Donna Wilson creates her knitted creatures and furnishings in a warehouse in east London. She showed Heart Home magazine her favourite places to hang out and visit for inspiration.
Tucked away on a side street in Bethnal Green lies Donna Wilson’s studio and workspace. It is piled high with textiles, knits, crockery and an interesting looking sewing machine. She runs her business, which she started in 2003, from this space and it is refreshing to see the whole process – designing, knitting, stuffing and shipping – take place in one room.
“Sorry for the mess,” Donna says, stepping around a large stuffed fox and squeezing past an employee sewing away on a machine.
Originally from Aberdeen, Donna moved to London to study for an MA in Constructed Textiles at the Royal College of Art. It seems she was always destined for success, even before she graduated she was selling her beautiful creations.
“I knew I wanted to start my own business and be my own boss. I was lucky enough to sell some dolls to a shop on the King’s Road whilst I was studying,” she explains. “It was only about 20 a month but it helped pay my rent,” she laughs. “My tutor was really supportive and it really helped me stay focused during my studies. I knew what I was aiming for.”
Donna’s business has grown dramatically since then and she is fast becoming a household name. She is now stocked by some major retailers, including Heal’s and John Lewis (and others across the globe). However, despite this, Donna remains incredibly humble and likes to stay true to her playful designs.
“I’m inspired by less conventional creatures as well as children’s drawings as they tend to be so naïve, with five legs and ten eyes. They manage to capture such humour and innocence,” she explains. “I think my favourite character is Cyril Squirrel -Fox. He is one of my earliest creations and I continue to make him. He’s also quite famous,” she laughs. He’s been on ‘Location, Location, Location’ and ‘Harry Hill’. I think people like his big nose and big tail.”
On this note we decide to head to our first stop on our east London tour: The V&A Museum of Childhood. It’s a beautiful building, buzzing with young children and Donna is as compelled by their collection of vintage toys as they are. She quickly spots a colourful 1987 owl-shaped play sack, “look how brilliant they are,” she exclaims. “I love this one too,” she laughs, pointing to a 1964 soft owl and taking out her phone for a quick snap.
Next up is Shoreditch, where we head to one of Donna’s favourite haunts, The Albion, for a bit of indulgent grocery shopping. “I love vegetables,” she says, walking up to the pretty autumnal display. “I’ve never seen a pumpkin like that one. Looks like a Farrow and Ball pumpkin,” she jokes.
We amble down Redchurch Street and pass the clothing store APC. “I adore this shop and love their sample sales,” says Donna. “They’re great to find a bargain.” Donna is a joy to be around – so friendly and easy going. We head to the quirky Maison Trois Garcon for some mid-morning cake. “It looks so delicious, and I love the décor too,” says Donna.
Donna admits grabbing food out is a bit of a treat, as lunch is normally eaten in the office, where she and her team try to sit down around the table, “but it is most usually taken at my desk,” she says, “one of the pitfalls of having to run a business.”
Donna has recently bought a period property in east London and she and her husband are turning it into their dream home to raise their son Eli. “The house is done, but we are still putting our own stamp on it. Unsurprisingly I’ve put lots of textiles in Eli’s bedroom. I was just so excited,” she says, stepping into the gorgeous homeware shop Labour and Wait.
“It’s like walking into my Grandma’s house,” she laughs. “I love all the old fashioned pieces. They’re so natural and pure – things you really want to keep.”
After this we head to our final stop, and perhaps the one we’re most excited about, SCP East : Curtain Road’s finest furniture and furnishings store that just so happens to stock some of Donna’s products (including the gorgeous bag she is carrying).
“I love being a small company and selling to shops rather than web-based retailers,” says Donna. “I like to support the high street and those who have to tackle the overheads of running premises.”
We are greeted by some friendly faces that Donna seems to know well. A café has just been installed so we treat ourselves to a cup of coffee and sample the chocolate cake. We also get to see another element of Donna’s designing talent– her Icelandic inspired rugs. They are bold and beautiful, and so very Donna, but perhaps they represent her more grown-up side.
“I like collaborating and my relationship with SCP East is really special. We do lots of work together, but they also stock my own collection – we meet in the middle. There’s a bit of me and a bit of them. They push me creatively, but it’s still my work, colours and patterns,” she says smiling.
Donna’s ethos is commendable and although she may continue to grow the business, she will always be at the heart, designing items that reflect her and her wonderful talent.