BBC’s The Repair Shop, or: Craftsmanship & Self-Doubt

We don’t watch a great deal of television here at Earthworks. We have a TV near the workbench and once in a while we’ll have a film on in the background. We often listen to audiobooks while we’re working but, more often than not, you’ll find me and Samantha listening to music while we’re making your leather journals.

But, a few days ago, one of us switched on the TV for some reason. It was around 4:45 in the afternoon and the TV was set to BBC1. We were greeted by a craftsperson at a workbench renovating a leather footstool. We were entranced. We had discovered ‘The Repair Shop’! Apparently, it’s on its fourth series (we’re always late to the party!)

the repair shop - bbc

If you haven’t watched The Repair Shop before (and I highly recommend that you do) it’s a celebration of craftsmanship hosted by talented furniture restorer Jay Blades and the concept is this… a group of skilled craftspeople from varying professions have set up shop in a beautiful barn at The Weald & Download Open Air Museum; people visit and bring their treasured possessions, items which have been passed down through the generations, items with huge sentimental value, items which have aged and become worn, damaged and broken. These items are left with the experts who go on to repair, renovate and restore them to their former glory before returning them to their owners.

It’s a beautiful programme, a bit like Bagpuss for grown-ups (not that Bagpuss isn’t for grown-ups too, of course!)

bagpuss mending song - earthworks journals

The Repair Shop has a simple concept perhaps, but the key to it is the emotional relevance people imbue these items with. They have been handed down through the family and the original owners have usually passed away; these items now belong to the children or grandchildren of the original owner and, in some small way, the items contain a little bit of the spirit of the deceased loved one. It’s lovely to see the emotional outpourings when the items are returned, how a simple keepsake can bring that person back, if only for a moment.

While watching the programme in awe Samantha turned to me and said, “These people are so skilled!” I replied, “I know, it’s lovely to see such incredible craftspeople”; we then went on to discuss how amazing it must be to be so skilled at your chosen craft. A few seconds went by and we looked down at our workbench, I was hand tooling an elaborate Celtic design into the cover of an as yet undyed leather journal and Samantha was delicately hand applying a leather dye to another which had just been tooled. We looked at each other and laughed, a strangely nervous laugh.

A4 CELTIC TRISKELE SPIRAL BINDER - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS A4B018

I want to talk about Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is apparently an incredibly common phenomenon in which an individual feels inadequate at their chosen profession and lives in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. I think the highly acclaimed author Neil Gaiman writes about it best with this famous quote:

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that at any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened The Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read.

And also in this remarkable anecdote from Neil Gaiman’s blog:

Neil Gaiman on Imposter Syndrome

Both Samantha and I feel like this every day. If we think about it logically we know that we have sent thousands of hand made leather journals and binders all over the world in our 19 years of making them and out of those we have only had four customers who were unhappy with the quality of their item when it arrived (yes… 4. We remember each one of them like a knife to the heart!). But that still doesn’t stop us fretting about it; it still doesn’t stop us worrying about that metaphorical knock at the door. Each time we send the packaged up journals out in the post we worry about angry emails from people saying “How dare you call yourselves craftspeople!”

But then, perhaps it shouldn’t be called Imposter Syndrome, I suspect the majority of people feel that overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Perhaps even those wonderful and highly skilled craftspeople at The Repair Shop also feel it too. Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps it drives us on closer and closer to perfection? From our own perspective, that fear of being ‘found out’ makes us try harder, not only in the actual crafting of the item but everything else connected with it, from the accounting to the customer service.

It’s a strange thing that even the knowledge that the vast majority of our customers are happy doesn’t allay the fear of not being good enough. We get nothing but glowing reviews on our Etsy shop, we’ve even had Thank You cards sent through the post, and we receive lots of emails every week from people saying how happy they are with our work… and we cannot tell you how much these messages mean to us, they are our lifeline. And, just like in The Repair Shop, we have even had customers moved to tears when they’ve opened their parcel. I think this has something to do with the personal nature of what we make, leather journals are naturally an intimate item; we begin the process by making the journal and the recipient completes the item by filling it with their thoughts. Just like the items people take to The Repair Shop, the journal is truly imbued with the person who owned it, their hands will have created a unique patina on the leather outside and their intimate thoughts will have filled the pages inside. It’s no wonder people become so emotionally attached to them.

A customer with her Earthworks Wraparound Journal

A customer’s own photo of her with her Earthworks Wraparound Journal

We’ve been moved to tears ourselves on occasion too. We’ve had more than one customer who have been told they have a terminal illness and need a journal to write down their story to pass on to their children. Another customer asked us to tool their family crest onto a binder so they could fill the binder with memories and present it to their grandfather who was spending his last days in a hospice; they even sent us a photo afterwards, which we treasure, of them presenting the binder to him. And then there are the books for public buildings, memorial books for churches and cathedrals, items that will become a part of the building’s history. It’s requests like these that make our hearts beat a little faster and make us think… are we really good enough to be making things for such important purposes? But, despite that self-doubt nagging in the background, we do our very best.

