“I am rubbish at sewing or anything crafty - it drives me mad,” says Jools Oliver co-designer of the Little Bird collection for Mothercare...
“I do try and sew on the children’s school labels but they look awful. Anything arty is a big ‘no’ for me!” This is typical Jools. Sweet, self-deprecating and totally unpretentious – she may not pertain to be a lofty designer but her childrenswear brand is one of the most successful in the Mothercare stable. The bright, retro-inspired range is as loved by hip mummy bloggers as baking PTA mums, and there’s barely a nursery in the UK that doesn’t have one of her knitted toadstools (mine included).
You probably know Jools as the wife of restaurateur, TV chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver but you’ll rarely find her on the red carpet. Her family is everything – as her Instagram states, she is “a proud mum” to Poppy Honey Rosie, 14, Daisy Boo Pamela, 13, Petal Blossom Rainbow, seven, and Buddy Bear Maurice, five, (more about their names later) and is expecting her fifth child this month.
Her 329,000 followers will find happy, down-to-earth pictures from her elegant double-fronted North London home, as well as her Essex country pile – no artfully styled avocado-toast here. She grew up in Essex – where she met Jamie – and the couple have been together for 23 years (16 of them married), which she puts down to having “a really good sense of humour!” She says: “It’s good to remind your other half how much they mean to you as sometimes we all get a bit complacent and wrapped up in our own lives, so it’s good to relight that fire… even if you need to have a bit of an argument to start with. Making up is fab!”
Her fondest childhood memories are riding her bike on midsummer evenings with her middle sister, laughing and playing imaginary games on the cricket pitch behind her house, and it is that potent nostalgia that she imbues into her Little Bird designs. This season, aptly enough, there’s a healthy-eating theme with fruit and veg prints and slogans like ‘Super Pumpkin’. There’s practical touches that mothers love, like sweet pinafore dresses with removable straps, and as always plenty of engaging prints – for winter it’s Russian dolls and toy soliders. You can find hints of Jamie in the slogans like “Good Times”, and lots of Jools in the pretty peter pan collars and leather Mary Jane shoes.
We caught up with this super-mum to talk about big families, fashion for little ones, losing her father and who really is in charge of cooking in the Oliver household.
Words: Claire Brayford
The new Little Bird by Jools Oliver collection for Mothercare
Congratulations on your pregnancy – do you feel different being a mum in your 40s?
It’s very different. I am far more relaxed. I’m not instantly checking Google for every niggle or pain! I am not actually sure which week I am in and I tend to just get on with it. It is a lot harder having to juggle the other four children and to get a bit of personal downtime as I’m so much more tired.
What aspects of being a mum do you find challenging?
Having teenage girls. I’m so conscious of getting it wrong or not teaching them everything I want them to learn. It’s also hard having two older children and two younger ones as they are each demanding in their own way and require so much emotional and physical attention.
What do you love about a big family?
It’s so wonderful to see them all interact and care for each other. It makes Jamie and I so happy to watch them grow. Mealtimes are generally chaos but always fun. There is so much to say that not everyone gets their point across but they certainly give it a good try!
How do you cope with the sleepless nights?
All my girls have slept pretty well. Buddy isn’t so good – he’s up and down like a little yoyo but I’m used to it now. I’ve always been an early riser and I love going to bed early. I would love to get more sleep as I know how important it is but I’m not sure my body would know what to do with it.
On holidays in Whitstable, England. Images: @joolsoliver
How do you juggle four children with all of your commitments while pregnant?
It’s very hard. The children are so busy after school it’s ridiculous. The little ones only do one thing a week otherwise it’s too much to cope with, and I try to make sure they do the same activity, which doesn’t always work smoothly! I make endless lists and always write on my chalkboard in the kitchen as do the big girls. If they need anything it’s easy for me to see what and when.
What is the morning run like in the Oliver household?
They can be really calm or absolute mayhem! It can depend on the teenager’s moods or even the weather. The older girls leave early so I am up at six making breakfast. Then it’s all about getting the little ones dressed and ready, which can be the hardest job. They tend to want to stay in their pyjamas and just play. If we are running late for school, we jump in the car so we can all calm down and just chat about the day after the stressful exit.
What is your most prominent childhood memory? Does it have more significance now that you are a mum?
It is probably the strong connection I had with my sisters. Now that I am a mum, I love watching my children interact and bond. If they argue I get so upset as I really want them to be close but my mum often reminds me that we all argued too. You can’t beat the relationship you have with your siblings – it’s unbelievably special and such a privilege.
Top: Jools Oliver with her mother. Bottom: With her husband Jamie Oliver. Images: @joolsoliver
Tell us about your mum...
My mum is incredible and we all love her to bits. She is a brilliant mum, always supportive, generous, kind and loving. We couldn’t have asked for more, especially as she has been doing her job single-handedly for 30 years and earlier on, she was also the sole carer for my dad [he suffered a stroke when Jools was nine] and managed both incredibly. She has always taught us to be kind and well-mannered – so simple when you think about it. I am constantly repeating these things to my children praying it sinks in.
What do you remember most about your father?
