Button up with Stockwell Ceramics

Posted by Rachel Westall on 1 February 2024

group of buttons in bird shapes When did you start up and why?
I started Stockwell Ceramics in 1989 to make thrown domestic pottery on a small scale. I've always been a maker and wanted to turn my making into an income. My interest was in large decorative pieces using coloured slips and glazes with much of the decoration completed before the first biscuit firing. I continued to experiment with slips and glazes always looking for new effects. Then one day I was taking the small discs that I used for glaze tests out of the latest glaze firing when it occurred to me that if I made holes in them, they would be like buttons. I tried it out and it worked. Hey presto, the birth of my button making future! It was not, however, quite as simple as that. I tested the 'buttons' in the washing machine and found to my amazement that they survived even after several washes. I then received a postcard from a friend showing a collection of buttons made by the well-known potter Lucy Rie. These were a great inspiration together with the discovery that there were many other people making ceramic buttons too. I started to run the button making alongside the domestic pottery on quite a small scale. This of course was in pre internet days when websites weren't even thought of.
The buttons were a pleasant change from large ceramic pieces. A tiny canvas representing a small investment of time and materials on which I could try out almost anything.
The biggest break for my company came when I was asked to make buttons to go in the V&A shop to run alongside their Surrealist Exhibition in 2007. This led to many further requests for products when we expanded our offering into jewellery too.

blue floral buttons What prompted you to launch the business?
I don't think I could say that I ever really launched the business. It was just an idea that grew and evolved gradually generating enough business to employ a steadily increasing workforce. We have remained small. A collection of half a dozen young designers who work with me, together with a handful of outworkers, to produce a wide range of ceramic buttons, brooches, earrings, necklaces, cufflinks and hanging decorations. Everything is painstakingly handmade in our small workshop with everyone sharing their ideas. I think the real launch came when I was able to access government funding to attend marketing seminars and my first two trade shows. I wouldn't have had either the confidence or the financial backing to have done this alone. I was amazed by the positive response and firm orders I received on my first visit to Spring Fair at the NEC. Trade Fairs from then on became a regular feature of the Stockwell Ceramics' year.

What challenges have you overcome since the company's launch?
We've experienced many challenges over the years. It's always difficult in a small company to create the right level of staffing then to maintain it. I'd say that this has and probably always will be an ongoing challenge.
We've always been fortunate in finding funding, much of it from government scheme, although this can be quite a challenge to achieve. We used D.I.T. Match funding to develop our current website as well as funding to attend trade shows and for business advice generally. This has contributed greatly to overcoming the challenge of new investment.
An invitation to attend The British Fair at Hankyu Department Store in Osak, Japan to demonstrate our craft was a big challenge at the time but we decided to go ahead and were rewarded with two more successful visits to Japan over a two-year period.

vintage style floral buttons Tell us about your product offering?
We now produce many ranges of buttons together with brooches, earrings – both stud and drop – necklaces, cufflinks and hanging decorations. We currently major on the bespoke side of our business and have created many bespoke ranges for major museums, National Trust houses, galleries, artists and makers. In order to produce bespoke items, we are privileged to work with many beautiful original copyright designs, which would not otherwise be available to us. This is the part of our work that I personally enjoy most.

What are your most popular designs?
It would be difficult to say what are our most popular designs, although some have remained popular over many years, particularly the designs in our Heritage Ranges of buttons, jewellery and decorations. However, we have a wide variety of designs on offer and they'll have many followers. Our animals and birds never fail to attract new customers and reliably withstand the test of time.

Have any styles taken you by surprise with their popularity?
I think our very first bird brooch depicting a flying bird loosely based on the birds in Braque's paintings, designed and made for the V&A Museum, was a very big surprise in its popularity and has continued to surprise us ever since.

button style pendant necklaces How do you keep your designs fresh and current? Do you follow trends?
We keep our designs fresh and current by constantly extending our offering. We look at currently popular art movements and try to respond to these, often creating new ranges in the process. When asked to create products to run in museum shops alongside a particular exhibition we often take the most successful ideas from these to add to our product ranges. We always try to be aware of trends but not tied to them in any way. We feel that our products are unique to our way of working and to our mode of expression.

What sets you apart from your competitors?
We feel that we're different in that we are always willing to take on projects that will stretch us as designers and craftspeople regardless of financial gain. We totally support the handmade ethos and have no wish to mechanise in a way that would affect the handcrafted nature of our products. Our USP is variety, of which we have much across our many ranges.

Are you active on social media? How is this important for the business?
We use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote our products. We feel that social media, in the current age, is of vital importance as a platform on which to showcase potential and existing items. It's both a means to exhibit new lines and to gather feedback from our customer base.

Do you have any advice for new businesses starting out in the world of gifts and craft?
My advice to any new business starting out in the world of craft/gift would be primarily to price your items at the necessary level to be profitable. You should also search for any funding that may be available for new start-ups, perhaps from national or local government or any charitable organisation, and to invest in a good website which could act as both a catalogue and selling platform if required. Most of all don't give up. If you enjoy what you are doing keep going and the money will come.

group of buttons in dog shapes What can we expect in the future from the company?
We have many collectors of our buttons, based all over the world, which is a direction we'd like to expand together with yet more ranges and ideas. We believe that small is beautiful and therefore intend to stay at our current size in order to continue to produce more quality, handcrafted, gift items for our customers to enjoy.

+44 (0)1579 351 035

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