The Cottonwood
Workshop Blog

What We Learned About Photographing Craft Items

Posted on November 21st, 2016

Neither of us at Cottonwood Workshop is a highly skilled photographer. Our ability to produce reasonable photographs of our craft items rests largely on having invested in a good quality camera; a Canon EOS 1200D. 

eos-1200d-angled-frontFor such novices as us. it was easy to gain a basic grasp of how to get a half decent shot. We spent time on taking a decent range of photographs, from simple clear product shots – front, side, back and close up, to more ‘lifestyle’ shots that show off an item’s aesthetic quality, style or use in situ.

We were able to pick up second hand an admittedly somewhat wonky photography tent. These can help reduce glare or shadow on items by diffusing light sources. We found it did need a white sheet backcloth to produce a fully seamless background. However, it did prove a constant struggle to prevent folds and creases in the cloth developing, causing shadows. Also our bedroom is the only space we have large enough to erect a photography tent in.  This can feel it is like, for an interminable length of time, having this ghostly white cube haunting the centre of our living space. It was proving a bit of a nightmare so we hardly use it now.  

We have tried to use natural light whenever possible, it produces better photos that need little digital adjustment afterwards. We often photograph outside, weather permitting, because our room has poor light quality. When we have had to do shoots indoors, we are constantly fighting with the tendency of ordinary light bulbs to yellow colours. You can re-balance indoor photos to a degree on a computer, though this itself can make more difficulties,eg what is good for making a background white and crease-less, can cause colour shifts in how your product looks, so its no longer a true representation. 

We have eventually come to the conclusion that pure white backgrounds produce photos that, though clear, are often quite unsympathetic to our products. This is particularly so when the colours or textures were quite subtly balanced. So for our Kaede range we experimented in photographing our cushions laid flat on varnished floors, and we liked the results. We’re currently looking to find different styles of background for both our Norsk and Natural Textures ranges.

There doesn’t appear to us to be one right way to photograph your craft items, its up to you if you use white spaces, outside locations or on textured backgrounds, its more important that there is a visual consistency to what you do, than what you do.

Z-NAT-Lifestyle (30)We are lucky to be living in a 16th century house,which can provide superb locations for photography. Our greatest challenge, however, has been in creating visually interesting ‘lifestyle’ shots. Quite often we’ve had to review our whole approach. Ideas can just become too visually complex or be beyond our skills to accomplish well. Time and again it’s the simplest idea or spur of the moment experiment that has tended to work best.


ZZPHOTOHaving a good well made product is foremost. Often it has not been until we’ve begun photographing an item that we’ve noticed a slight flaw or a shoddy finish, and we’ve had to redo it.  A camera can be very unforgiving, so it’s worth ensuring that the things you have invested so much time, energy and ingenuity in creating, will look as good photographed as you believe them to be.

Devising our New Kaede Range

Posted on September 28th, 2016

Our first ranges were arrived at more by happenstance, examining what we had made so far, discerning what stylistic trends were present, and grouping them. These were gradually pruned down to three main ranges, plus another incorporating whatever was left over.  Over the following year we developed a feel for the inherent character of these ranges. All except for one which neither of us could quite get our heads around. What were we trying to achieve with it? What were its defining character or style?  This was our Earth Tones range, ethnic patterning, rich colours, deep and dusty, yet something about it never quite stoked our creative fires.

This year in late spring we started generating ideas for our Autumn range. We looked again at the colour pallet of the Earth Tones range, its rather large and unwieldy spectrum of colours. Perhaps that was the problem all along. After removing the obviously extraneous, we were left with brown, red, orange and ochre.  In our colours we do seem drawn to subtler colour combinations, stylistically tinged with a clean edge straight out of the modernist textbook. So the ethnic aspect of Earth Tones, seemed anachronistic, and a hangover from our previous work for Windhorse Evolution. It was out of keeping, so had to be ditched. On Pinterest, we started an Autumnal board to collectfor images that were in the right ball park colour or style wise. David wasn’t entirely convinced by the direction I thought might work. until I alighted on one colour swatch, which, paradoxically, was one he’d pinned that demonstrated what I meant.  It had a picture at the top of a traditional Japanese house surrounded by a rich spread of autumnal tones that is a characteristic of the Maple leaf, beneath it a complementary spread of colour swatches  in blood red, coppery orange, broken gold ochre, and two tones of warm grey.

