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Interview With Whim Wham

I caught up with Jocelyn who revived her parents business making hand-crafted ceramic buttons. Read on to find out the fascinating process.

Can you tell us about how Whim Wham started?

Whim Wham was born May 2018. A few months previous to this I had been made redundant from my job as a writer on a cycling magazine and thought it was the perfect opportunity to revive my parents business.

They have been making ceramic items since 1979 beginning with figurine British birds before designing and making the buttons in the mid 80’s. I grew up with the buttons and would always help with the making during the school holidays and some weekends I would join my dad at craft fairs and shows where they sold the buttons.

The business used to be called Mack Fine China, Mack being our surname, but I felt like a rebrand was in order and while the traditional family element is an important thread running through the business, the buttons really needed a modern feel to appeal to a new modern audience.

I decided on the name Whim Wham, whim-wham meaning a quaint decorative object; a trinket. I thought that really summed up our buttons beautifully!

What’s the process that goes into making each button?

While the buttons may be small there is a large amount of work that goes into making each one and quite a few steps to go through before we have our shiny, pretty buttons fit for garments.

We use moulds to get each shape. They are all designed and made in-house – a job that my dad still does. We fill each mould with a liquid form of clay called slip. It takes a few hours depending on the weather, if it’s a damp cold day it will take longer for the slip to set. We then carefully remove each button as they are very delicate at this stage. Once they have dried out further we then sponge them. Literally with a small sponge and water, to remove any bits of excess clay. Of course each button has to be done individually, ensuring we get a really nice smooth and well shaped button. We get a few breakages at this stage but thankfully the clay can be reused so wastage is minimal. The buttons are now ready for their first firing in the kiln known as the biscuit firing. The firing takes roughly 12 hours and the kiln must be full for a good firing. We currently need to make around 1000 buttons each time!

We now have a piece of fine china that can be painted. Each button is painted by hand, individually, before being glazed. Thankfully we can glaze around 70 buttons at once so this is the quickest part of process. The glaze is important as this is what gives china its shiny glazed appearance.

The buttons now get put back into the kiln for their second ‘gloss’ firing. Essentially we now have a finished product, however we choose to paint each button (again has to be done one at a time) with lustre, which is a little like varnish. This is what gives our buttons that iridescent sheen. This also means they have to be fired again, so back in the kiln they go but for a short firing of just 4 hours.

Hooray! Approximately twelve days later (if working full time) we have lots of lovely buttons ready for sewing onto beautiful garments!

What do you enjoy most about your job? What is the hardest bit?

I love being creative and have always been in creative careers. I was a professional dancer for over ten years before becoming a writer. Producing something with your hands and being able to hold a tangible object in your hand at the end of a working day is very rewarding in itself. To look and think “I made that” is a wonderful feeling. But also seeing other people enjoy our buttons, proudly wearing them on their me-made outfits almost makes me want to burst with happiness. I think when you physically make an item a little bit of yourself goes into it and it’s the most rewarding feeling when other people love and enjoy that item too.

The hardest bit is motivating myself on the days where it feels like nothing is happening. Maybe a few days have gone by without an order or there is no ping of emails into the inbox and it can get you down. Of course, it’s normally just a phase and the busy days make up for it but it can have you doubting if you’re doing the right thing or if maybe people are falling out of love with the product! Having your own business is a rollercoaster of emotions but it’s the days where you feel like nothing is happening that actually makes you stronger. It’s those days that you have to get your head down and think about how to drive more sales or maybe think about how to chase that next wholesale order. It’s the little things you do everyday that add up to make a big difference over time. It’s just about having patience and reminding yourself that it’s a long game.

Tell us a bit about your creative space and what happens on a typical day?

I still work part time for an events company so I’m not dedicating every day to the business unfortunately. When I have an admin day I sit in the conservatory where I have a desk and reply to customer enquiries and any other emails I have to attend to. I will also get together and wrap any orders we have received via our Etsy shop and walk to the post office, which is luckily only a ten minute walk from the house. I will also keep a lookout for any new shows that we could possibly attend as this is a great way to get the word out about us. Hopefully we’ll be at one of the bigger shows next year like the Knitting and Stitching show.

When we have to make more of our lovely buttons we have double garage that has been converted into a workshop. We started work to modernise it just before Christmas and we still haven’t finished as it’s been a busy year exhibiting at wool shows and with my other work commitments. So it’s half a workshop and half a building site! But it’s still an ideal spot to do our making. If I’m sponging I’ll sometimes set a table up in the back garden (so long as it’s not too warm) and work outside. That’s one of the great things about having your own business – the flexibility to do things how you want to.

Where does your inspiration come from for new designs? Anything new coming up?

All of the buttons we launched with last year are the buttons my parents designed back in the 80’s. I thought this was the perfect way to launch as I wanted to revive the business my parents had built up over the years and I think building the relaunched business on those traditional foundations was the perfect start.

At the moment we are still very focused on our flower theme. When we launched with our roses collection back in April, I thought it was the perfect flower to add to our collection – a stereotypical British flower that blooms in most of our gardens.

We’ll certainly be looking to design some new button shapes over the winter. I’d also really like to launch some jewellery at some point. Hopefully that will become reality in the not too distant future. Watch this space.

See more from Whim Wham Buttons HERE