Our unofficial company motto should be: “We worry so our customers don’t have to!”

Who knows, if The Repair Shop is still being shown in decades to come (and I hope it is, it deserves to be a national treasure on a par with Antiques Roadshow), perhaps someone will bring in their grandparent’s Earthworks journal for restoration! And you can think of me, I’ll be the one cringing in my grave and fretting that those skilled craftspeople will secretly be mocking the workmanship!!

the repair shop 2 - bbc

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Hospitals, Holidays and Human Kindness, or: Self-employment and the scarcity of sick days.

Christmas is always a busy time for us here at Earthworks, we work all hours in the run up to the holiday season so that we can fit all the orders in. It takes a lot of organisation, not only with the strictly coordinated work list but with our own Christmas shopping for our family too. We wrote a bit about the pre-Christmas stresses on a previous blog post here:

The Quiet Before the Storm

This year though, we had it all planned. As usual the orders came in thick and fast and, as usual, each customer was booked onto the work list and given a precise dispatch date for their order. We’re old hands at this now so it was all going smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that we decided to spare some time and go hand-made with the presents for our families too, a selection of home-made liqueurs and sweets; with military precision the times were allotted for these too. All sorted, all organised, nothing could go wrong.

Or so we thought!

earthworks journals - preparing the orders for shipping

November 30th arrived and Samantha started to feel a little under the weather, nothing much, a bit more tired than usual and a bit of an upset tummy. The next day came and the upset tummy turned into a full blown stomach bug. As the days passed Samantha got worse and worse and we presumed it was a bout of gastroenteritis. Of course, this could have put a spanner in the works of our carefully designed work list but Samantha is very tough, very stubborn and very ‘self-employed’ and refuses to let a silly thing like a violent virus get in the way; so, as much as she could, she worked through it.

She did, of course, visit the GP who confirmed that it was gastroenteritis and that it would run its course soon. Ten days later and Samantha was even worse, so ill that she couldn’t get up off the sofa, this was just not like her so I phoned the GP again and got an appointment for that afternoon.

By 5pm, we were sitting amongst the walking wounded in the A&E department of our hospital. It turned out that the ‘bit of a stomach bug’ Samantha had been working through was a burst appendix! In a flurry of activity by the incredibly amazing hospital staff, she was soon hooked up to a drip (massively dehydrated), pumped full of painkillers and antibiotics, scanned, questioned and examined. Samantha wasn’t going to be coming back home with me!

Since Samantha and I moved in together in 1993, we’ve only spent one night apart… and that was when I had to stay in the hospital overnight (due to an over-zealous jig… but that’s another story!), so it was a new experience for me. I got home at about 3 in the morning, the house was dark and cold, Tanner and Hob (our Border Terriers) had no idea what was going on. I looked at the mountain of work that was to be done, thought about my Sam in hospital and felt a bit lost and alone. I fell asleep cuddling Tanner and Hob. However bad things get, the closeness of a dog will always make things more bearable.

tanner and hob - border terriers - earthworks journals

Sam remained in hospital for the next five days. The surgeon made an incision just to the side of the base of her spine and inserted a pipe into her abdomen to drain the pus which had collected there into a bag which hung by her bed. There was so much of the foul smelling stuff! We still do not know just how long this had been going on for but the scans showed that a series of abscesses had formed around the appendix, each time one started to leak, Sam’s body walled it off by growing another abscess next to it. The growth ended up so large that it was pressing on one of her kidneys and semi-blocking her rectum. The surgeon said that a day or two longer and we would have lost the kidney altogether. Any longer than that and Samantha could have died.

As you can imagine, this was quite a stressful time. Of course, I visited Samantha in hospital twice a day. Then there was the question of the work. Although I worked every hour I was not with Samantha I knew that, with one half of the Earthworks workforce missing, there was no way I was going to get all of the orders completed to get them out in time for Christmas.

But I had a bloody good go at it!

It was good to have the work to sink into. Being at my workbench, handling the tools and materials which I’ve become so familiar with over the years, has a habit of stilling my mind; there can be something quite meditative about it. Although the work didn’t completely block out my worries, it certainly helped; without being that busy I know that I would have been a bit of a wreck.

jason in the workshop - earthworks journals

Then, of course, came the time when I knew which orders would not be completed before Christmas and I would have to contact those customers. There was something very upsetting about this. In all our years of business, we have never sent out a single item later than the day promised. Something we’ve always been very proud of. However, here it was… and just before Christmas too, when most of them were intended as gifts for loved ones.

I sent out the emails of apology, explaining the situation and offering every customer the opportunity of a full refund. I expected a few disappointed or angry replies and I was certain that most would want the refund. Without wishing to sound cavalier about the situation, the money was another real consideration for us, we do not earn a great deal from what we do and we rely on the boost in Christmas sales to help us through the year but if we’ve let people down then it’s only fair that we accept that responsibility. With the emails sent I nervously waited for the replies.

