Founded by a frustrated artist in the 1980s, Unison Colour now produces a quarter of a million pastels by hand each year. We paid a visit to see how they do it.
Lifting the lid off a fresh set of Unison Colour soft pastels is like opening a jewellery box of gems – they’re wonderful to admire but best enjoyed when
put to good use. Each and every one of the company’s 400-plus vibrant shades is made by hand so we decided to visit them and find out how it’s done.
Unison Colour is based in Tarset, a remote parish set deep in the Northumberland National Park. We’re welcomed on the doorstep of the beautiful Thorneyburn Old Rectory by four dawdling chickens. “Come in,” says Unison Colour director Kate Hersey, as she shoos away the chooks. “I’ll make us some tea.”
The Old Rectory was built in 1818, along with the neighbouring St. Aidan’s Church, to provide a living for ex-Royal Navy chaplains after the Napoleonic Wars, but it has been Kate’s home since 1980 when she moved here with husband and artist John Hersey.
John was the founder of Unison Colour. He was inspired to create his own pastels because he felt the other mass-produced options failed to cut the mustard.
“John gave up doing any of his own artwork while we were creating the first batch of colours,” says our hostess as we follow her into the kitchen. “He worked solidly on that for years and he wouldn’t stop on a colour until it was perfect. They became his art.”
We sit at a large farmhouse table. There’s a pan of homemade soup simmering away on the AGA and a sense of calm in the air, unexpected for somewhere that produces around 250,000 pastels every year.
We’re joined by Dan, one of Kate’s three sons and the only one to have joined the pastel-making trade. He has taken over from the now-retired Kate as head of business and marketing.
“I helped dad early on making pastels when he first started. Out of my other brothers, I was the one who most interested,” he says.
“It’s exciting to take it on, to create a product that people love and people aspire to use – that’s
the lovely thing about it. That would have pleased Dad.” John sadly passed away in 2008, but Kate and Dan were
adamant his legacy would live on through Unison Colour. They pay special thanks to their close-knit team of eight staff too, who they consider to be more like friends than employees as they share John’s passion for perfection.
“Every morning and afternoon, we all sit around this table for a tea break and a catch up,” she says. “There’s not much time for chat during the day – everyone is very hardworking – and so this quality time together is essential.”
Dan takes this as his cue to introduce us to some of the individuals who make the magic happen here at Thorneyburn Old Rectory, as we make our way towards the coach house, where John first began making pastels three decades ago.
The stone steps leading up to the first floor workshop are weathered and worn from nearly 200 years of use, but the space inside is still in fine form with its wooden beams overlooking rows of pastels lined up perfectly on the tables. Oliver Coats is one of Unison’s three pastel-makers and he considers it a good day if he can make 600 pastels.
“I’ve worked here for 10 years and so I can tell by the look or texture of a batch whether it’s going to turn out right or not, which is a time-saver,” he says, as he scoops out dollops of fresh pigment mixture onto blotting paper. “Some of the recipes have up to eight varieties of pigment in them therefore a few grams of colour here and there can make all the difference.”
The secret recipes were originally concocted by John, but are followed meticulously by the makers on site to ensure the colours remain vibrant. Once the pastels have been dried and tested, they are sent to the packing room downstairs to be labelled, boxed and shipped – all by hand, of course. The walls are lined with shelves of unlabelled pastels waiting to be dressed.
“We’ve got to make sure we get them on tight enough to ensure the label doesn’t move, that no fingerprints are visible and that it’s equidistant from top to bottom,” explains Cathi Dixon, who is in charge of the packing room and is Unison’s longest-serving employee, working here for 24 years. “No machine could replace what we’re doing unless you get a machine to make them in the first place – then it would be a completely different product.”
The stillness of the packing room is broken when Dan pops his head through the door and invites everyone to join him and Kate in the kitchen for their afternoon refreshments. We meander to the room in which our tour of Unison Colour began and there’s a selection of cups and saucers lined up on the counter. Everyone is chatting and chortling – sometimes about pastels, sometimes about another topic altogether – and it feels more like a party than a tea break.
And why shouldn’t it? Unison Colour is something to celebrate and not just because they make lovely handmade pastels but because, as we’ve discovered today, they’re made with a lot of heart and soul too.
Words: Terri Eaton Photos: Richard Kenworthy