Mandy and Phil Shaw have lived in their East Sussex home for 26 years and in that time, they have transformed it from a fairly anonymous late Victorian semi-detached villa into a space that is the ultimate expression of them both and their family. Their first house was just two doors along the same street, but when this one came on the market, they jumped at the chance to buy it because it had a workshop and as Phil is a carpenter and joiner, they needed that extra space for his business. From the outside it still seems fairly unremarkable, although there is a clue that it might be slightly unconventional from the French grocer's delivery basket complete with enamel advertisement that is propped up between the split trunk of a silver birch tree in the front garden.
When she answers the door, Mandy gathers us up like a mother hen and leads us into her kitchen where she swiftly serves up coffee, tea and biscuits. The kitchen is a riot of red, white and blue, with Union Jack cushions scattered about on the sofa and armchair. Ted, the rather hairy dog, snuffles about at our feet and is keen to be fussed over. The instant impression seems so welcoming that I forget myself and sit down on the blue linen sofa without even asking. I quickly realise what I've done, and apologise, but Mandy seems only pleased."I want to make people feel at home. I'm a homemaker first and foremost," she says."I can't help myself, that's just what I've always done and what I love best. I want people to feel welcome here and I'm used to having lots of people coming in and out." In the past year or so, Mandy has had to accommodate an awful lot of people 'coming in and out'. Several film crews have worked here, as Kirsty Allsopp's Homemade Home programme has been filmed in the house and studio. Mandy is an expert quilter and teaches sewing from a studio in the garden. She appeared with Kirsty in the first series and has since worked with her on the Christmas special and is now acting as consultant on Kirsty's new book."Kirsty's great fun to have around," beams Mandy."She just mucks in and gets stuff out of the fridge to make sandwiches for everyone when it's time for lunch. It's been great making the programmes."
The room is papered with Harlequin's Brighton design which features pen and ink drawings of Brighton houses, both Regency and modern, accentuated with splashes of red and blue. The main appliances in the kitchen such as the Smeg fridge, the Kitchenaid mixer and the Aga are all British pillar box red."The Aga was payment for a job that Phil did at someone's house where they were replacing the stove," explains Mandy."She stayed in our garage for a couple of years until we could afford to have her re-enamelled. I call her Ruby and I love her." The wooden cupboards have been painted in a light Saxe blue."It's a Farrow & Ball oil-based paint. We use it all over the house because it's so hard-wearing. Phil made all the kitchen cupboards and the larder with the punched zinc panels. He specialises in handmade kitchens and sash windows. I'm really lucky because he just knocks up whatever I need. Nothing's really new in this house, the whole place has just sort of evolved over time. The sofa is ancient and has been recovered so many times I've lost track, but I like the navy linen and the red ric-rac. The cushion with the appliquéd cockerel was made for me by Harvey, my surfer dude son, who actually happens to be very good at sewing too. And the dining table was made from old wardrobes by Phil when he was an apprentice."
The table is covered in a red and white spotted oilcloth and stands in the glass ceilinged breakfast/dining room that the couple built onto the back of the house. Union Jack bunting hangs above the open French doors to the garden and just as we hear a cockerel crowing in the garden, one of the hens struts in and pecks about under the table. Mandy shoos her out and explains that the Maran and Peking bantam hens are called Dolly and Dottie and that the cockerel is called Susie as she was named before anyone realised that she wouldn't be laying any eggs."They're lovely to have around most of the time, and very useful for their eggs as I make lots of cakes too, but I bought some gooseberry bushes for my raised beds the other day, and before I could even plant them in the soil, the chickens had eaten them."
Just in front of the French doors stands a handsome dapple-grey rocking horse." Phil made that for the children and put a time capsule in it, and he made the hobby horse, the wooden Noah's Ark and the train on the shelf above too." This is very much a family room, made for good times, with a Rock-Ola Princess Deluxe jukebox in one corner."We stock it up with songs for Christmas and choose special ones for birthdays too. I hang bunting up (I've got all kinds that I've made over the years) and make the room look really festive." There are bubble gum machines on the window ledges (though filled with buttons rather than candy) and a sewing machine stands on a side table."I have more machines in the studio, but sometimes I just like to sew in here, especially in the winter because it's so cosy to be near the Aga."
A wooden dresser houses a collection of jolly, striped Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper pottery. Mandy fetches a soft rabbit toy that she has just finished making."My daughter Harriet has just announced that she is expecting, so I shall be making lots of baby things from now on. I always include at least one baby project in my books, but I think the next one should be all about babies. I made this as an experiment. You see the mummy bunny has an apron with four little baby bunnies in the pocket – it's like me and my children. I have three daughters, one who is a fashion designer and works for Emma Cook in London, one who is a catering manager at the Royal Albert Hall, and one who is a trained and successful dancer, but who has just taken herself off to Peru to do surfing! Then there's my lovely Harvey, who's the only one still at home. I love that nurturing role as a mother. I used to be an SRN nurse, and I really enjoyed looking after people, but I remember one of my reports said '…Mandy's effervescent personality is sometimes too much for ill patients…' Ouch!" she laughs. Effervescent certainly is a good word for Mandy, and in the context of her home and the fact that she teaches people a skill that is more rarely undertaken now, it only seems a valuable asset.