Not a single person wanted to cancel their order! Not a single person!! Not only that, every customer was so kind. Reply after reply of encouragement and hope came in, telling me not to worry, that they can wait for their order, that our loved ones are more important than possessions, telling me to make sure that I looked after myself as well as Samantha. I’d been doing my best to hold my emotions in until this point but I’m not afraid to admit that I shed a tear or two at those emails, the sheer kindness of people overwhelmed me (…ok, I actually sobbed like a baby right there at the computer, but don’t tell anyone).

Anyway, Samantha was well enough to come home again five days after being admitted. Still weak and still with the drain and pus-bag attached, which became her constant Christmas companion and got removed the day after Boxing Day. Every order was completed and dispatched in time for the second promised date. Oh, and our families hand-made liqueurs and sweets? We finished those over the Christmas week and they became New Year presents instead.

Samantha’s still not quite up to full strength but she is doing very well and has a follow-up consultation at the hospital next week. She never ceases to amaze and surprise me. Through all of this she as remained bright and happy, even the nurses on her ward said how it was easy to forget just how ill she was as she gave the appearance of being so well.

It perhaps seems a bit strange writing about this personal incident on our business blog, although the business and the personal tend to blur in our situation. I suppose it’s just to say thank you. Thank you to the amazing NHS staff for saving Sam’s life. Thank you to our wonderful customers for being so kind and supportive (you’ll never know how much your kindness helped us through this). And most of all, thank you to Samantha for being incredibly strong and courageous… and, y’know, for not dying.

Different Ways of Seeing: or, Taking The Road Less Travelled By.

 

SUN DOGS - EVENING WALK NORTHAMPTONSHIRE - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

It’s been a strange year.

Our regular customers will know that we launched our new and improved website one year ago to combat the lacklustre look and poor performance of the old one. Even though the things we make, and us as people, are quite analogue, we still need to keep up with new technology; striking that peculiar balance between the hand-made nature of the journals and the mind-bending technology needed to get people to see those journals.

Admittedly, we’ve never been totally comfortable in this new technological age but we’ve learnt that we need to keep our eyes and minds open to it because, if we do not embrace change early, then those changes will probably overwhelm us later on.

We’re pleased to report that here and now, one year later, all the hard work seems to have paid off. We’ve had some lovely messages from our old customers to let us know how good the new website looks and how much easier it is to use than the old one and we’ve been getting plenty of new friends of Earthworks Journals too.

Of course, this increase in customers has meant that we have been very busy in the workshop. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that our waiting list has been a bit longer, that we haven’t been keeping up with social media and that we haven’t sent a newsletter out for a while.

But, we’d just like to let you know that, even though we haven’t been on social media and that we haven’t sent out a newsletter for a while, it doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate you! We do! Very much! It’s just that we haven’t had much time to do anything else.

Not that we tend to do much else, anyway. We lead a strange and insular life in our workshop home; just the two of us with our two Border Terriers, Tanner and Hob. We’re not ones for socialising; we don’t go to pubs or out for meals; we rarely go to the theatre or cinema; we don’t go shopping (bar the occasional rummage around a bric-a-brac shop or second-hand bookshop); we inhabit our own world.

Our one diversion is walking.

Often we will spend weekends going on, what we call, our big walks. These are usually around 10 miles long, planned out by plotting three random points on an OS map and finding a route between them. This means that we usually miss out on the well-worn picturesque locations but we do find some peculiar and interesting places along the way:

But even these ‘big walks’ have been put on the back burner this year due to the combination of a heavy workload and the abnormally hot summer (neither us nor the dogs do well in the heat). Even the daily dog walk was changed in the exceptional summer this year; rather than going out mid-afternoon, we started to take the dogs out to our local woods late in the evening, just as it was getting dark.

It’s remarkable what a difference a simple change can make if we embrace it rather than fight against it. It’s easy to bemoan a change to a well-worn routine without appreciating how it can make us look at life a little differently.

EVENING LIGHT - HARLESTONE FIRS - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

Obviously, we’ve been out in the woods at night before, but to break a well-established routine and do it every night lets you experience the woods in a different light. Quite literally! Everything is different; the golden glow of the last of the light drifts in sideways and makes the trees look like oil paintings; the musty smells of the forest floor are intensified at night and become strangely comforting; and the sounds! The woods come alive as the darkness arrives. We’ve seen foxes, deer, badgers and bats; all things that shy away from the daytime crowds.

WALKING IN THE WOODS - HARLESTONE FIRS - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

I think it’s important that we strive to do this once in a while, just to try and see things differently. When we first had the idea to start Earthworks Journals it seemed like a bit of a pipe dream. Could we really make a living making leather journals? On the rare occasion we meet someone and tell them what we do, they often say “What, and you make a living doing that?”. We know it seems unlikely, yet we do. I mean, let’s face it, we’re never going to be rich doing it, but that’s not why we do it. We do it so that we can comfortably inhabit our own world. That was always the plan. To earn enough to pay our own way and not take anything in benefits; to not allow our business to lose its way in the pursuit of money; to be free to live our own life, however small and strange that life may be!