The Japanese have a great fondness, if not obsession, for the period of Autumn. They organise trips into forests and visit ornamental gardens specifically to view the colour changes in autumn leaves. This formal viewing they call Momiji-gari, the dramatic change in colour that the maple leaf goes through is referred to as Kaede (pronounced Ky- ee-da )  By this circuitous route we stumbled across both the name and colour theme for our new Autumn range. Kaede, as a range, is all about the sympathy of its rich earthy colours and a simple clean lined minimalist aesthetic. Informed by its source material without being culturally imitative or appropriating, there is also something of the warmth and style of Italian design about it.

Its all very well deciding on a colour range, but then you have to find paints and yarns to match and coordinate across different materials. We’d previously decided to source and make things from better quality materials; to use 100% wool yarns, whilst still keeping acrylic yarns for use on specific items, for example. We did some research online, visited yarn shops, eventually deciding on King Cole’s ~ Merino Blend DK because its 100% wool, reasonably priced, with a broad range of 48 colours. It also had the colours we wanted.

Finding the right paint colours proved more tricky. Jnanasalin crocheted some circular swatches of the wool’s we’d chosen and armed with Farrow & Ball, Fired Earth and Little Greene’s paint swatches, we went out for coffee and cake in a local cafe. Farrow & Ball and Fired Earth didn’t appear to quite have the colours with the right amount of warmth we needed. Feverishly tearing bits of paper off colour swatches and comparing them against the yarns and our original colour range print out, we eventually settled on Little Greene. We could have selected from across different paint manufacturers, but felt it sent a clearer message if we stuck with one supplier. Little Greene, did have the best matching colours, their high density, superior quality paints are also environmentally friendly, which fits our companies ethos.

Having gone through this research and preparation, and the experience of developing our ranges over the last year, has meant Kaede came come together remarkably smoothly.  Now the range is launched we’ll have to wait and see what the response is like.

How we developed our first ranges

Posted on September 8th, 2016

In the world of craft its not that common for makers to consciously style ranges of complementary items. Usually a craft person has a well honed skill or their own style that is applied to everything they make. When you make your own stuff to sell it’s necessarily guided by these skills or your own taste and you hope there are other folk out there who’ll like it. Coming from a high street retailing background, we tend to think in terms of colourways, styles and ranges, its sort of in our DNA. At the same time the expectation is that things being made by hand will be in some way unique, not mass produced or a complete slave to fashion. Craft work can’t be heartless or soulless. So we’ve had to discover where our comfort zone is, where the middle way is for us between vision and practice.



We’d been trying out different things for a few months, experimenting with ideas for what we might make. It was a little chaotic at the time, and quite hard to tell where all this effort was leading us. So one evening we decided to pull everything we’d currently made up from the cellar workshop and lay them out on our bedroom floor. Once we’d got everything together it was easier to see the direction we appeared instinctively to be drawn towards.  After we’d roughly grouped items into those with a similar in style or colour palette, we ended up with 4-5 groupings, we provisionally giving them names like – Scandi – Natural – Nautical – Beach – Earth Tones.


Norsk Pins

We carried on working with these for a while, but then realised we’d missed out an essential design stage – we hadn’t defined what the qualities and colour ways were for each range. Otherwise it might be all too easy to go a bit off message, away from the general conceptual drift of them. We selected things for Pinterest boards, and put together ‘mood boards’ consisting of paint swatches,yarns, textiles and photographs of things we thought captured the spirit of a range. Through this process it became clear that five ranges was way too broad, we’d never develop each one fully. We dropped two, Nautical and Beach, the latter being for the most part absorbed into Natural.


Mood Boards

Mood Boards

That left us with three ranges – Scandi, which became Nord and ended finally as Norsk, then Natural Textures and Earth Tones.  Anything else left from Nautical/Beach or one off experiments went into a special range – Eclectica. Once we started preparing to launch our website, Norsk and Natural Textures were the strongest most developed ranges, whilst Earth Tones appeared to be still in the process of defining itself. Currently we are developing ideas for items to broaden the product range available. We’ve also got ideas for future ranges that we’re considering the possibilities of. Well…..we’ve started a Pinterest board or two.