Back through the hall, Mandy shows us into the study where she keeps her computer for working on her books and website, dandeliondesigns. Painted in two shades of muted grey, the room has a serene feel, with armchairs covered with vintage linen and Mandy's embroidered cushions and blankets. A painted armoire stands in one corner, next to a framed Mersey Beat poster featuring a very fresh-faced Paul McCartney."Phil's a Beatles freak, so this armoire is full of his music." Above the fireplace is an oval mirror, recently purchased at a car boot sale and the mantelpiece holds a small collection of Fulham pottery Constance Spry vases. Mandy points to another bargain hanging above our heads."I bought the chandelier for five pounds at the same car boot sale and I attached these glass buttons that I strung together to make pendants. I like to personalise things."
In the hallway, there is a quilt that Mandy created to mark the Millennium in 2000."I made it from things that tell the story of my family. I used my wedding ring case, bits of the children's clothes, pearl buttons, all sorts of things." At the front of the house is what Mandy calls their 'winter room'. Painted in Farrow & Ball's Plaster Pink, it is furnished with paisley sofas with stripped pine shelving and a wood-burning stove."We only really use this in the colder months, because during the spring and summer I spend as much time as possible outside." Up the stairs, covered with a smart red and cream Roger Oates' runner, we pass a series of black and white photographs of the children taken by Marie Stone. On the landing, there are more quilts hanging on the walls and over the banister.
The family bathroom is decorated with tiny star-patterned wallpaper and duck egg blue painted matchboard panels. Striped linen blinds hang at the windows and a reclaimed roll top bath stands on dark stained floorboards. The room next door belongs to Harriet, and holds a double bed covered with vintage and homemade quilts. There is a child-sized Welsh dresser, one of four that Phil made for all the children, and on a chair an old-fashioned teddy bear ,that might easily be mistaken for Steiff, waits for its owner."She's called Jodie and I made her for Harriet. She's quite heavy, like a real baby. In fact Phil made a child's bed for Harriet when she was little and made an identical one for Jodie too."
Harriet's room is painted in a cheerful paeony pink, but Mandy and Phil's is even more jolly, being one shade more intense. The ornate brass bed was payment for another of Phil's commissions and is covered with an English 'wholecloth', a down-filled covering that was made from one large piece of cloth, but stitched in the style of a quilt, usually by miners' families in the hard times of the 1920s and 30s. Along the bottom of the bed is a wedding ring quilt, in the American 'piecing' style. On the wall there is an alphabet sampler made by Mandy's mother."She made the quilt on the trunk underneath, too, and she used to make rag dolls, toys and jumpers for the children. My poor mum lived with us for the last years of her life, as she had dementia. Mum always sewed, so that's how I learned, really." Mandy made the curtains from a bright Laura Ashley print, but didn't have quite enough fabric, so she lined and edged them with a red and white spot and added frilled pelmets. There is a pink-painted Lloyd loom chair and a striped IKEA rug on the floor. It must be a very cheerful room in which to wake."Ooh yes," Mandy confirms,"and on Christmas morning, the whole family piles into the bed together. This Christmas we'll have a baby with us too! I can't wait." Finally, we make our way through the garden, past some of Mandy's late father's woodcarvings that are dotted about and around the back of Phil's weatherboarded workshop where we climb the stairs to Mandy's studio. Almost every patch of wall is covered in shelving that seems to be groaning under the weight of books, fabrics, patterns, cotton reels, completed and unfinished quilts, soft toys and baskets of ribbons and trimmings. On one wall stands a huge pine cupboard."It's what's called a bachelor's kitchen," explains Mandy."We found it in an antique shop in Hastings and it basically has everything that you might need in a kitchen apart from the sink and the cooker. There are drawers and loads of slats for the shelves so you can adjust them to whatever proportions you want, there's a vertical compartment for an ironing board and a horizontal shelf that pulls out so you can use it as a bread board. It's German, and they were apparently very common there before the war, but most were destroyed during the conflict, or at least very few were brought to Britain. It's great for storing fabrics and so on as you can see, but I never really have enough storage. This is where I teach my workshops and courses. It's very cosy and we sometimes have lunch up here. Usually when I teach quilting, there's a story that goes with the design and I reveal another part of the story as we complete each section. I have courses for beginners and the more advanced and I sell my books, patterns and kits online too, along with some fabrics and haberdashery like ric-rac that is surprisingly difficult to source. I also buy fabrics like old embroidered tray and tablecloths at jumble sales and cut them up to make bunting. I've loved working with vintage fabrics ever since Phil and I worked at Charleston years ago. Vicky Walton was the curator and Phil did a lot of the restoration work, making benches copied from the originals that had rotted away and the gates to the farmhouse. It was fascinating. I helped too, retouching the paint and cataloguing the old fabrics in the house to send to Laura Ashley, who designed a collection around them. Fabrics tell a story, as do quilts. I have designed an American slavery quilt that helps tell a story of a slave's escape to a free state. They're very moving records of those people's lives. I love to feel that with my teaching I can pass on some of that narrative tradition. It's very satisfying to stitch something for, or about your family. My latest book is called Stitch With Love and that sums it up really. "
For more information on Mandy's workshops and to browse her online shop visit www.dandeliondesigns.co.uk Phil can be contacted for carpentry and joinery on 07817 266495