It’s not completely stress free, obviously. We still have to worry about how the next bill is going to be paid, just like everyone else but…

… walking around our woods always makes things right.

I’ve been going there my entire life; I went there as child with my dad; I went there in my teenage years with friends; and I still go there now with Samantha and the dogs. Whenever we get stressed, anxious or unhappy a walk in the woods will, more often than not, help to quell those worries. Some days Samantha and I will walk around excitedly discussing new ideas for Earthworks, other days we will walk around in near silence with our own thoughts. It was in the woods where we discussed and planned this blog post.

I invariably turn to Henry Thoreau quotes on these blog posts to put my transcendentalist ramblings into a far more eloquent form. And this one’s no different:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”
~ Henry David Thoreau

Or that other great philosopher:

“What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself!”
~ Tom Good, The Good Life

(All photos on this post by Samantha Webster.)

Au revoir, eBay ~ or, sour grapes only produce whine.

We don’t like to publicly rant or whine about things here at Earthworks. We believe that the buying experience for our customers should be like a lovely evening at the theatre, you should just experience the best part and not be privy to all the stressful stuff that goes on behind the scenes. However, for the sake of solidarity with our fellow online sellers, what follows is a bit of a whining rant.

EBAY SQUEEZING THE LITTLE MAN - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

Doing what we do for a living, making things and hoping the buying public will exchange money for those things, can be quite an unstable existence at times. We have no problem with the actual making of the things, we’re confident about that, it’s the bit that comes naturally to us; but it’s getting those things in front of the buying public which can be the tricky part.

Samantha and I started making things in the mid-1990s. Of course, this was before the time when everyone had a computer in their home and when the Internet, to most people, was just some vague and suspiciously ethereal entity used only by governments, backroom boffins and Sci-Fi criminals. What on Earth could a couple of simple craftspeople want with anything like that? No, back in the olden days, before ebay became popular, before Etsy was even a twinkle in a proto-hipster’s eye, the only real recourse for selling our goods was the humble craft fair.

We had our first craft fair stall in 1996 and it was terrifying. We’d never shown the things we made to anyone other than friends and family so to put them out there for sale was a daunting prospect. It was only a tiny church hall type of a thing and we made £36.50 which, to us then, was a roaring success. Over the next nine years we went on to bigger and better fairs and shows, travelling all over the country.

It was exhausting!

Ok, we were full of the vigour of youth back then but working all hours Monday to Friday to make stock and then to travel and sell at shows at the weekends really takes it out of you. There was just no let up. And then there was the constant worry of the possibility of not making any money, which happened often. Anyone that works the shows will know that there are so many variables at work which can decide whether you’ll come out of a show relatively wealthy and happy or completely skint and miserable; the time of year; the weather; the co-incidence of a big sporting event; the weather; the death of a major public figure; the weather. But, it wasn’t all bad, spending the weekend camping in our converted van in the grounds of a stately home in glorious weather with crowds of people queueing to buy your goods and telling you how wonderful your work is can be a great experience; and we met some fascinating and incredibly talented people on the circuit too.

But, all good things come to an end. The shows got more and more expensive to attend, and the attendees got less and less, so, we in turn were making less and less money at them. We found we were getting progressively poorer and progressively more exhausted. It looked like we were going to have to give it all up and get proper jobs. In 2005, as a last ditch effort we decided we’d have a go at this internet thing and put something up for sale on this website we’d heard about. It was called eBay.

It was quite a slow start but we soon built up a successful shop on eBay and were able to cut the shows out completely. We still went to them, of course, but as punters instead of sellers. We’d see all of our old friends still manning their stalls and we’d tell them about how incredible eBay was, how we were still selling our goods even though we were out gallivanting. The old stalwarts were an untrusting lot though and most declared it to be a flash in the pan, this fashion for online selling would soon pass and we’d be back at the shows with our tails between our legs.

We loved eBay back then. Selling online freed up so much of our time so we could concentrate on growing the business. In the following years we opened a shop on Etsy and set up our own website. Everything was good.

Then, a few years ago, the rot began to set in. Ebay suddenly wasn’t such a nice place to be, new management came in and, with them, new rules, restrictions and regulations. It seemed that every few months we were having to update every single listing on our shop, including having to take new photographs, to keep up with their constantly changing image size requirements. While we were doing this we were treated to more and more factory produced competition (some of them even having the gall to steal our designs!), so our humble selves sank further and further into the black, unseen depths of the eBay ranking systems. Then they decided to penalise us for not being able to send out items out within two days of purchase, there was no room on eBay for custom made goods any more. They were sapping the love out of our business by constantly sending us emails to tell us how they would punish us with lower visibility and ever escalating fees if we didn’t conform to what they wanted us to be.

And then, of course, in 2014 eBay failed to keep up with changes to the Google search system which meant that we were becoming even more invisible!

