PUBLISHED: 08:45 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013
Jan Baker talks to Hilary Engel about how her soft furnishings business has blossomed, and why Herefordshire is different from anywhere else. Photography by Mark Douet.
"The great thing about people in Herefordshire," says Jan Baker, "is that they aren't trying to impress anybody. Interior decorating here is so different from the home counties, say. When we've finished helping a client to re-design a room, they often say, 'I'll never need to do it again'. These aren't people who change their colour schemes every year: they're not concerned with the latest fashions."
Jan Baker is a farmer's wife who came to Herefordshire with her husband 21 years ago to farm at Eardisley. When her three children were old enough she decided that she needed to find herself a job, and so she began working for two local interior designers. "I love colour, and I've always loved fabrics," she says. "I can't draw at all, but I discovered that I do have a very good sense of proportion, of how to enhance the shape of a room."
After Jan had worked for eight years or so, learning the business, she opened Jan Baker Fabrics in a converted barn at Lower Court, Clifford, in 1994. The company specialised at first in selling discontinued fabrics on the roll; and it quickly acquired a reputation for being the place to find a very stylish bargain.
"People started asking me if we could make up curtains for them, so we took on a curtain maker," says Jan. "And they would ask me to help them choose a colour scheme, or plan a whole room. So gradually we were able to offer a whole design service."
One year Jan went on holiday to India and discovered crewel work. "Crewel is woollen embroidery on a cotton duck background," explains Jan. "It is only produced in Kashmir now. The embroidery is done by men - by farmers - during the winter, when they can't work outdoors. It's all done free-hand, so every piece is unique.
"It used to be made in England in Tudor times: the designs originally were all inspired by the Tree of Life. Crewel is quite tricky to deal with, because you can't be specific about pattern repeats as you can with manufactured fabrics, and the big companies are reluctant to handle it. It's been a huge success for us, and we sell it all over the world - to Australia, America, France. I go to India every year now to order it, and we sell only what we have in stock. I love it: the embroiderers have a marvellous sense of colour."
Jan stayed at Clifford for ten years, but eventually needed more space; and so five years ago she moved to Brobury House. Here the company occupies the former coach house in the beautifully landscaped grounds. "It's a wonderful location," says Jan. "People staying in the bed and breakfast or the holiday lets, or visiting the gardens, often come to buy fabrics, and vice versa."
The move enabled the company to branch out into selling furniture, lighting, paint, carpets and gifts, as well as fabrics. "We try to cater for all budgets," says Jan. "We do still sell discontinued fabrics on the roll, which can be an excellent way to refurbish a room economically. We have fabrics ranging from 5.99 to 25.00 on the roll."
"But we also have pattern books for all the major suppliers, such as Zoffany, Nina Campbell, Harlequin and Colefax and Fowler. We go to Decorex every year in London to choose new designs, and we go to Maisons et Objets in Paris. We do have some clients who want contemporary patterns - it's all very shiny this year - but on the whole we are biased towards traditional designs.
"We are selling an awful lot of wallpaper at the moment, to people in old houses as well as new. Coles for example have some wonderful, timeless designs which will look good almost anywhere."
"We have a very eclectic mix of customers," says Jan. "They're mostly local, some in Powys, some in Shropshire. Quite a few of them are second home owners.
"The part of the job that I enjoy most is putting a design together. Usually I go to the customer's house first so that I can see the room for myself and find out what the customer wants, what they want to change and what they will keep. I think over the years people have come to trust me, which is vital, so that they are willing to let me help them make decisions. It's a word of mouth thing.
"I see so many beautiful houses. Every time I think I've seen the most beautiful house in the county, I discover another one even better."
Jan gives work to numerous local craftspeople. "We have a professional work room in Llandovery, where our curtains are made. It's a family team: the mother and daughter sew for us and the husband is the fitter." She gets upholstery done by Katie Tyler in Staunton-on-Wye, and commissions bespoke rugs from Alan Wilding in Eardisley.
Two years ago Jan's daughter Eleanor came into the business, having studied lighting. "Lighting is such an important part of any design scheme," says Jan; "and now we can offer to do that as part of our service as well."
How does Jan see the future for her business? "I don't think our customers are going to be too troubled if there is a recession," she says. "Herefordshire is so much steadier than other parts of the country. But I do think that there is going to have to be some consolidation in the trade. There are simply too many products on the market, too many companies competing.
"Herefordshire has been called the graveyard of interior design. But actually it has many advantages over other places. And it's the most beautiful county of all: I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."
Jan Baker Fabrics and Home
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