Daily Mirror Laurette Ziemer Interviews Sian and Philip

Laurette Ziemer Interviews Sian and Philip from Country Heart for the Daily Mirror 04/12/08

Tired of commuting and the constant nag of the rat race is what it took for one couple to jack it all in and start designing and hand making their own traditional Christmas decorations.

Eight years down the line and Sian Longstaff and Philip Newbert have a thriving business. Their workshop attached to their idyllic Plum Tree Cottage in the heart of the Forest of Dean buzzes with activity all year long as they produce exquisite tree decorations, wreaths, cards, ornaments and keep-sakes.

“We knew exactly what life-style we wanted and that has helped us to keep the business on track,” says Sian, 52.  “For instance we thought about selling our items through shops for a short while but when we realised how demanding that would be we kept our sales limited to our own website. That way we can keep a constant grip on the business.”

When they established their aptly named company Country Heart the couple both worked in the textile industry. Sian was a textile designer while Philip, 54, was a graphic designer.

As freelancers they worked for big names such as Mary Quant, Liberty and Coloroll and high street stores such as Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and BHS.

“We have two children, now aged 18 and 22, and had to travel all over the UK, and even America and Europe, to trade shows and businesses,” says Sian. “As the textile world was changing it became more and more stressful. It was almost overnight when we decided it was enough and we would stop.”

As freelancers they were happy to take a financial risk and they set about designing a limited range of fabric products.

“I’d always loved textiles and embroidery hence my chosen career after art school,” says Sian. “I set about making a small fabric collection such as hearts, cushions and coasters. We also included a few carefully selected craftspeople in the collection as well. We didn’t focus on Christmas at first. Philip set about teaching himself to design a website and I went on a Public Relations course.”

With a host of press releases and samples sent to glossy magazines and newspapers Country Heart products suddenly appeared on the must-have lists for traditional country-style home products.

Philip meanwhile taught himself to use woodworking machinery and Sian – who is obsessed with Christmas – doodled out some sketches of her dream decorations.

“It all evolved so naturally,” she says. “Hearts continued to feature heavily – we love the shape – and we slowly introduced reindeers, Christmas trees, birds, stars and angels.”

Philip machines the wooden shapes and then Sian spends hour upon hour hand painting each decoration.

“I never seem to get sick of it at all,” laughs Sian. “I seem to enter my own world and manage to decorate thousands of decorations over the course of the spring and summer.”

The couple develope new ranges based on what has sold well in previous years and what they like themselves.

“We ignore the current fashions and trends and always focus on a country and traditional feel. We visit exhibitions and keep an eye on American styles to help us get new ideas.”

As the business has grown they developed other collections including gifts for babies, Christening keep-sakes, personalised pictures and gifts, and wedding favours.

Their one concern is getting too big and losing control of Country Heart and with that the quality of life they so enjoy.

“We’re not tempted at this stage to think about trade fairs and retail outlets. With the website I know I can get up in the morning and go to check what sales have happened. I can then pack them up, get them posted to customers, and then make new stock if needed. We keep a supply of the raw materials to hand just in case they’re needed.”

As for expansion? Not at this time says Sian.

“It’s just right for us at the moment. Magazines seem to like our ideas so we get featured regularly and word of mouth and regular customers keep us quite busy enough. This way I’ll still have enough energy left to enjoy Christmas for myself as opposed to being a physical and emotional wreck come Christmas Eve.”