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Who actually makes our pastels?

3 November 2015

Each pastel maker makes several colours a day. In the morning they choose which ones they are going to make from the list of what is needed. The choice is personal! They each have their favourites, although the timings of each particular pastel need to be taken into consideration as they plan their day. Pastels vary in the length of time they need to be left before rolling, so the makers must pace their work, so that they have a sequence of pastels to roll throughout the day. Each colour needs rolled at exactly the right moment. Too wet and they will go flat.  Too dry, and they won't be smooth. 


I've been working for Unison for around nineteen years.

I used to live just down the road, and saw that there was a job up here, and came and had a very informal interview with Kate. I didn't get the job, Hazel got it! But about ten months later another job came up and I got that one!

One of the hardest things when I started, was trying to get the pastels round! It's a very hard knack to get. You have to learn to move your hand the right way, and you can only learn by doing it, through experience. You just have to practise and practise until you get it right.

What I love is working at my own pace.  There is no-one standing over you, telling you have to do this or that. It's very relaxing, and a lovely place to work.

Some colours are very tricky, and make you get behind. It's all about timing though. If you get that wrong you can get quite stressed. Mostly I know now, how long each colour takes. So in the morning I will choose a couple of shorter ones and a couple of longer ones, and that keeps your day flowing nicely. If it goes wrong, sometimes you can save pastels for the next day, but not always. I love making A53, it reminds me of the forest, and it is quick and easy to make.


I originally applied to Unison for a job nearly twenty years ago. Cathi asked me if I would be interested in working here and I came and looked around. When I started I was working with John Hersey, and Jeremy, who used to work here. We made small batches. When we got involved with America, things changed quite quickly.The woodshed turned into the packing room, our making studio was built and Johns' studio was built. Then we had to make bigger batches. We got some new equipment, not just our wooden spoons! We got our Kenwood Chefs!! Before that we literally used a wooden spoon to mix everything, and bash out any lumps with the big pestle and mortars! But now with the Kenwood it is quicker and easier.

My favourite thing is the variety, the range of colours. We have a list of pastels that need made, but you can decide yourself whatt you are making, when, and in what order. It's up to you. I love that freedom. But it does come with experience, being able to time things well, if you get it wrong your lunch break goes out the window! You learn how to speed things up, or slow things down to make your day work, so you finish on time. There are so many colours, and every single colouur is different, so it is a lot to learn and understand. We keep records of how long everything takes to dry out, but you just need it to be a really hot day, or a cold day, or the temperature of the water you use to vary,  or a new batch of pigment to be slightly different and that will change the timings. We have to adjust for all these things, and test very carefully . I have learnt to work with all these variables, but it is still a bit  of working with the unknown. I have worked here so long now though, I just deal with it! I do like making the Blue Violets, as they are preditable and with a few exceptions behave well! They don't go hard or soft, or crack, or do any of the unusual things others do, helped by the fact that blue is simply my favourite colour. On the other hand I least like making Additionals 49-53, even though I love the colours. The recipes are very complicated, with tiny amounts of different pigments.

Another thing I love is that I am a farm girl at heart, so I love this rural setting. There is  no commuting traffic, just sheep or tractors, or tourists on the Military Road looking out of their windows, at Hadrian's Wall!


I had a trial day when I frst started to see if I could do it, and then got invited back to work full time. I learnt from Jeremy, who told me not to take it too seriously. It's a bit like learning to drive, this job. You only really learn to drive, once you have passed your test. You only learn to make pastels,by making them. I am a bit of perfectionist. The hard part is dealing with all the different characteristics of the pigments, especially when it comes to rolling.

Some are a bit temperamental and it doesn't take much to get it wrong. It takes a lot of getting wrong, before you start getting it right. For instance, how much water you add is crucial, even a drop too much or little will have a massive, detrimental effect. I have heard stories of mixtures pouring off tables! You really do learn through your mistakes. You need to be aware all the time, on your guard, quite particular.

I have notes on different colours, and I write in big writing what not to do! And what to do of course as well! If you don't have a written reminder it can be very easy to forget, and just the slightest lapse in concentration might mean you just pour too much water in. And then you've got a problem on your hands. I do relax a bit,  spooning the dollops out onto the blotting paper, and during the rolling. Once you know how to roll, it's kind of a muscle memory, so you can just relax. But when weighing out  you have to be concentrating very hard. I like organising my day so that I get everything going in the morning, and the end of the day is more relaxed.  

The colour I most like to make is Blue Violet 16, as it's smooth to handle and almost rolls itself! I don't like the sticky ones, such as Additional 6, as I have to squeeze them two or three times, they get my hands all claggy and are very time consuming. But there are plenty of nice colours to make. When I have the door open and the sun is shining and the birds singing it's just a great place to be. On a  sunny, breezy day I like to dry the pastels outside. My studio is a bit of a wildlife haven, birds wil fly in, and knock themselves out, so I have a rescue pan! I have seen bats in here too! I just pick them up and put them outside!

To find out more about our process of making pastels click here


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