To top it all off, a few days ago we received an email from eBay telling us that from July of this year (2017) every single one of our photographs on our eBay shop, the photographs we have spent countless hours working on, will all go into a central eBay catalogue and will be free to use by any eBay seller in the whole world. Well, isn’t that just incredibly magnanimous of you eBay? How lovely of you to give away our hard work to anyone that asks for it. Of course, this isn’t going to benefit the smaller sellers on eBay, they are the ones who have been toiling away, like us, to produce the photographs; this is only going to benefit the massive sellers, the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ sellers; they’re the ones eBay want to develop on the back of the those that still have a passion for what they do.

 

However, our Etsy shop has gone from strength to strength. Our own website ticks over quite nicely and, as some of you will know, we’re in the process of building a brand new online home for Earthworks Journals which will hopefully be even better. With this in mind, we’ve made the decision to close our eBay shop for good.

If any of our eBay customers would like to know where we are then you can visit our website here:

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS WEBSITE

Or our Etsy shop here:

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS ETSY SHOP

Twelve long years we’ve been with you, eBay. It’s traditional to give silk as a gift for a twelfth anniversary present and, although I admire anyone who has the wit and imagination to break with tradition, I think giving us a big box of despair instead was a bit of a kick in the teeth. We’ve poured our heart and soul, and our time and money, into our relationship with you, eBay, but it’s time we moved on. As a great philosopher once said:

“At first I was afraid, I was petrified, I kept thinking I could never live without you by my side; but then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong and I grew strong. I learned how to get along.”

So, it’s au revoir, eBay! I’d like to say it’s been nice knowing you … but we both know that would be a lie. I’d like to say, it’s not you, it’s me … but we both know it’s you. Sure, we had some fun in the old days, but you changed and the bitterness set in. So, eBay, by the time you read this message, I’ll be gone.

But then, I doubt very much you’ll even notice me leaving.

 

POSTSCRIPT

If there are any other small businesses out there, crafts-people, artists, vintage goods sellers, who feel stuck in a rut with their selling outlets (we know from the eBay forums that there are many of you) then we know how it can feel like you’re desperately trying to swim against the spiralling waters which are trying to drag you down the plug-hole. Just remember that these outlets need you to exist, you’re the creator and they are merely the middle-men. They often seem to forget that we, as sellers, are their customers and we should be treated with same respect as our customers expect from us. So, if one outlet isn’t working then don’t let them drag you down, get out there and find what works for you.

We’re lucky to be living in an age where there are so many possibilities.

What we do in the quiet times.

Well, the thing is, we rarely get quiet times. Sometimes we long for quiet times but, the paradox is, if things are quiet then business is slow and if business is slow then there’s the worry that we will not be able to keep a roof over our heads and that worry drowns out the peace of any quiet times we may have had in the first place. I would call it a vicious circle but, when all’s said and done, we know we’re quite lucky to be doing what we’re doing and it’s really quite a pleasant circle to be in.

Luckily though, our customers keep us busy pretty much all of the time. We’ve been getting more and more people sending us their custom designs to tool onto the covers of our leather journals and binders.

We love this!

The vast range of uses our customers put our work to astounds us and you can see a few examples on our custom gallery here:

CUSTOM GALLERY

Usually March and April are our quietest months of the year, they always have been. In our seventeen years of business it has always been the same. January and February are busy, March and April are slow, May gets busy again and it stays that way for most of the year, getting hair-tearingly busy towards Christmas. However, this March and April, although a little slower than the rest of the year, have still been pretty busy.

We would normally be using the relative peace of the springtime to develop new ranges, something we rarely get time to do at any other time of the year. But this year we’ve had to put that aside so that we can do something far more important.

We’re making a new online home for Earthworks! Here’s a sneaky screenshot from the new homepage:

Earthworks Journals new website 2017 preview

It’s about time really, our website has been with the old host for years and although they have been generally quite reliable they seem to be resolutely refusing to move with the times. We still don’t really have a satisfactory way for people to browse our site on mobile devices! So, we will be saying farewell to our old host, we will up anchor and sail the good ship Earthworks to a more civilised land where mobile compatibility comes as standard and where SEO has been discovered.

Our old site is obviously still up and running (so please continue to buy, as usual) while we’re behind the scenes creating the new one. When we first had the idea we thought, “That’ll be a quick and easy job, we’ll have it up and running in a few weeks”. That was back in January. We have become very, very aware that it has been a very, very long time since we built the last one. Even though basic templates make things easy, the strange and esoteric modern coding is, well . .  strange and esoteric!

Here at Earthworks we are much more at home with physical tools than we are with virtual ones. We are skilled with things that cut, groove, indent, gouge, split and stain. Put us in front of a computer and you’ll find us, at best, scratching our heads and, at worst, slumped over the desk sobbing with despair.

Earthworks Journals leather tools and celtic design

But, we insist (perhaps ill-advisedly) on doing every single thing within Earthworks ourselves. Call us pernickety, call us control-freaks, call us obsessive fools (you wouldn’t be the first), but we will get there. The new website will be created. Perhaps later rather than sooner, but we will get there. And it will function beautifully, we insist upon it!

And when it’s finished, it will be a glorious thing! No more clunky old website. Earthworks Journals will have a sleek new home.

You must come and visit when it’s done. We’ll be sending out an invite to all Friends of Earthworks when it’s complete so you can come and let us know what you think.

What do you mean? You’re not a Friend of Earthworks? Very well, you can sign up on our website in the footer on our homepage. After all, you won’t want to miss out on our Grand Opening Discount Weekend!

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS

17 years old today!

Earthworks Journals, 17 years of handmade journals.

Earthworks Journals is seventeen years old today!

Who’d have thought that the little amoeba of a business we conceived all that time ago is edging its way cautiously into being a proper grown-up? We feel so proud.

All of that nurturing we did in the early years certainly paid off. Ok, we were quite lucky in that it was always quite well behaved and mostly did what it was told. There were a few sleepless nights when we’d lay awake worrying about it and talking about its future; but everyone does that, right?

And then the last couple of years were a bit tough, but those mid-teen years are always a bit tough. All that work we put in while it was young, trying to socialise it and get it seen in all the right places fell by the wayside. The next time we looked Earthworks was 16 years old and the internet had decided to change all the search engine optimisation rules while we weren’t looking! Honestly, you can’t take your eyes off them for a moment! Still, we caught it just in time and they’re playing together nicely again now.

We thought, as a treat, we’d buy Earthworks Journals a special birthday present this year. It’s been knocking about in a rather clunky old website since it was young and, to be honest, it’s beginning to outgrow it. It still looks ok, if a little old-fashioned, but it is a bit over-complicated, the payment gateway is a bit on the creaky side and it’s impossible to make it look good on mobile devices (which isn’t great as half the world seems to have thrown away their desktop computers).

So, in the spirit of modernity, we’re in the process of creating a shiny new website for Earthworks. We see all these slick young websites coming along with their fashionable good-looks and modern, if somewhat aloof, ways and we think that if we gave Earthworks a spit and polish and a bit of a trim then we could fit its gruff, home-crafted ways into one of those sleek vehicles without losing any of its affability.

So, a very Happy Birthday to Earthworks Journals. We’re proud that it’s still here after 17 years, all thanks to our wonderful customers, new and old. It’s all very exciting, you’ll soon be able to visit Earthworks on a proper up-to-date website; we’re working on it at this very moment and we’ll let you know when it’s ready.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

It’s that time of year again. Spring is approaching; very slowly perhaps, but it is approaching. Taking Tanner out on his daily walks we’re seeing the leaves on the birches beginning to burst; the first dapple of blackthorn blossom in the hedgerows; the first glow of catkins on the willows.bluebells

It’s just the time of year when our imagination comes out of hibernation and we start to look forward. A time to think about the summer and all the adventures it has in store.

I’ve been looking back over my own journals this winter and found they are mostly written during the warmer months. The few entries from the winter months are more likely to be introspective meanderings; whereas the summer entries are much more external, more about the physical, more about the things I’m actually doing. It’s like the sun allows us to experience life outside of ourselves. And, of course, re-reading those summer entries allows me to experience them again, in a small way.

We tend to live a simple life, myself and Samantha, we spend most of our time in the workshop and when we’re not in the workshop, we like to go for walks (I say ‘walks’, but they tend to be long romps exploring weird places other people rarely go). Some people think our life is boring, but we like to think of it as simple.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

~Henry David Thoreau

beachSo, in the spirit of looking forward to warmer days; to travelling; to walking; to holidays; to whatever you like to do when the sun shines on you (and to keeping a note of all those things in your Earthworks journal, so you can look back on them when winter comes around again!), I thought I’d share a few inspirational quotes from a favourite writer of mine, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau (1817-1862) is perhaps most famous for his book Walden, in which he records his experiences of living a simple life, over a period of two years, in a cabin he built in the woods.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

~Henry David Thoreau

Of course, living a modern life in a modern world it’s unlikely to be possible for us to give it all up and bugger off to the woods for a couple of years, as much as we might want to sometimes. But, should we wish to, we can live by the spirit of the quote. I suppose Samantha and I have created a metaphorical cabin in the woods with our workshop. It may be a lowly red brick terrace in a non-descript small town but it’s where we do real things, we’ve filled it with the tools of our trade, we heat it with a wood-burning stove and we have a window which looks out onto our small garden which we’ve made into a tiny sanctuary for wildlife. It’s a simple thing and I think a lot of us have that metaphorical ‘cabin in the woods’; whether it’s a tool-shed; a favourite spot in the garden; a study; a particular park bench; even your favourite chair. It’s that place where we can become ourselves and shed the trappings of modern life; we’re very lucky that we get to be in ours most of the time.

garden

Another of Thoreau’s best known essays is his treatise on ‘Walking’. He thought of this essay as one of his key pieces of writing, one which encompassed all of his other work.

