach to work?
I used to have a very divided work/life balance and with children I found a desire to merge the two and see life as one whole. Designing and printing textiles was something I could do while the children played nearby, domestic life and work could exist in harmony, without specific time frames from one to the other. However, that has been harder to achieve now that we are growing. I am needed in meetings, London, and the office more and I spend much less time creating and printing.
Between designing, running a business, and parenting, what are your time management tips?
I try to create a routine, it doesn’t always work, but if we all know where we need to be, and when it can make life more fluid. We have a weekly schedule with each of our names (i.e. all five of us in my family) and who is doing what on each day. A little bit of structure goes a long way!
Your beautiful home is full of your designs and lots of gorgeous details such as your hand-painted fireplace. What's your approach to interior design? How do you keep it practical with young children, yet also true to your aesthetic?
Ah, thank you! I don’t really see my house as an interior design project. It’s an amalgamation of inherited pieces, our fabrics, which I obviously love and want to have in my home and then things of the children and a mix of artwork. Rather than an aesthetic there it is more the case of how it feels. I want my home to be a friendly welcoming space and I create fabrics that I feel will enable this feeling to come alive. I am not precious or especially tidy and for me this helps create the atmosphere I am after.
What has been the most challenging part of running a business and being a mother for you?
I can sometimes feel quite split between the two headspaces. Thinking about a work issue when I am reading to the children, or worrying about a child when I am heading off to take a workshop somewhere. So I have to really focus on the job in hand and give that moment my full commitment. I like being a creative/businesswoman and I love being a Mum, but they don’t always have the same needs/requirements so that can be testing!
And the best?
That I can be doing the creative elements while my children are around me and that they can join in – they love giving feedback on a new design idea and have been hugely involved in my potato tutorial videos I have been doing during lockdown over here in the UK!
You work from home, and your husband works for the business as well. What's your approach to staying sane while working from home?
We actually have an office just through the woods from where we live so we don’t have a constant house full of people or fabric rolls, so there is great clarity there. My husband and I work together but don’t spend all that much time actually in the same space together during the day. Even though we try not to talk work over the children’s heads, there may be the odd conversation before we turn the lights out, but at this stage that’s okay, we have a lot of energy for our business!
What are your current design obsessions? Any particular colours or influences that you're loving?
The garden so all things beautiful and colourful and rosy. I am working on a new collection at the moment and am very excited about all the pinks and greens that are going to appear. Nature is a huge inspiration to me. I am lucky enough to live in the heart of The Ashdown forest so I am constantly inspired by my daily walks.
Could you tell us your current list of loves - ten or so recommendations, anything from books to podcasts to clothing to beauty products - whatever brings you joy?
Day Dress – hand block printed dresses founded by Gabby Deeming
Silk wrist cuffs from Alex Gore Brown
A lifetime love of Cabbages and Roses, from their fabric to their shirts and skirts.
The High Low Podcast
Desert Island Discs – radio 4
Amly Facial mists
My local farm shop Plawhatch
Walking in the Forest
A new set of watercolours