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Masters of the rolls: The Anstey wallpaper company has been manufacturing iconic patterns for more than a century. Maddy Fletcher meets the creatives behind the painstaking production processes

Kyle Mclauchlan looks like a Jackson Pollock painting that’s come to life. His trousers are covered in paint. His shoes are covered in paint. His jumper is covered in paint.

On the floor around him are cups and cups of paint. The stapler on his desk is dotted with paint marks. Under his right eyebrow is a yellow fleck of paint.

For the past ten years Mclauchlan, 27, has worked as a colour mixer at Anstey, a 126-person factory in Loughborough. 

It is owned by the Sanderson Design Group, whose wallpaper brands are among Britain’s best known: Harlequin, Zoffany, Clarke & Clarke, Scion, Archive, Archie, Morris & Co (as in, William Morris & Co) as well as Sanderson itself. 

Mclauchlan’s grandmother used to work at Anstey. His father still does.

William Morris’s Willow Bough design being produced on the factory’s surface printer William Morris’s Willow Bough design being produced on the factory’s surface printer

William Morris’s Willow Bough design being produced on the factory’s surface printer

Once a designer has come up with a wallpaper pattern, a colour mixer’s job is to re-create the necessary paint colours on a large scale. 

In this factory, every pigment is made and mixed by hand. To achieve the perfect shade, colour mixers combine water-based solvents with varying amounts of pigment. It’s meticulous work; one drop too much and the product can turn too dark.

Rupert Summerton, another colour mixer who is also covered in paint, says creating the correct hue can sometimes take an entire day – and he’s been doing the job for 27 years.

Lighting is important, too. The trouble with colour is that it can be metameric – in other words, it moves and changes tone depending on the light it’s in. 

In the UK our natural daylight is cold and blueish, but in the US it’s warmer and redder. So Rupert and Kyle have specially controlled ‘daylight tubes’ under which they can test shades of paint to make sure the colours work in every country.

This funny combination of old-fashioned and high-tech methods is typical at Anstey.

On one floor of the factory there are whizzy printers, cranking out rolls of wallpaper completely electronically; on another there are shelves of original William Morris block prints, hand-carved out of fruitwood and stored in a regulated cold room to stop them from swelling or splintering.

The Anstey factory was founded in the early 20th century, moving to the Loughborough HQ in 2000.

Anstey uses a funny combination of old-fashioned and high-tech methods is typical at Anstey. Pictured above is a hand carved block and its print Anstey uses a funny combination of old-fashioned and high-tech methods is typical at Anstey. Pictured above is a hand carved block and its print

Anstey uses a funny combination of old-fashioned and high-tech methods is typical at Anstey. Pictured above is a hand carved block and its print

They’ve kept lots of the old equipment. On the ground floor is one of the UK’s oldest – and last remaining – traditional wallpaper printers. It’s an enormous, old-fashioned-looking piece of machinery, all cogs and iron wheels, which dates from the 1930s.

The surface-print machine works by applying patterns to paper with specially carved cylinders, which put on different colours of paint. (In the 1870s, Morris purposefully designed wallpaper with as few colours as possible, to save time and costs.) 

Once printed, the paper is passed through heated tunnels to dry. The printer is operated by hand; Anstey’s factory workers change every roll of paper, tighten every lever, pour in every pot of paint, and inspect every finished sheet for errors.

Teams spend entire afternoons mixing one shade, checking rolls for errors 

If that sounds clunky and inefficient, it’s not at all – in the digital room upstairs, the HP printers can produce 17.5 metres per hour. 

Downstairs, with the surface printer, 30 metres of wallpaper can be made and dried in one-and-a-half minutes. In total, the Anstey factory produces more than 1.4 million rolls a year.

Claire Vallis, Sanderson Design Group’s 53-year-old design director, has been working for the company for 30 years. She joined as a junior designer after leaving art school in the 1990s, and worked plenty of shifts in the factory. 

As we walk around, we speak to a woman who is packing rolls of wallpaper into plastic. She tells me that she’s always liked Vallis because, when they were younger, she was the only person who would make her cups of tea.

Those nights on the factory floor might explain why Vallis is so attached to the old machinery. This year, Anstey is planning on buying newer, faster, digital printers. They can run overnight and will be able to produce 230 metres of wallpaper an hour. 

A rotary hybrid machine (above). On the ground floor of the factory is one of the UK’s oldest – and last remaining – traditional wallpaper printers A rotary hybrid machine (above). On the ground floor of the factory is one of the UK’s oldest – and last remaining – traditional wallpaper printers

A rotary hybrid machine (above). On the ground floor of the factory is one of the UK’s oldest – and last remaining – traditional wallpaper printers

But for as long as Vallis is in charge, the company will always favour the traditional methods. As she says, ‘I think it gives our products a legacy.’

Vallis loves wallpaper. In fact, when I meet her she looks – and I mean this in a good way – a bit like human wallpaper, dressed head to toe in blue, with geometric patterned jeans. 

She says her own home is a happy mishmash of Sanderson products. She won’t pick a favourite wallpaper pattern, but in her bedroom she has Morris’s Golden Lily – it’s classic and it makes her feel ‘cocooned’. 

During Covid, when everyone’s Zoom backgrounds became incredibly important, Vallis says she would pin up sheets of wallpaper behind her, changing the pattern to suit what she was discussing and who she was speaking to. That, she says, is the function of wallpaper: ‘To express your personality, to express what you’re about.’

Small rolls are taken from every first run – there are tens of thousands of these around the factory. In total, the Anstey factory produces more than 1.4 million rolls a year Small rolls are taken from every first run – there are tens of thousands of these around the factory. In total, the Anstey factory produces more than 1.4 million rolls a year

Small rolls are taken from every first run – there are tens of thousands of these around the factory. In total, the Anstey factory produces more than 1.4 million rolls a year

Anstey’s products aren’t cheap. One Sanderson design, Water Garden, costs £385 per 10-metre roll. But when you see the teams creating it – mixing a single shade of paint for entire afternoons, beadily checking every roll for errors – the prices make more sense. 

‘Until you go to the factory you don’t realise the process,’ says Vallis. ‘People don’t understand how complicated this is, how long it takes.’

At this point I have to ask: was the notoriously pricey (£840 per roll) Downing Street wallpaper Sanderson’s?

She practically squeals the answer: ‘NO!’

For the full range of Sanderson wallpaper go to anstey.uk.com

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