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”

“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”

~Henry David Thoreau

Again, we may not be quite willing or ready to send our embalmed hearts back to our loved ones when we go missing in the wilderness. We may have been open to this in our younger days, when we would set off around the country, often selling our wares, in our clapped out old camper-van (we were never quite sure whether we’d make it back alive in that thing!), but these days we’re as partial to our home-comforts as anyone. We’re more than happy to take Thoreau’s spirit with us out on our adventures, but we do like a warm bath and our own bed on our return.

But Thoreau’s greatest work is thought to be his own journals. Compulsively writing about his everyday life and all that surrounded him he filled forty seven volumes, that’s around seven thousand pages, with his thoughts. In these journals can be found the first seeds of his books, essays and poetry.

And so, to finish off, one more beautifully apt quote from Thoreau which will hopefully inspire you to record your own life for future generations, if you haven’t succumbed to the bug of journalling yet!

“A written word is the choicest of relics.”

~Henry David Thoreau

journals and maps

Happy Birthday To Us!

It’s Earthworks Journals’ 16th birthday today. Samantha and I have been making things together for a bit longer than that but we made it all official on a bright Tuesday afternoon on February 15th 2000. And people thought the world would end at the turn of the millennium! For us, it was just beginning.

YEARS IN BUSINESS 16 cream

The journey of any small business is rarely a smooth one, there’s always the chance of stormy seas, pirates, even massive whirlpools which threaten to suck you out of existence on occasion. We’ve been very lucky that, for the most part, it’s been pretty calm sailing. We haven’t encountered too many problems and we’ve met a lot of nice people on the way. The last year or so though! We’ve all seen some economic uncertainties, I think. We’ve noticed a bit of a downturn ourselves, I’m sure our eagle-eyed customers will notice that our waiting times have been perhaps just a little shorter of late? People just don’t seem to have quite as much spare cash to buy luxury items at the moment and when it’s a choice between a beautiful new leather journal and putting food on the table then it’s obvious that we need to choose the latter.

Of course you can always choose the former and write about the injustice of the hunger you’re feeling in your beautiful new leather journal instead!

So, Earthworks is in the middle of those difficult teenage years but we are nothing if not stubborn parents and we refuse to let it lay around not earning its keep. We have a lot of exciting projects on the horizon for the coming year.

Exciting project ~ 1

It’s a dangerous business going to our leather supplier as he knows exactly the sort of leathers we like and we always end up spending more than we intended. We like leathers that actually look like proper leather rather than heavily processed leathers which have all of their natural leatheriness taken away. So, when he showed us these new Italian leathers we just had to take a couple of hides straight away. This is a thick, natural vegetable tanned leather which has been heavily oiled and waxed, which makes it incredible hardwearing. We like to think that if Mad Max gave up his career as a post-apocalyptic road warrior and settled down into a home-based office job then this is exactly the sort of ring binder / journal he would choose; due to the rugged outdoorsiness of them we shall be calling these our Outback Classics. They will be up on the website very soon, here’s a sneaky peak:

a b

Exciting project ~ 2

Some of you may remember that we said we would be introducing a lined paper option for our journals some time ago. Unfortunately we encountered difficulties with this and it never came about. You’ll be glad to know that we think we may have sorted this out (finally) and we hope to be introducing it over the next few months!

A5 LINED PAPER PERM

 

Exciting project ~ 3

As well as our passion for leather and all things journaling, we also have an interest in letterpress. This year we’re hoping to combine the two! We’re experimenting with inking text onto leather using traditional letterpress techniques. We can’t put into words how excited we are about this, we get to play with tools and typefaces; two of our favourite things!

letterpress

Exciting project ~ 4

This one’s top secret. If Earthworks has reached its 16th birthday then perhaps we can consider giving it a baby sibling! You may hear the patter of tiny tools very soon! This one will hopefully grow into something beyond journals and journey into new realms of leatheriness. Let’s keep it between ourselves for now.

question

The Quiet Before The Storm

Every year in the Earthworks workshop, sometime around early to mid-October, it all goes very quiet. The email inbox seems strangely empty, the number of sales drops off considerably, even the amount of questions we receive goes down in number.

In the early days we would often worry about this and think “Oh no, nobody loves us anymore!”

But nowadays, we’ve come to recognise the signs and we fully understand the cause. It’s the pre-Christmas lull. We know you’re all out there, mulling over what Christmas presents you’re going to buy for who but it’s perhaps just a little too early to commit to anything just yet. And, of course, you’re not buying anything for yourself because you’re saving your hard-earned cash to spend on your loved ones.

So, now we know about this temporary period of quietude, what do we do with the time? Of course, we use it wisely and spend it doing our own Christmas shopping! We plan our present buying with military precision and try and get as much of it done as we can now, this is because we know that very, very soon the chaos will begin.

Stocking up on leather for the festive season.

Stocking up on leather for the festive season.

