A Stitch in Time

The entrance hall to Nancy Nicholson's home is enticingly adorned with intriguing objects and 'finds'. There is a sun-bleached sheep's skull, an apothecary's jar filled with shells and several sprigs of dried wild flowers and sea grasses. A willow wreath made by Kent garden designer and artist Charlotte Molesworth hangs from one of the exposed timbers rather like a good luck charm and on the opposite wall there is an embroidered picture of the Madonna and Child in the style of a Russian icon. "That's by my mother, Joan," explains Nancy. "She was an artist and designer, my father, Roger Nicholson was a textile designer and painter. This is my mother's house which she left to my brother, sister and myself. I shall have to move eventually, but for now, it's very good to be here amongst all my parents' things.

"Actually I would love to put on an exhibition of their creations," says Nancy. "They produced such an enormous and varied body of work, ranging from paintings and drawings to ceramics, textiles and even wallpaper designs. They were closely involved in the Festival of Britain on the South Bank in 1951 and there seems to be a huge resurgence of interest in that post-war period. My mother left all her sketchbooks and work to me because she knew I'd do something with them. I've been very heavily influenced by her – and especially by her interest in European and Russian folk art – in my own work. I trained in graphic design at Maidstone College of Art and then went on to do an MA in Fine Art Textiles at the Royal College of Art. I have been working in embroidered textiles for the last ten years but recently I've been using my love of paper and graphics to design gift wrap, decorations and card kits. I started doing it because I've always designed 3D Christmas and birthday cards for friends which they have to put together themselves, so that they end up with a card and an ornament that they can keep. Several of them urged me to make it more commercial and I started with 3D paper baubles for Christmas, but then in 2010 I was diagnosed with breast cancer so my plans had to go on hold for a while. Then very sadly, my mother became fatally ill. It was a dreadful 18 months. But I got through the cancer, and am really well and back to normal now. So I want to get on with my work again and show that you can survive it. I came here to my mother's house to recover and start again and I think she'd like that."

Nancy shows me some of the paper kits that she has designed. On her desk there is a set of the latest design to be produced, 'Little City'. These buildings can be grouped together as if on a tiny street or stacked inside each other to create a citadel. "I hope children and adults will love these. I've tried to use a kind of 1950s/60s style palette of colours. It's really important to get the palette right. I work in Illustrator to do most of my designs, but drawing them first in a sketchbook. I've got many designs on my computer and in sketchbooks, just waiting to go, but I really need an investor to be able to launch more. I showed some of them, including the Christmas angels, at Top Drawer in London, which is a kind of showcase for design, and the response was really encouraging. I'm working on lots of things including single fold cards and some designs for laser cut cards. I am hoping also to make cloth kits for children and adults."

Nancy's simple white desk and sets of document drawers were bought at IKEA. "I had a beautiful Victorian butterfly collector's chest. It had an amazing set of drawers, that opened out from the top, but it was such a performance – every time I wanted to take anything out or put it back I had to lift the whole drawer out and unfold the top. These work so smoothly, it just makes life a lot easier." Three windows take up most of the wall here with views of the neat topiary-filled garden, but in between them there are some striking paintings and designs that Nancy has created. Each one is saturated with carefully chosen colours. "I love colour in the way that some people love food. In fact some colours actually make my mouth water. I particularly like bright pink, red and orange – together, which to some people might be a complete no-no, but I love that combination." Looking around the kitchen and working space, there are splashes of tangerine, crimson and fuschia that add warmth to an otherwise quite neutral background. The pine kitchen cupboards have been handmade, but are without any detailing, and unvarnished beams and timbers punctuate the chalky white walls and ceiling. "I haven't changed the house much. It's a fairly simple cottage with a plain kitchen that is just the same as when my mother bought the place. She didn't see the need to replace things if they functioned well. I suppose she was from the 'make do and mend' generation."

With the initial excitement of a new visitor over, Biddy, Nancy's little dog has taken to her generously proportioned and blanket strewn basket for a rest. She has enormous, expressive eyes, a rough, wirehaired coat and spindly legs. She exudes character and turns her head from one side to the other as she listens to our conversation. "She'll have a nap and then suddenly come to life at 11 o'clock," says Nancy. "You can almost set your watch by it."

