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Arts: 'Face pots are my favourite thing to make'

Culford's Libbi Hutchence credits pottery with bringing her happiness, which she passes on via her joyful designs. Alice Ryan chats to her

When Libbi Hutchence signed up for an evening class in pottery, she thought it might spark a new hobby; fast-forward to today and she not only runs her own potting business from her Culford cottage, she also teaches that very class at West Suffolk College.

“I was completely hooked as soon as I laid my hands on the clay,” says Libbi. “I’m never happier than when I am up to my elbows in it! I absorb myself in the making process; during lockdown, my studio was my sanctuary.”

When Libbi started potting, she was still working as an NHS secretary: in total, she spent 16 years at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury, first in Ophthalmology and later in the Stroke Department. But when she discovered a love of making - Libbi also weaves, spinning and dyeing her own natural yarns - she decided to make the leap and set up her own business, Handmade at Bramley Cottage. “I thought ‘What would I regret more becoming a full-time potter/weaver and failing or not trying at all?’, and the answer was pretty simple,” she says.

So Libbi, husband Mark and their rescue pets - Alfie the dog and Buster the cat - moved to a cottage with an outbuilding ripe for studio conversion. Alongside her work as a pottery teacher, leading seven day and evening classes at the college every week, Libbi pots and weaves her Handmade at Bramley Cottage products, which she sells via local shops, craft markets and, motivated by lockdown, her new online store.

“I started the website at the beginning of lockdown,” she explains. “At the time, college was obviously closed, the shops were shut, the fairs were cancelled. . . I thought my dreams were over and I would have to go back to a 9-to-5 job, but I persevered and am very pleased to say that I received a lot of support from people.”

Libbi’s largest lockdown order actually came from West Suffolk Hospital. Unable to throw the usual farewell party for the junior doctors, who spend a year there on rotation, a surgeon commissioned a personalised mug for each of them as a goodbye gift. In total, Libbi made 47 mugs, all different and highly decorated. “I was in my studio both day and night, determined to complete the order on time,” she says. “I thought ‘They’ve been saving lives, I owe it to them to get them done!’ They came out of the kiln at 9am, were collected the same day at 3pm and given out two hours later. I feel very honoured to have made them.”

Favouring stoneware for its sturdy nature - fired at top temperatures, it’s oven, fridge, freezer, dishwasher and microwave safe and can stay outside all year around, a Bramley Cottage signature is the Face Pot. “I absolutely love making these little guys; they are one of my favourite things to do. The idea is to pop a plant in for the hair. Each one has their own ceramic name tag. I have a baby book where I cross each name off as I use it, so no name is repeated.” Libbi also loves experimenting, with speckled clay and matte glazes recent additions to her repertoire.

“Life is too short to be doing a job you don’t enjoy,” she concludes. “I think if you are lucky enough to enjoy your job then you are a happy person.”

Libbi has teamed up with some fellow makers to host an Artisan Fair in aid of St Nicholas Hospice. Taking place at Culford Village Hall, it runs on the weekend of October 31 and November 1.

Bookings are once again open for both the six and 10-week pottery courses at West Suffolk College. For more information and to book a place, visit wsc.ac.uk or call (01284) 716342.

For details of stockists, events and one-to-one classes at Libbi’s studio, and to browse the online shop, visit handmadeatbramleycottage.co.uk . Bramley Cottage can also be found on Instagram @handmade_at_bramley_cottage and on Facebook under Libbi Hutchence .

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