From Cottage Industry To Global Staple: Unison Pastels


The Colour Group Great Britain Northern Chapter, founded by my friend/boss Susi (who makes those wonderful cushions I am always photographing!) has given me the chance to do so many unusual and interesting things already, and it's only a year old.

Cue me, sitting in the car, with a renowned liver specialist on my left and one of the region's most coveted interior designers on my right, squashed in like sardines, bumping along country roads for an hour on our way to Thorneyburn, to find out how pastels are made. I know, my Wednesdays are pretty special!

This tour was arranged as the customary Summer Visit - an informal opportunity for committee members and members to meet during the academic break.

Unison was founded by an artist, whose wife and son showed us around the factory. The business was founded in 1987, meaning it is celebrating its 30th year this year! What amazed me was how truly global a business it was - selling in markets across the world, from this tiny, unassuming factory set up deep in the heart of Northumberland. 

They started off making pastels (which are all a mixture of about 6 or 7 pigments, and each formulated to a unique recipe) in the attic of the house. As the business grew, they built an extension in their field and organised the operation a bit more. What I thought was lovely is that they were able to generate jobs for the local area, which struggles with employment as it is quite a sleepy, rural place. 

All of their pastels are made from natural pigments (not chemical dyes, like most big companies) and because each pigment has quite unique properties and vary wildly in texture, everything has to be made consistent using a recipe of chemicals to ensure a consistent drawing experience. 

They source this natural pigment from all over the world: for example, the earth colours come from Italy, greens and blues come from America. Some of them are plant based and some are metal based, such as Cadmium red. They are quite literally made to a recipe - were the pigments are thrown togethr in  big mixing bowl and then they get rlled outlike sausages!

This does cause some problems - they explained that they had great demand for colours like purples and pinks but aren't always able to create these from the natural pigments available to them. There is no original pigment that works with this colour and so they will always be somewhat restricted in this way if they want to hold on to what makes them so adored for what they do!

It was a great way to spend the day and so heartwarming to be allowed into this family business to see behind the scenes' so I would love to extend my thanks once again to the Hersey family for having us.

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