A wide Alvar Aalto style bentwood easy chair is covered in softly faded orange velvet, with several multicoloured knitted and crocheted cushions. "I love to crochet and I'm always buying wool because I can't resist the colour. Then of course, I have to make something with it. But recently I had to have surgery on my wrist because I had carpal tunnel syndrome from doing so much work with my hands. The tendons had gradually got tighter and tighter, but the operation was a success."

We sit at a little round table covered in a jolly striped oilcloth from Bell House Fabrics in Cranbrook and Nancy opens a box to reveal a collection of exquisitely embroidered and knitted dolls. There is a handsome soldier in striped trousers, scarlet tunic, and Napoleonic hat, an assortment of birds, a Russian babushka, Pierrot, skittle dolls and a mermaid. "My mother did these. She worked on the Needlework Development Scheme after the war and had several books published where she showed how to make them. I'd love to adapt some of the designs into cloth kits for people to make. She was a really talented embroiderer and was commissioned to design the embroidery panel that hangs above the Queen's bed on the Royal Yacht Britannia. She worked alongside Sir Hugh Casson on this project and the Royal School of Needlework.  She was also a very keen knitter as well. At the end of her life she made little finger puppets, birds, and tiny dolls, especially chickens that were used by the local preschool for their storytime. She carried on doing that into her 80s, even when she was ill. She was most insistent that they should be accurate representations of birds. I would like to go back to the embroideries too. I show at the Eastern Rooms at Rye at the moment and I'm hoping to do more exhibitions.

"I think I've always sewed. When I was quite little I used to love sitting next to my mother playing with bits of wool or cloth while she worked. My brother and sister are quite a lot older than me, so I lived in a bit of a fantasy world. My parents always worked and I had to just get on with things. I think it's especially good for children to see their mothers working. I suppose mine did what so many women do, and that is work from home so that they can also look after their children. My sons have seen me do the same. They are both in creative industries, one working in music production and the other organises events. He's in Berlin at the moment and he's created something called 'Through the Rabbit Hole' – a bit like Alice in Wonderland I suppose, where he has people dressed in highly realistic rabbit costumes and the clubbers have to go through a giant rabbit hole to reach the music."

We climb the stairs at the front of the house and on the landing the walls are lined with bookshelves stuffed with art books. The main bedroom has a wooden Shaker-style bed that was handmade by a local craftsman and covered with a patchwork quilt with a border of heart, animal and house motifs that Nancy made. There are several framed paintings and drawings that were collected by Nancy's parents and a large unframed oil above the bed. "That's one of my father's early paintings. It's a beach in Cornwall, I think, that we used to go to. I love it, but it's quite different to his later work. He had an extraordinary sense of colour, but he also produced more conventional narrative paintings. I was amazed and thrilled recently when I visited the Imperial War Museum and I found that they had four of my father's watercolours. He was in the tank regiment during the Second World War and when he came back he went to the RCA. He and his brother Robert set up a wallpaper and textiles business which carried on into the 1960s and 1970s and they created a lot of designs for Palladian wallpapers."

In the second bedroom one of Roger Nicholson's later paintings hangs above the fireplace. The composition is more abstract and the colours are arresting. Vivid scarlet, lime and gold are juxtaposed with rose pink and lilac. The colours seem to shimmer as if with the heat of a summer's day. On the landing of the rear stairs there is another RN painting of a Kent farm executed in ink and watercolour. "When I was a child I used to go along with him sometimes when he painted out of doors," recalls Nancy. "He would be working away on these big pieces and I would produce my own childish versions of the same scene."

Back downstairs in the sitting room, the large ecru linen-covered sofa faces an inglenook fireplace which is adorned with another Charlotte Molesworth wreath. There are baskets of wool all around and behind it and a crocheted rug is folded over the sofa back. "I call that my rug of recovery." says Nancy "I started it when I was recovering from cancer, but it's still not quite complete." Two sides of the room are covered with shelves with books, files and vintage wooden toys. On another wall there is an oil portrait of Nancy's mother. Her posture is very correct and she holds her head with a kind of quiet, regal beauty.

Suddenly, a little ball of fur dances into view. Biddy sniffs and snorts and wags her tail madly. Nancy glances at her watch. "Yup, right on time, she's ready for the day again now! This little dog is amazing, and it was wonderful to have her when I was ill. She means so much to me."

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming