Remembering Laura Ashley

Remembering Laura Ashley…

n 1953, a young (twenty-eight) Welsh secretary, Laura Ashley, living in a small flat in London with her husband and two little children, was working on a quilt project; a craft she had learned from her grandmother. She was looking for certain kinds of Victorian fabric designs to use in her quilt but couldn’t find the colors and patterns she wanted.

nspired by printed fabric she had seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, she designed what she was envisioning, which her husband, Bernard Ashley, then printed on a few yards of linen on a machine he made himself in their attic apartment. That was the beginning; the original investment was about $20. But worth a gazillion in display of faith and pluck.

ooking at her work, I think her fabric designs were inspired by the old quilts she grew up with; the clear yellows and blues, soft romantic pinks, old fashioned milky greens; and the simple florals and prints you see in vintage quilts. I think maybe she was also in love with old China dishes. These two inspiration assignments are just conjecture on my part, because these are things that inspired my watercolors and I always felt she and I must be some kind of kindred spirits when it came to the colors and patterns we love.

he cotton scarves Laura and Bernard made in 1953 were an immediate hit in local stores. People fell in love with their style and color sense. Soon Bernard left his job to print fabrics and run their blossoming business full time. They did it all themselves, built their business slowly, and at the same time, continued to grow their family. It was Bernard’s idea to call the business Laura Ashley; he thought it should have a feminine name.

Behind every great woman, there’s a great man (if she’s lucky), preferably one who cooks.

y the 1980’s, there were over 200 Laura Ashley stores all over the world, filled with the most wonderful things you’ve ever seen: cotton and linen dresses, crisp white blouses, nightgowns, straw hats, lampshades, flowery umbrellas, dishes, fabric, wedding dresses, sheets and comforters, and wallpaper all in the softest, most beautiful colors and classic styles. Laura Ashley was shabby chic before shabby was chic! Maybe she was a tad chic-er than shabby, but her things all had a very soft romantic feel to them. I still have decorating books she produced that show her classic design sense in the houses she and her family lived in. Laura and Bernard Ashley changed the way millions of people decorated and thought about the comforts of home.

discovered Laura Ashley when I first came to New England. Whenever I left Martha’s Vineyard, I was always lost on the roads, especially when I got into the bigger cities, but still, like one of those beach geiger counters, the beep-beep in my head got louder and stronger as I honed in on the Laura Ashley store on Newbury Street in Boston. I never missed an opportunity to visit; would go to Boston just to go to that store, to be surrounded in the fresh colors I loved. I wallpapered my bedroom in my first house on the island in a sky-blue Laura Ashley print, and loved to wake up, still dreaming, in that blue cloud and listen to the birds singing, or watch the snow falling outside my windows.

remember one spring day, it might have been the first mild day of that year; I drove to Boston because I had a hair appointment. The daffodils were in bloom in The Common; I bought new dress at Laura Ashley. I wore it out of the store, walked up the street (thinking myself adorable, like Diane Keaton), went to my hairdressers where I got my hair cut — all clean and shiny, I then took myself and my Country Living magazine to lunch at a sidewalk cafe. That day is fresh in my memory; I remember feeling so happy and free and lucky in the sunshine with my new dress and haircut!

he Laura Ashley store was small, very close to The Ritz Hotel. The first thing you saw when you walked into the shop, was a table in the window set with Laura Ashley dishes for a tea party, on a Laura Ashley linen table cloth, with linen napkins and etched glassware. A person wanted to sit right down, drape herself with a napkin, pour the tea, click the cups into their saucers, but you couldn’t stop because there was more…

Just behind that was the clothing, rows of pure white cotton blouses, fitted with details such as capped sleeves, darts, covered buttons, some of them slightly gathered at the shoulder, some with stand-up collars; labels reading “cotton,” and “linen;” Made in Great Britain. The dresses were along the wall; skirts fluffed out like a colorful flower garden. The wedding dresses were toward the back in a glass case, like dessert, all whipped cream and lace; the furniture, wallpaper, and bolts of fabric, were up on a raised platform. It was heaven in there. I could’ve lived there.

ou won’t find Laura Ashley on Newbury Street anymore, because (big disappointment to find out, I’m quite against it) nothing stays the same; the store is gone. In 1985, there was a terrible accident. On her sixtieth birthday, much too young, Laura Ashley fell down a set of stairs at her daughter Jane’s house and died a few days later of a brain hemorrhage. Even though her name lives on, the Ashley family is no longer associated with the company. The heart had gone out of it for them; the designing woman, cherished wife, and mother of four children was gone, taking the color sense, the genius that was Laura Ashley, with her.

irls, if you never saw a Laura Ashley store you don’t know what you missed. I still have this wonderful hat, which I’ve never looked good in (I look like a bowling ball in it, it covers my eyes down to the tip of my nose). I knew I’d probably never wear it when I bought it, but I still could not resist such an adorable hat; it must be twenty-five years old now. I keep it in my studio, have painted it many times.

hen I think of inspiration, I think of Laura Ashley. She made the world a prettier place to live.

Are you a kindred spirit too? Comments…

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638 Responses to Remembering Laura Ashley

  1. Maria Whitaker says:

    I have used LA’s books on decorating since the mid 1980s. I used them to make slipcovers and curtains everywhere I lived. There must be a law that curtains can never fit windows in any other place you live. I took her advice and happily bought quality fabrics and linings for my permanent home, and those curtains are now 18 years old and still look new! I remember sitting in the middle of the living room floor, contentedly hand-hemming yards of linen fabric while the cat marched across them, supervising my work. There is a difference between store-bought and bespoke curtains. You can just tell, and it’s not just knowing where they came from. Others — who don’t — see it too. I hope a handmade movement comes back soon. It’s time.

  2. Julie says:

    My wedding dress was Laura Ashley. I owned quite a few dresses, all bought on sale, and some skirts too. Happy memories!

    • Kendra Fletcher says:

      Awww, mine too, Julie! My bridesmaids wore blue and white polka dot Laura Ashley midi dresses. Of course; it was 1991 😉

  3. SUSAN E COADY-BUTLER says:

    Susan, I have always LOVED Laura Ashley design in anything!!! Like you, her stores were like a vacation for me, a visit into fantasy where everything was beautiful. My Wish List has included a tea set, dresses, petticoat, soaps and cologne as well as Susan Branch books and calendars. You both have added joy to our lives as we celebrate home, and cozy, and lovely, and taking time to share and enjoy each other in time honored ways. I should have known that you enjoyed her work as well!

  4. Susie Anne Wilson says:

    After a devastating divorce in 1988, I knew I had to do something to restore beauty to that once shared bedroom. I painted the walls a soft green and added a pink floral Laura Ashley border that matched the comforter/sheet set. White furniture and accents of pink and green china plates completed my space…my safe haven!
    All these years later and happily married, I still love the look of those soft colors and florals. I am completing a “blended” quilt using the same colors and florals, and will once again use those lovely china dishes.
    Thank you, Laura Ashley for sharing such beauty, and thank you, Susan for sharing such lovely, feminine artwork and writings with us! They nurture our souls!

  5. Michelle Payton says:

    I have always loved Laura Ashley and decorated the bedroom of my first little cottage with a Laura Ashley “Isabelle” comforter, dust ruffle and wallpaper border. On my first trip to Chicago in the 80’s, I discovered the enchanting Laura Ashley store and never wanted to leave. Every item was a treasure! My big purchase was a quite large “Isabelle” lampshade to match my comforter and I carried it with me ON THE PLANE home! I’m sure my seatmates were thrilled…I know I was! I still have that comforter and all my Laura Ashley decorating books. They will always be in style to me! Thank you for bringing up these wonderful memories!

  6. Sandy Whitman says:

    I have owned only one Laura Ashley dress in my 78 years, but it was the dress that made me feel the most feminine. I loved touching the soft fabric and feeling the swirl of the fabric as I walked. It was lovely. Unfortunately, I grew out of it 🙁

    Susan Branch (you!) and Laura Ashley are two women whose work help me touch something inside that makes me feel relaxed and at home. Thanks so much!

  7. Andrea Burns says:

    I was a teenager in the 1980s and loved the Laura Ashley Store at the Chestnut Hill Mall in Newton, Massachusetts. As you said, it was filled with crisp white blouses, full skirts, wonderful patterns. I can still remember the heavenly smell! The style in my high school at the time was much more punk, with hard edges and leather coats. I remember saving up my babysitting money to buy a beautiful blue full skirt and a white blouse. Though I stuck out like a sore thumb, I felt so feminine. My bedroom was decorated with her sheets and curtains. At 51, I still love the clothes and fabrics!

  8. Jenny Fisher says:

    In about 1971 my school friend and I drove in her first car to the railway station in Swindon, Wiltshire to catch a train to London to visit Laura Ashley in the Fulham Road, London. I had never been shopping in London and can remember the crush of girls trying on the clothes; spilling out of the changing rooms onto the shop floor. It was so exciting and filled with the sound of girls laughing and chatting. I bought a circular skirt and while blouse which I loved. Laura Ashley was a remarkable person and aren’t we lucky to enter into her life. So pleased I found Susan’s website as came her whilst looking for inspiration from Kirsten and Joerg.

  9. Terri Gershenson says:

    Hello Susan,
    Thank you so much for your lovely piece on Laura Ashley. It made me happy. I still have a 10 dress Laura Ashley wardrobe I used for teaching. I adore those dresses though I haven’t worn them in years. I haven’t had the heart to give them away. Really, I could still meet a girl friend for tea in one of them.
    I am still using her lovely placemats for Christmas and I have a gauzy light green table cloth with blue flowers I still use as a window covering in the hall. I adored going to her store in one of the malls in Connecticut. And I still wear the adorable and feminine jewelry I bought there. Terri G.