Designing Our Logo

Posted on March 31st, 2016

Six months ago we set ourselves a deadline for launching our web business. As that April 1st deadline looms closer, there are an ever increasing list of things to be sorted out. We thought you might find it interesting to see an aspect of our preparations on this blog.

cw_monogram_teaserThe ideas for our craft business logo evolved overtime. Such a logo occupies a central role in  summing up visually the nature of your business. For us it was about finding the correct balance between not being too folksy or modern. We’d tried trying out various logo ideas, one early enthusiasm was for intertwined monogram letters.  



image_7320Eventually we settled on a single letter C with a cameo like border. Not being letter face designers we found out for ourselves how hard they are to devise from scratch, they all seemed to end up looking either too twee, ugly or illegible.



That letIMG_1055ter C needed to have its own distinct character. Having failed to find a workable letter in standard letter faces or printing ephemera, we decided to more fully embrace the handmade aspect of our business, having a bash at making our own by cutting one out of lino block



IMG_1053This got shelved when we stumbled across an old wooden print block letter C in a local vintage store. that we both thought had exactly the right style and shape. Using black block printers ink we printed out a series of nicely textured examples on coarse watercolour paper,choosing one that became the central element in our final logo.



logoOur first logo design combined the single letter C and the words Cottonwood Workshop. This is example in black and white, is an extension of the basic design used for my cleaning business. We knew the logo might also require a defining border, here with one curved and three right angled corners. Its an idea that we liked, so subsequently reused it on our website header. Once we started thinking how this logo might be applied to our product tags, we hit another problem, we needed a much smaller C.

unnamedWe bought a ‘John Bull’ style rubber printing set. This had a circular printing block, from which we assembled a lettering prototype. We liked the rough handmade effect of this, but were unable to find a small C letter to fit within it. In the end we had to abandon that authentic hand printed quality, scanning our existing letter C and producing a Photo Draw version for our product tags. For this David found a letterface that imitated the effect of rubber printed lettering.



This version of our logo had a couple of further refinements that emerged once David started designing our website. The logo became browny red and tilted at an angle to emphasise the appearance of being stamped out on paper, plus the addition of a broken circular line to give it more of the look of a franking stamp. So there you have it, the final Cottonwood Workshop logo,

Refinishing A Chair

Posted on March 22nd, 2016

IMG_0300A good friend of ours gave us a chair to practice our refurbishing skills on. To revarnish it and reupholster the cushion pad in a fabric she’d given us. This did seem a straightforward job, but with things you’ve not done before there’s always the odd unexpected difficulty along the way.

The first decision, was what level to take the surface back to. The chair had an old honey coloured varnish, its patina discoloured and grubby. Surface grubbiness can often be lifted with just a soapy wash or sugar soap, and after a light sanding be revarnished. Grubbiness can get absorbed into the varnish, which means it should be removed, this was my strategy. One I might have reviewed had I known the time and effort I was committing myself to.

Removing varnishes is always time consuming. The old Nitromors varnish remover though an excellent paint and varnish remover, is now banned due to health and environmental concerns.  Modern varnish removers that replaced it, though very effective at removing water based emulsions and varnishes, struggle to make an impact on older oil based varnishes. You can apply numerous applications and still not have got within sniffing distance of base wood.

Unfortunately, our chair had the older style varnish. After experimenting with different varnish removers, I found the Liberon Varnish Remover was the best available to the ordinary punter. It softens the surfaces of old style varnishes so they’re easier to hand sand off, but boy did I still have to hand sand the ‘bejesus’ out of this chair. I usually try to dismantle furniture as much as is feasible because this makes it easier to sand and revarnish. Our chair’s fixings were too corroded and couldn’t be removed so I had to proceed working on the chair intact .After days and days of varnish removal and sanding I finally got down to the base wood.

IMG_0377A friend of mine who made wooden children’s toys always recommended to apply varnish to furniture with a cloth. A series of thinly applied coats eventually creating a richer smoother varnish finish than brushes or sponges. The latter tending to apply too much varnish, forming drips and runs, particularly on chair legs. I used a modern oak coloured varnish to best replicate the original honey colour. I was quite pleased with the final finish.

IMG_0383We were upholstery novices, but nothing a quick viewing of a You Tube tutorial and purchasing a heavy duty staple gun, couldn’t sort. It was only a cushion pad after all. We had only just enough fabric and it was thin quality for a chair pad. Ironing on a lining made it a more robust fabric.

The pad was originally glued into place, which we didn’t want to do. We fixed it with four plastic nuts and bolts through the chair base, which meant the pad could be removed or reupholstered at a later date. Our first attempt  refinishing and upholstering a chair was we thought quite a successful combined endeavour.