Dad did the donkey work for our success

Lesley Elston and daughter Michaela Corrie
Lesley Elston and daughter Michaela Corrie

The conversation about Lesley Elston’s and Michaela Corrie’s business begins with its name: Cabbage and Curtainrail.

Not a name you might expect for a design company producing high-quality cushions and upholstery fabrics. Not a name you might expect for anything.

“It’s a bit eccentric,” admits Lesley. “But my husband was a bit eccentric.”

Peter Elston, to his wife Lesley and daughter Michaela’s deep regret, died in 2010 from chronic asthma. In a sense he is still here. In their hearts, their smiles, and their business.

The name is a tribute to Peter. Cabbage and Curtainrail? These were the imaginary pet donkeys that lived in the family’s airing cupboard, and featured in the stories Peter told Michaela and her brothers Mark and Simon each night.

Michaela, 43, says: “Dad was so eccentric. He was a brilliant character. Positive, quirky. Dad would come in to tell me a story. I had to have my arm around his head. The story would always have a moral. If I’d fallen out with one of my brothers, he’d tell a story about Cabbage falling out with Curtainrail and then becoming friends again.

“If our school reports could have been better, the story would be about Cabbage deciding from now on he would listen to his teachers more.”

Decades later, Cabbage and Curtainrail continue to serve Michaela and her mother well. The name grabs attention and adds authenticity. This is a family business... right down to the airing cupboard donkeys.

“The name is what people are resonating with,” says Michaela. “That’s what is endearing. They go ‘Cabbage and...?’ It was so clear to me – if we were going to do something, I wanted a constant reminder of why we’re doing it.”

Why, or rather who. The business was born out of Peter’s life and also his death. Michaela created it as a way to occupy her mother during Lesley’s grief.

This was compounded when her house in Carlisle was ransacked by burglars a month after Peter died. “It was the biggest mess you could imagine,” recalls Lesley, 68.

This violation of the marital home hit her hard. She came to live at Great Corby with Michaela, her husband Andrew and their daughters Phoebe and Scarlett.

Michaela says: “To help mother focus on something positive during the seven months she lived with us, we decided to start a new business together in fabric design. It was just, something positive had to come out of this.”

“She wanted me to have something to do,” says Lesley. “It was Kala that came up with the idea of making our own fabric.”

Michaela has her own graphic design business. Now she began producing designs for use on upholstery and homeware.

She sketched a pheasant with a feather; a sheep; a cow’s head. These were repeated in symmetrical designs. “Looking at them is an intriguing experience. Sometimes you see the pattern, sometimes you see the animal.

“I like the fact that when you see the animal you lose the pattern,” says Michaela. “An animal on a print has been done to death. This is different. I’m OCD. I’m governed by structure.”

Lesley is an expert in handcrafting, from embroidery to curtain-making. Her mother Marjorie worked on dresses for ladies in the Buckingham Palace court, including the wedding dress of Wallis Simpson.

Lesley has owned a small craft business for many years and was selling cushions, pinnies and peg bags at craft fairs. Michaela’s designs added another dimension.

Cabbage and Curtainrail launched at an interiors show in Rheged, Penrith, in spring 2015. An eye-catching example of Michaela’s and Lesley’s work was Peter’s old armchair, upholstered with the pheasant and feather fabric.

They used their early profits to exhibit at an interior design show in London’s Olympia centre. Michaela says: “We’d had friends and family saying ‘It’s nice’ and ‘You’ll do well.’ At Olympia, interior designers and people who had come off the street were praising it. I suddenly felt ‘You know what? This could be a goer. I think we’re onto something’.”

Reaction was so positive that they struggled to meet demand. “I think we realised we were spending all our money just getting rolls of fabric to be able to make cushions and all the rest of it. With two kids as well, it’s hard doing all the research into knowing the market. You suddenly realise you’re no longer designing. Our strength is in the design. I wanted to see if anybody would be interested on the manufacturing side.”

Michaela emailed R Soper, the company that owns Cummersdale-based fabric printer Stead McAlpin. She and Lesley arranged to meet the managing director, taking samples of their fabric. He was impressed. “He can see the trend to bring it back to British-made and British-designed,” says Michaela. “Plus, he just likes the designs. He really gets it.”

The meeting resulted in a partnership with R Soper. The company prints the fabric at Cummersdale so Michaela and Lesley can concentrate on new projects and designs.

Lesley still makes the cushions, with handmade piping trim. “All to her perfectionist standard,” says her proud daughter.

Whether Lesley’s skilled fingers can keep up with demand remains to be seen. Word is spreading. R Soper has secured Cabbage and Curtainrail space at prestigious interior design shows. Last year Michaela and Lesley attended America’s largest exhibition for trade upholsterers, in North Carolina, and have just returned from a fabric fair in Frankfurt.

The response is similar everywhere: Cabbage and what? Nice products though. Nice story too.

Mother and daughter seem delightfully relaxed in each other’s company.

Working together has not strained their relationship... most of the time. “She treats me like a six-year-old! I can’t do anything right!” jokes Michaela.

“If we have a difference of opinion, it’s all forgotten about,” says Lesley.

“There’s nothing a conversation about shoes won’t sort out,” adds her daughter. “We’re both obsessed by shoes.”

Who’s in charge? “Me!” says Michaela.

“Me!” says Lesley. “All right – you.”

“With my OCD, it’s either right or it’s not,” Michaela declares. “It’s my way or the highway!”

 Peter Elston

Peter Elston

They feel that their talents complement each other. Lesley is practical while Michaela has inherited her dad’s quirky side. But the conversation keeps returning to Peter, the man who inspired this venture, bringing “his girls” even closer at a traumatic time.

“He loved us sticking together,” says Michaela. “He knew how much we love each other. The driving force behind all this is the passion for remembering Dad.”

Smiles appear as they recall his dry sense of humour. Lesley mentions a family outing to the Boat Show at Earls Court in London. “There was this huge yacht that only millionaires were being allowed onto. Peter wanted to go on it. He walked up and said ‘I’m from Hammond’s Pond Boat Club.’ ‘Of course, sir. Do come on’.”

“He was quite poorly towards the end,” says Michaela. “I’d go round and he’d be on the phone, but he was talking into a calculator. Most of the time he’d do it on purpose so you’d think he was senile.”

Her father was, she adds, “the kindest human being you could ever meet. Whatever he had was yours. He’d ring you to tell you he loved you. That spirit and love, that’s what we miss.”

The thriving business named in his honour provides some comfort. But the Peter-shaped hole in their lives cannot be filled.

“We’ve lost the person that this is all about,” says Michaela. “We’d give it all up to have him back for a day.”

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