Towards the end of October we’ll see a steady increase in sales and, as the items will be intended as gifts, we’ll get more and more requests for personalisation.

By the beginning of November it will start to get really busy. We usually do all of our office work, processing the sales, answering questions, etc. in the morning. This usually takes around an hour, but as we move into November it will start to take around a couple of hours. Every year without fail, with it being busy like this, we say to each other “Well, this isn’t too bad, don’t know what we were worried about.”

Then we get towards the end of November and things get really busy. Our Christmas waiting list is almost full, the morning office work takes up most of the afternoon too, which means we’re working late into the night making the journals. We find we’re working from the minute we wake in the morning to the moment we go to bed at night. We’re living on a few hours sleep and whatever meals we can prepare and eat quickly (usually standing around discussing what we should do next).

Of course, if we were producing the journals and binders on a machine then none of this would matter, we could just churn them out like a factory. But we don’t, we like to make sure that each hand-made item is perfect, and you just can’t rush things like that.

Personal message on back cover of Brown Journal

Personal message on back cover of Brown Journal

And then, sometime around the beginning of December our Christmas waiting list is completely full. All of the orders are booked in on the respective dispatch dates, each and every customer has been informed when they will receive their parcel. But still the orders keep rolling in and our January dispatch days start to fill.

The busyness continues relentlessly, every waking moment a continuous whirl of paperwork, leatherwork and dispatching until the very last posting day before Christmas. That last bag of parcels goes to the post office, we contact each of those customers to let them know their journal or binder is on its way and to give them their tracking number.

Then that’s it for another year, we collapse in a heap on the sofa in front of a roaring fire and, more often than not, crack open the first of the sloe gin (which is coming along nicely as I’m writing this, by the way).

Our sloes steeping in gin.

Our sloes steeping in gin.

We look at each other and one of us will say, “How did we get through that?”. But, of course, we’re fully aware that the cycle will carry on and next October the quite period will arrive again and at the beginning of November we’ll say, “Well, this isn’t too bad, don’t know what we were worried about.”

And so it goes on!

 

p.s. And if you think this post was written in a blatant attempt to get you all to buy early for Christmas then yes, you’re absolutely right. As you know, all of our items are handmade and we offer a personalisation service, this means we cannot make them in advance. We really hate to disappoint our customers, especially over the festive period, but every year we get lots of people who unfortunately leave it too late and we’re unable to make them something in time.

Looking forward to those bright winter walks with Tanner the Earthworks Mascot in the Xmas holiday!

Looking forward to those bright winter walks with Tanner the Earthworks Mascot in the Xmas holiday!

“Take care of all your memories, for you cannot relive them.”

I had a look through some of my old journals today. It’s not something I do very often. I’ve been keeping them, on and off, since I was very young and it always feels oddly intrusive when I look back at the old ones, almost as though the older me is peering over the shoulder of the younger me. I can still remember the younger me and I think that he thinks the older me can be rather judgmental when he reads what he has written.

The worst thing is when I look back at my very first notebook which I kept when I was a teenager. A small black leatherette thing with an elastic strap that has long since perished to a sagged and oversized ribbon (that’s why we never use elastic as a closure on an Earthworks Journal).This is it:

1st notebook

As you might expect from a first journal, angst drips from every word; from the first embryonic dabblings at poetry to the awful self-pitying rants which span several pages. There are also mementos slipped inside the cover; a handful of old cinema and gig tickets, a couple of group photos of friends who seemed so important at the time but who I haven’t seen in the last quarter of a century and a page full of Woody Allen one-liners torn from a magazine.

When looking through this notebook part of me wants to pat that young lad on the shoulder and say, “Listen, I know it doesn’t seem like it at the moment but everything turns out alright. Believe it or not you’ll fall in love soon and, with that woman, you’ll actually start your own business making leather journals for other people to write stuff in. Those people will fill those books with all of the wonderful and terrible things that happen to them, just like you have.”

But, knowing that young lad like I do, I probably wouldn’t do that because I know he’d just turn round and shout “Get off me you old weirdo, you don’t understand! No one understands!!”.

And he’d be right. I’m 46 years old now, a long time since I had a teenager’s frame of mind. I would find it difficult to understand him.

BUT, and here’s the thing, I can remember him. I have his thoughts right there in front of me now in his old journal because, and I’m really thankful to him for this, he chose to write them down for me. Not for anyone else. He wrote them down for me!

And, of course, if you haven’t started keeping a journal yet it’s never too late. I’m still writing away in them now for the seventy year old me to read. He’ll have quite a collection to get through, here are some of my more recent ones. Of course, I only ever use our own Earthworks Journals to write in now. Why would I use anything less!! They’re all a little battered from our travels and adventures together but, unlike that little black leatherette one I started with all those years ago, they age a little more gracefully.

own journals

I wonder if the seventy year old me will be just as judgmental when he reads them. I can imagine him now, shaking his head at the things this middle-aged whippersnapper gets up to.

P.S. ~ The title of this post is courtesy of Bob Dylan.