I’m really pleased to be beginning a new blog series this week, showcasing designer-makers who have just started out.
Creatives who have been working hard on their business for years are enormously inspiring, but I’m also in awe of those who are in the midst of making their first sales, still honing their craft, and just achieving so much in so short a time!
This week, we meet Sam Girl, half of the brilliant Grey Letter Press duo, who started out only a few months ago.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started printing.
My husband and I started Grey Letter Press together at the tail end of 2014. We’ve both always had an interest in stationery and printing. In fact, we first met working for a stationery publisher; Samuel was a paper engineer, and I was in production. As my arrival meant there were two Sam’s in the same company, we ended up being called Sam Boy and Sam Girl, and that has stuck. I’m now working in children’s book publishing, and Sam Boy has moved more into the digital industries.
Sam Boy has a bit more of a creative / artistic background, so he tends to handle most of that aspect of the business. I’m more of a words and numbers girl really, so in that way I guess we’re a pretty good team. One of the fantastic things about letterpress is once you have a grasp of they key techniques, creating lovely pieces of work is very feasible; even if like me, you’re not usually good with your hands or don’t consider yourself ‘creative’ in the traditional sense.
The origin of our specific interest in letterpress is hard to pinpoint, but I remember seeing some Victorian handbills (for whippet racing I think) in a museum and just loving the style of them. We ended up emulating this when we designed our wedding invites. We had them letterpressed and were delighted with them, and our obsession has grown from there.
The first time we had a go at printing ourselves was at short workshop with the delightful folk at Turnbull Grey. It was very much a taster course, but really whet our appetites! Neither of us counting patience amongst our virtues, we immediately bought ourselves a dilapidated old Adana 8×5 from ebay. We enjoyed a lovely sunny weekend refurbishing the press in our garden and once she was assembled we were champing at the bit to get printing.
However, having had no real technical training at all, we found our initial experiments were less than satisfying. We realised we had a lot more to learn, and accordingly booked ourselves onto a one-day Adana course at the St. Brides Library. I can thoroughly thoroughly recommend this, it was one of the most fun and productive days I have ever had. We ended up staying late after everyone else had gone home, chatting with the tutor (bless his patience!) about how we might move forward and start really getting involved with letterpress as a business. We stopped off in the pub on our way home that night, just brimming with enthusiasm for what we could create. I remember a tangible sense of excitement, like we could actually DO this, properly.
Since then, letterpress has kind of taken over our lives. We made another impulsive eBay purchase, this time a gorgeous 1940s Stephenson Blake proof press, which now dominates our kitchen, and we use that for most of our printing. We set ourselves the challenge of printing our own Christmas cards for 2014, and managed to do not only that, but ended up launching our website as well. In short, we got massively carried away in a very short space of time, and I am loving it.
Tell us a bit about your process, from idea to design to final product.
Initially, as we were only working from vintage print blocks that we could scavenge online or from markets, it would be a case of finding a block we liked the look of and thinking, what can we do with this? Since we have started working with photopolymer plates, of course, we have much more freedom with our designs. Some of our best ideas have come from taking a format that we thought was good, and then tweaking it slightly, say by making it oversized, or tiny (we love white space!), or having it bleeding off the edge of the card for example.
We spend a huge amount of time drafting and then discarding various ideas. For every 50 designs we instigate, perhaps only one or two will have ‘legs’ (not literally). We’ve found one of our strengths is not being afraid to admit when something isn’t working, even if we’ve already spent time and money on it (having plates made etc.). We’re both kind of perfectionists I suppose, and if we don’t fall in love with something once we’ve started printing it, it won’t see the light of day, until we’re 100% happy with it.
My personal favourite part of the whole process is mixing the inks ready for printing. We’re currently using water washable inks. We’re reluctant to use the solvents required for traditional oil-based inks, as we only have our kitchen to work in. It is better for the environment as well, which is important to us. It’s extraordinary the range of beautiful colours that one can mix by hand using only a small selection of base colours, it feels like magic sometimes.
Our actual printing process is pretty manual. The proof press is great in terms of the size of the bed and the print quality you can achieve, but it requires manually inking the type or plate for every individual impression. So I’m sure you can imagine, if you want to print 50 of something, it ain’t a small job! Printing in such a hands-on way is really satisfying, though, and such a contrast to sitting in front of computers all day!
What’s been the best decision/move you’ve made or most exciting thing to happen to your business so far?
Right now, we’re most excited about having been accepted for Crafty Fox Uncovered in Brixton, on 25th April. This will be our first foray into the world of craft markets, or selling anywhere other than online, and we can’t wait!
I’ve recently gone down to a four day week in my day job. I suppose time will tell whether that’s a good decision for us or not, but I really wanted to commit more time to the business. With us both working full-time, and a long commute we had really reached a bit of a plateau in terms of what we could achieve. There are only so many hours in the day!
The worst decision we’ve made is employing our two cats as press assistants. Their attendance records are shoddy at best, and they have a tendency to track mud all over our freshly printed stock.
Looking forward, we’re hoping to continue growing the business organically, our next goals being finding some wholesale partners, laying our hands on a treadle press, and moving on from just greetings cards to a more varied output. We’re currently working on some food labels and wedding stationery, which has been great fun so far.
In the much longer term, we’re dreaming of a move to Cumbria, with a bit of land, and lots of animals, from where we can run our letterpress studio full-time. One day…
Love that cheeky little blind impression there. You can follow Grey Letter Press on their rise to fame and glory in the following places:
Twitter – @greyletterpress
Instagram – @grey_letter_press
Facebook – Grey Letter Press
Etsy – GreyLetterPress
Folksy – Grey Letter Press
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