  10. Dianne Carrol says:

    I am one of the lucky ones! We had a wonderful Laura Ashley store right hereon Long Island in StonyBrook Village near my home,e. It was my favorite store years ago. IT sadly closed. But I stillhave so many beautiful things from that store. She somehow acquired these gorgeous one of a kind garment from around the world…I have a magnificent heavy wrap around wool winter coat made in Poland with a big fur collar that is still in perfect shape. So warm..they really know how to make warm coats in Poland. Also I have beautiful fine wool slacks made in LITHUANIA where my own family comes from. Hard to believe I could have found these kind of treasures. So many other precious items I acquired from that store. And her Laura Ashley #1 perfume was my favorite but is no longer available. There will never be another Laura Ashley. Thank you for this lovely post of information. I sure do miss her. The StonyBrook Store is gone for years now.

  11. Carla Calwell says:

    Your article on Laura Ashley brought back so many memories. We were living in Madrid, Spain in 1979-81 and went to England often during our holidays. I discovered the Laura Ashley stores during those visits. When we returned home to California I lugged home rolls of wallpaper and fabric (those were the days when they were more liberal on weight allowances) to use in our new home. We returned to England almost every summer after that and I continued my addiction. The most difficult to get home were the candlestick lamps with Laura Ashley fabric shades. Laura Ashley left us way too early, but now we have some of your lovely designs to help fill the void. Thank You.

  12. No Ann says:

    I am searching for fabric and bedding inWinter Rose pattern.

    She captured my heart.

  13. I was known in high school as the girl who wore Laura Ashley dresses with full on petticoats to school…everyday! My bedroom was done in the Country Rose collection and after I painted my room dusty rose, my dad said it looked like I spilled Pepto all over the walls. I didn’t care and then I stenciled the room with the matching roses. I remember Palmetto because my girlfriend got it for her room and we convinced her parents to let me not only stencil her room but also her furniture. It’s still in her parent’s guest room I recently learned. I had a LA wedding at Christmas and I wore a LA dress and my bridesmaids wore black cotton velveteen LA dresses. I even wore a black watch plaid LA dress to my dress rehearsal. At one point me, my mom, my aunt and my cousin all had the same bedding – Laura Ashley Bramble and the matching bathrooms. Plus my cousin and I both did our daughter’s rooms in LA Quartet and I even did my nursery in Hey Diddle Diddle. I went through a divorce 10 years ago, don’t feel bad because I didn’t! Anyway, my going away dress was a gorgeous pin whale corduroy LA dress and matching boiled wool sweater and I still had it but couldn’t wear it anymore. I’m sure my new and amazing husband wouldn’t want me to anyway…so a couple of years ago I up-cycled that dress into a gorgeous jacket and I love it so much. It’s reversible and perfect for Christmas. I miss Laura Ashley and the beautiful feminine loveliness her designs added to the world. And I’ve always loved you, Susan. Your art reminds me of Laura and her style. I’ve used many of your stickers etc in my scrapbooking. So here’s a story you will hopefully enjoy…back when I was a career woman, I worked for a CEO who gave me the sweetest gift for Christmas…one of your cards (which I still have) with a sweet message telling me that what made me so good at my job is that I noticed the little details about people and made them feel special. The card came with a box, which when I unwrapped it had a lovely Laura Ashley silk scarf and a $500 gift certificate to the store! It’s one of the sweetest gifts I’ve ever received, because he too noticed the details that made people realize he cared.

    • sbranch says:

      What a thoughtful gift and thoughtful card. She KNEW you! I miss Laura Ashley too, she was an original and we were lucky to grow up with her! Thank you for your story . . . you are in the land of kindred spirits!💖

  14. Claudia Bryan says:

    This past year there have been two things that I have loved and wanted back in my life. My beloved Susan Branch cookbooks and stories. And clothes by Laura Ashley. Your charming artwork/stationery was used on a Mother/Daughter book group that I belonged to with my daughter for six years. My children are all adults now with their own lives. But I still use your designs in letters to a dear friend from that group. And your artwork still brings me joy. My favorite recipes from your cookbooks brightened my long and sometimes lonely days during the pandemic.
    Growing up, I wore dresses all the time and many of them were beloved Laura Ashley designs. After several children those dresses no longer fit me and comfy Mom clothes became the norm. But in the years before the pandemic I gradually finally lost weight and once again wanted to wear dresses. I searched for Laura Ashley designs and longed to once again feel pretty and comfy all at once. Now I understand why I couldn’t find them. But the memories remain.

  15. Courtney says:

    Well, Susan, YOU are my Laura Ashley. You make the world a lovlier place, as all true artists should. My children have grown up with your art and Susan Branch is a household name here. I think you need a store on Newbury St!

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