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In 1886 our founder Walter Whittard set up his very first shop, filled floor-to-ceiling with the world’s finest tea, coffee and cocoa. Those brave new brews are now time-honoured classics and we’re still following our nose for the new…
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We went to meet Jan Ollis, owner and founder of Chi-Chi Moi and producer of our hand-made tea cosies. Based in Wells, her studio is a craft heaven – with endless balls of wool, ribbons, a vintage sewing machine, pretty crocheted flowers and tailor’s dummy. We put the following questions to her, whilst sipping tea, munching on cake and exploring her charming studio.
1) Did you always want to be a designer and when you were younger what were the inspirations for going into this line of work? Can you remember if there was a specific object that first got you interested in design and why?
My family have always been able to knit, sew, crochet, tackle DIY projects and generally 'make do and mend' so I grew up expecting to be able to make that item we needed or wanted, my father was a trained silversmith and worked in an antique shop, this definitely shaped my formative years as I loved looking at those beautifully made items. When I was young I was very keen on drawing, but never thought that it could lead to a career, so after a brief daydream of becoming a mounted policewoman actually spent many years working in offices and put all my creative energies into creating a home . Slowly however, I began to dream that these skills could turn into my career. I then completed a degree in printed textile design.
2) How did the name Chi-Chi Moi come about?
Ten years ago I got back into knitting and crocheting and made a corsage for my mother-in-law for Mother’s Day – I look back and it’s a bit amateur now! But she loved it and asked me to make some for her to give to her friends, They quickly became popular and I wanted to start a business with a name relevant to the style of my corsages, I wondered what 'Chi-Chi' meant and looked it up in my ancient thesaurus, it said ' Fashionably Frilly' which I liked, so I added 'Moi' and 'Chi-Chi Moi' came about.
3) Knitting and crocheting have really become popular again, why do think this is?
Yes, knitting and crochet are so popular at the moment, I feel it may be a counterbalance to our very busy modern lifestyles. My life relies on email, my mobile phone and the internet, I find sitting and knitting relaxing (well most of the time). Also, to create something useable from very basic materials (two knitting needles and a ball of wool) is very satisfying.
4) Which particular items do you get the most satisfaction from designing?
I love designing tea cosies, they are quick to make and offer so much scope for creativity.
5) Tell us about the tea cosies – how did you get into them? How do you come up with designs and how long does it take to make one?
One of my first tea cosies was the one I still use at home, it is a pink Fair Isle and it led to many more ideas. Most of which are heavily influenced by the 1950's and 1970's. I have a rather long-winded design process, after my initial idea, I will knit one changing things as I go along. I then look at the number of stitches and rows and where I used different colours. I then re-create the fist cosy this time writing the pattern, Finally I pass the pattern onto one of my knitters for final amendments.
All of our Whittard tea cosies use different stitches and vary in levels of difficulty, Walter, on the right in blue and grey is the most tricky
6) What’s the most unusual item you’ve been asked to design?
We were recently commissioned to design and make judge's wig tea cosies, probably our most unusual design to date and the client is very happy with them!
7) Are you fan of tea or coffee - which teas/coffee do you love the most and how do you like to take them?
I like both tea and coffee and have a set routine, always having tea first thing in the morning, coffee mid morning and tea again in the afternoon. I am very particular about my tea and usually have a loose leaf Assam tea in a teapot with a tea cosy (of course)
8) Tell us about your team of knitters and crocheters
I have a lovely team of outworkers, some knit, some crochet & some do both. There are five ladies I rely on all year, plus a group of ladies I call on in busy times. I also have a full time assistant Jess, who is indispensable. Jess assembles the tea cosies and adds labels.
We all knit and crochet by hand – knitting machines produce a very flat result, hand knitting adds texture and air plus someone has spent time and love making it.
9) What do you think is the key to creating an enduring design?
An enduring design needs to be practical and appealling to the owner. William Morris was correct when he said 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful'
10) How would you describe your style?
Definitely retro & nostalgic. I like to create products “like something you find in your granny’s attic that you are really pleased with” - a little treasure, handmade with a nostalgic feel.
Although my great aunt taught a lot of the family to crochet, I don’t have any handmade heirlooms – I want to leave a legacy for my own family, I’m currently making a granny square blanket for my grandson (using a more tasteful colour palette than is traditionally the case!)
11) Which designers/artists are you most inspired by? Where else do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in many places, I love going to museums, art Galleries and even car boot sales, anything can inspire me a colour or print, a teapot or a even a jumper. One designer who has inspired me for many years is Paul Smith, I love his twist on the traditional. I also love the fabric designs of Lucienne Day, her 1950's colours often come through in my work.
I love designers that make you smile when you see their work – who use wool in really quirky ways. I’m always drawn to the same colours from the 1950s – mustard, olive green – a little muted.
14) What’s next for you? Staying largely with knitting and crocheting or doing more textile work too?
We have lots of ideas in the pipeline, some using knit and crochet, but I would really like to use my print design background and create some products using my own fabric designs. I’m also looking at developing a range of cosies for сafetières. We are still a small team and there is not enough time in the day at the present to make everything we have ideas for.
Jan, thank you so much for answering our questions! We’re sure your charming cosies, made with love, will grace many a teapot in years to come.
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