Call of the wild

Barbara Young meets Polly and Isobel Irvine from Lochs & Fens Ltd, who have launched a creative homeware range which reflects their shared passion for wildlife and nature.
It’s not often that a mother and daughter dream team can claim success in launching and running a business together with minimal locking of horns, but when it comes to making the most of individual strengths and talents, Polly and Isobel Irvine have found a winning formula.

Since launching their aptly named Lochs & Fens, a business based on original artwork inspired by the wilds and wildlife of Argyll and Lincolnshire, Polly and Isobel have seen a growing demand for their artistic classic country home products, which include tea towels, aprons, oven gloves, range top pads and napkins, as well as correspondence cards, candles and soaps.

Their popular colourful designs, based on beautifully drawn watercolours, include richly coloured stags, hares, pheasants, crabs and starfish – all the original work of 20-year old Isobel, who lives with her family in a historic rural village near Grantham.

The Irvine family, which also includes Polly’s husband Alastair, youngest son Geordie and eldest Angus, enjoy frequent visits to their shared holiday home in Scotland to relax and make the most of the rugged, rocky shores around Port Appin on the coast of Argyll – hence the idea for the company name, which perfectly captures their shared appreciation of local floral and fauna.

Childhood talent
Isobel showed her creative talent early on; Polly recalls watching her three-year-old daughter sitting in the garden for hours on end while playing with a piece of cardboard and making a collage out of paints, twigs and leaves. As a 12-year-old, it was Isobel’s artistic talent which won her a scholarship to Stamford High School, and at 17 she was invited to enter Appin Art Group’s annual exhibition, where all six of her paintings sold within two days, prompting mother and daughter to start thinking about how they might pool their talents and launch a business together.

Inspiration struck out of the blue one day while Polly and Isobel were stuck in a traffic jam in Cambridgeshire. While the traffic crawled along, they began discussing the idea of developing a range of homeware and textiles based on local wildlife and in the autumn of 2019, Lochs & Fens was launched.

While Isobel is responsible for the creative side of the business, Polly, who previously worked as a project manager in the City, brings business acumen and experience, with a healthy dose of energy and enthusiasm.

“There is mutual respect between us and as a mother I would never tell Isobel what to do, she’s my business partner at work rather than my daughter,” explains 55-year-old Polly, who moved to Lincolnshire with her family from London in 2003. “We’ve always said that your child can’t be your best friend, and although we’re both similar, we’re not identical, which is why our partnership works.”

Polly says that while they are both passionate and very strong-willed, they can also feel a “bit uncertain at times”, so frequently help prop each other up. “Of course we occasionally clash spectacularly, but essentially we’re good friends and get on terrifically well.”

Isobel, who says she has always been keen to have her own income and work for herself, agrees: “We are close and fond of each other, but we can also fight like cat and dog, although it’s soon forgotten. I bring ideas to the table such as the design, art and social media, while Mum brings sales, business, accounting experience and energy, so it works well.

“I’ve got a good eye for detail and even get quite OCD about things which can be annoying, but if something’s not perfect I won’t agree to it; luckily we both share the same trait for attention to detail.”

Launching the business
Polly explains that initially having researched the fast-growing kitchen homeware market and acknowledged there was already healthy competition, she wasn’t sure their countryside concept would bring something new, but any doubts didn’t last long.

“We very soon realised that the newness was our designs which we believe are bigger, better, stronger, bolder and younger, and that Isobel’s youth and talent shine through,” explains Polly. “We knew there were other companies producing similar products, but it didn’t put us off, as our designs are perhaps that bit stronger and more individual.”

Polly explains that as full partners they were also adamant that all products should be British made and eco-friendly, including the packaging, with stationery printing done in Oakham, candles in Nottingham, soap in Yorkshire and homeware and textiles produced in Staffordshire.

“Of course there are options that are cheaper such as importing textiles from China or Pakistan, which would be far cheaper for us, but that would mean air miles and possibly sweatshops, which is why we went to see factories here first,” says Polly.

“We were very aware that we weren’t doing anything new and that there are lots of apparently similar products to choose from, but what is flattering and gratifying is that people choose our designs because they want to buy British and also care about the environment.

“We aim for high end, top quality products – all our textiles are 100% unbleached cotton and the print is tattooed into the fabric which means it doesn’t leak when washed and therefore lasts longer.

“We’re passionate about the environment and want to do our bit, so we also send products out by Royal Mail in acid-free tissue paper using biodegradable mailing bags made of sugar cane.

“We believe nothing matters more than the environment because everything in the future hangs on it. There’s no point in being rich if you haven’t got a planet to live on – it’s frightening what might happen – being environmentally friendly is a reflection of our brand and remains our ethos.”

Ideas and inspiration
When it comes to inspiration for new designs, Isobel says Lincolnshire has plenty to offer.

“It’s has a magical landscape and the size of the sky means colours bleed together to produce many shades which as an artist is inspirational. The flat rich soil also means you can grow many varieties of flowers here such as roses, tulips, sweet peas and daffodils and we’re planning to build on our floral designs over the next few seasons.

“The wildlife in Lincolnshire is varied and quite different from what you see in Scotland, which is more rugged with stags on the heather-clad mountains and crabs and starfish on the coast, whereas here we have lots of pheasants, partridges and hares, which all lend themselves perfectly to art.”

Lochs & Fens aims to produce three or four new designs each year and ideas for 2021 include bees, chickens and Christmas puddings. The creative journey begins with Isobel’s artwork being photographed, transferred to a laptop and emailed to the manufacturer, where it is put on a template before a sample is produced and boxes of products are delivered to Lochs & Fens HQ within three weeks.

As well as their online shop, the company sells to retailers such as local farm shops, delicatessens and independent gift shops, as well as at country fairs throughout the Midlands. They are also in talks with a national garden centre chain which they say would be “game changing”.

Following the Covid-19 restrictions of 2020, their plans for days out at country shows hit a buffer early on. “We were booked in for 14 fairs, including county shows from Devon to Northumberland, as well as Country Living and the Scottish Game Fair and these were all cancelled, but we’re hopeful we can get out again.”

Looking ahead, Polly and Isobel say they may look at moving their operation to separate premises with more employees as the business grows, but for now they are happy with just the two of them.

“We are both strong characters, very passionate about what we do and have definite ideas on how to take the business forward with some ambitious plans ahead,” says Polly. “We started off as a nice little kitchen table industry, but I’m very keen for it to become a big employer locally and also offer opportunities to people who are having a hard time or need a chance.”

In bringing the wilds home, it’s easy to see that Polly and Isobel not only love what they do, but also get a real buzz out of working together.

“I’m not surprised it’s worked well because we complement each other,” says Polly. “I think each of us would be stuck without the other!”

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