My dad was wonderful. I was always the apple of his eye and I have the loveliest memories of him. He had the best sense of humour but most of all he was cuddly and kind. Time is the only healer when you lose someone you love. Sometimes grief just creeps up on you when you least expect it but now I am able to deal with it and I love keeping his memory alive by telling the children all about him and my childhood. It wasn’t easy when he first became ill but we were so young we grew up with it and it became the norm.
Has it changed the way you are with your children?
Jamie and I are very loving and affectionate with our children, we’re very demonstrative with our cuddles and vocal with the ‘I love yous’ which embarrasses the older ones, especially at the school gate! I just think it’s important to express your love for them as it makes them feel safe. Life is so precious and you never know what could happen.
How do you think your children would describe you?
Cuddly, funny, embarrassing and slightly stressy! Maybe a bit controlling too but I can’t help that. Letting your teens go is a long and slow process so they have to be patient while we get used to letting them have more independence.
When was the last time they really made you laugh?
They make me laugh all the time but it was Buddy this afternoon when we were buying new school shoes. I’m not even sure why but I was laughing out loud. He just comes out with cute one-liners, which are way beyond his years and he is always so happy and enthusiastic, it’s brilliant.
How did you come up with their wonderful names?
I love their names. I know they are different and a bit off-the-wall but I think they are such pretty names that mean so much to us. Luckily they love them and of course each name really suits them. I didn’t take long to choose them as Jamie and I think pretty alike and if we don’t he is kind enough to relent – he is so easy like that.
Reading books at night. Image: @joolsoliver
What do you admire about Jamie as a father?
His completely relaxed attitude to parenting: he is also so much fun and willing to try anything with the children – the opposite to me as I am so cautious and a worrier. He also builds the best dens in the woods and gives the best cuddles at nighttime.
What makes a happy home?
I think compromise, understanding and listening in a household as busy as ours. You need all of that to survive.
What kind of childhood do you want your children to have?
I would like all of my children to have a very loving childhood with plenty of special memories for them to treasure as I did. I hope they feel free to come to us with any worries and able to discuss anything they want – freedom without judgment.
Who cooks for the children?
I cook for the children as Jamie works late during the week or is often away. They seem to like my food although it can be a bit predictable. There’s always broccoli on the menu. I need to experiment a bit more but come the weekend it’s up to Jamie and that’s when they get to try all sorts of incredible foods and flavours.
How do you stop your children from being spoilt?
It’s very hard to not spoil our children – it does happen occasionally. We do remind them regularly of how lucky they are and I think they do realise. We also expect them to chip-in with the household jobs, which they do, just simple things that were part of my daily life from a very young age.
An old picture of Poppy Honey Rosie and Daisy Boo Pamela. Image: @joolsoliver
What has been the most rewarding part of designing your collection for Mothercare?
It’s so rewarding to actually see our Little Bird designs on little people. I get so excited, as do my kids if we are in the park and a little girl is wearing one of our dresses, it’s the ultimate compliment and I feel so proud.
Who is your harshest critic?
Probably my family as they are very honest and say when they don’t like something and I totally respect their opinions.
Are you quite relaxed with your children finding their own style?
I wish I was more relaxed about my children’s style. I’m just getting used to the older ones expressing their individual taste and opinions. On clothes choices we are quite different and they are typical teenagers. I just want them to be a bit more original. It drives them crazy – they say I have an ‘over-the-top vintage Victorian style’! It’s all about compromise, which we are all learning together. Petal will only wear dresses which is bearable but sometimes very frustrating.
Did your mum dress you and your sisters alike?
My mum totally dressed us alike and sometimes even she would wear the same thing – that was quite a 70s trend. It’s so funny to see the photos now, always a very pretty ditsy floral print with Peter Pan collars and matching tights.
Who do you look up to?
My husband for his incredible work ethic and eternally chirpy nature and also my mum for her strength and bravery.
What is the best parenting advice you've been given?
Patience and don’t sweat the small stuff. Both things are quite challenging but it’s all a learning process.
You have a huge Instagram following - what do you enjoy about it?
I love Instagram – I try not to over-share though as I am conscious of being too overbearing. It is a wonderful platform to share things though and I love looking at other people’s feeds, especially weddings or interiors. Sometimes it’s good to have a break once in a while or it gets too all-consuming.
Where will you spend the rest of the summer? Any tips on travelling with a big brood?
We were planning on going to France but with our baby due that’s on hold. So we are off to Whitstable after the children break up from school. They are so excited as the house we’ve rented is right on the beach. We have promised them fish and chips and late night sand castle building. It’s all about the simple things. Travelling with a big family isn’t easy frankly, I really try and pack light. The older girls share a case as do the little ones, then Jamie and I share one as well. I always pack a few of their favourite books so they feel a bit more at home at bedtime and plenty of baby wipes for the journey.
Coffee or tea?
Muesli with heaps of fresh fruit, nuts and natural yoghurt with a lemon tea. I can’t eat too much in the morning as it’s so early.
On your bedside table you'll find...
Always water, hand cream, a picture of my children and a mobile charger.
Exercise of choice?
Probably Barry’s Boot Camp. I love exercising with other people, loud music and an exciting vibe.
Book you're currently reading?
I have recently finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I absolutely loved.
Heels or flats?
Heels for going out always and flats for everything else.
Tidy or messy?
Dream travel destination...
Hawaii or Cornwall.