The Bridge Interviews
“In 1976 when I was 25 I was recruited by MI6 to be a girl spy”. Not a bad opening sentence for an interview, and readers with good memories may recall reading it in these pages before. We think it is a first for the same person to be interviewed twice for The Bridge but an exception was fully deserved in the case of Maggie Parkinson, also known by her maiden name and the name of her business, Maggie White. The first interview marked the 30th anniversary of the business and this one is timely as the Burford landmark will be closing its doors in the autumn. (For the record she did not take up the 007 role, otherwise she would doubtless have been locked up for disclosing it).
Maggie spent her early years far from Burford. Her father was a Church of Scotland minister in Tasmania and a keen painter. Her mother, Hazel, who came from Northern Ireland and was herself a daughter of the manse, was a professional violinist and pianist who trained at the Royal College of Music and played under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent and other eminent conductors. Maggie’s father came to the UK in 1949 as moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Tasmania and spent some time as minister of St Columba’s Church in Pont Street, the principal Church of Scotland outpost in London. They then moved to Melbourne where Maggie was born in 1951. Happily Hazel is still with us and spends three months of the year with each of her four daughters.
Maggie’s father painted all the time he could and was a member of a group of painters who were mainly older than him and who were classically-trained. However by the 1960s, as a traditional figurative painter, he felt isolated as the Australian art world was by then dominated by modernists. He had also decided to become an Anglican. When Maggie was 15 the family moved to the UK, living in Sussex as the mildest place for those accustomed to the warm climate of Melbourne. Her father was ordained as a priest in the Church of England and served in Brighton and Eastbourne.
Maggie’s education was disrupted by the slow voyage from down under and the fact that the two countries have different school years. She completed her schooling at the Godolphin School in Salisbury but was not able to get into an art school as she hoped. Instead she studied history of art at the University of East Anglia. “We studied art historical method in the cathedral. I concentrated on modern applied art over the period from 1880 to 1970. I loved it. This included artists such as Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant (who had Maggie to tea at Charleston in 1973) and Roger Fry. They helped to set up Omega Workshops, a business which helped young artists make a living by designing furniture, wallpaper and fabrics. This informed my design life later on”.
After initially working in publishing and then not starting a career in intelligence, Maggie at 26 needed a new direction. She was already knitting by hand when she bought a knitting machine and put it under her bed. After six months she got it out and learned how to use it. In 1979 she moved to Oxford and established a little studio in Jericho and sold knitwear of her own design in a small way. The same year something really important happened. Maggie met her future husband, Oliver. “He saw my sister wearing one of my jumpers. He tracked me down and asked to buy one. It was love at first sight.” Oliver had trained as a mining engineer and was at that time running a cheese business in Hampstead, North London.
Her big break came in 1980 when she was visited by a buyer from Santa Fe (New Mexico) who was interested in artisan knitting and was looking for new designs. “She said they could take everything we made”. Examples of her work can be seen in the photograph. “Colour poured out of me”.
Maggie and Ollie were married in 1982. He joined her enterprise and looked after the business aspects while she was solely responsible for the creative side. “He was a keen sportsman and played real tennis, cricket and lawn tennis and enjoyed travelling. He would go to America every year in late January. At one time we were selling to the five biggest department stores in New York. Then the designs were copied in Hong Kong and the stores went elsewhere. U.S. independents bought them instead. Ollie would drive up the east coast to visit independent shops in New England and then fly to the west coast where we supplied shops in San Francisco. He would come home at Easter in time for the cricket season.” American buyers were ruthless. They told us they would cancel an entire order if we missed a shipping deadline. We never missed one”. They also had customers in Australia, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. In the 1990s Ollie was invited to join a trade mission to Tokyo. “After that we sold to them for seven years until their recession”.
How did you come to Burford? “Ollie used to rent the cricket ground at Swinbrook. One day in the pub after the match he was told that the old Methodist chapel there was for sale. That became our first home. We lived there from 1983 to 1988. Now I go back to Swinbrook to attend the church there. Then one Sunday Ollie drove to Burford to buy the papers which at that time were sold outside the Falkland Hall. He came back and said he had rented a shop in the High Street. We moved in on the Friday and opened on Saturday. On the Monday Arlene Walker came in and asked if we wanted any staff. We are now on our third generation of staff but Angela Findlater has been with us the whole time.” Eventually the whole business was run from Burford with the shop in the High Street, the workroom on the top floor of the Falkland Hall and the office in the Lower High Street. At their peak they were the biggest artisan knitting business in the UK with 50 outworkers doing the knitting. “They made about 100 garments per week. They were all checked minutely in the workroom for mistakes or dropped stitches before they were shipped. The Falkland Hall was originally a wool merchant’s hall so it was appropriate to be working in it.”
They started selling other things than knitwear in the shop. “For ten years we sold British ceramics. Ollie did most of the buying”. They also bought good quality clothes. “In 1995 Ollie was in New England when he discovered Flax, a women’s clothing brand. It was made in Lithuania where the industry had started soon after the end of communism. An American professor and his wife had started the brand. Ollie persuaded them to let us import it. We wholesaled it nationwide until 2016 when it became too expensive when the pound lost value after the Brexit referendum”.
Maggie and Ollie closed the knitwear business in 2004. “It had run its course and I wanted to go to art school. The popularity of highly coloured knitwear had declined and the textile industry in the UK was disappearing. We were also being kept very busy with the Flax clothing range”.
Sadly, Ollie died suddenly in 2008 at the age of 59 while playing tennis. Their son, Louis, then aged 22, immediately stepped in and helped to keep the business going through the recession. He later left to run a development project in Malawi for three and a half years, training young people from the slums. “Recently he set off from here to cycle to China. He put his bike on the train to Istanbul and then cycled from there to Dubai over eight months. He is now in North East India working out what to do next”. Maggie also has a daughter, Flora. “She worked for Cath Kidston and Orla Kiely. She is now a busy mum with one child and another on the way. I expect she will return to the design world in due course.
Maggie is no mean traveller herself. “In 2014 I took a sabbatical and travelled by lorry from Istanbul to Beijing. It took three and a half months. There were 12 of us, three Australian couples in their 60s or 70s, three single men and three single women plus two drivers. The truck was a low loader with a hut on top. I had my own bench to sit on. I bought textiles in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and slipped the parcels under my bench. Twenty-five percent of the time we were wild camping by lakes or in forests.” Did anything go wrong? “One of the party was putting critical comments about the rest of us on Facebook. He didn’t realise that we were all looking at Facebook and couldn’t understand why no one spoke to him for two weeks. One of the Australians was an ex-soldier and swore all the time. Eventually someone took him to one side and explained that it was upsetting members of the party so he just stopped.
“Turkmenistan is a nasty place. We were carried across the Caspian Sea as cargo on a Russian ship. The ship had to lie off the port for a long time before we could disembark as the president was making a visit. When we got ashore the customs discovered that one of the group was carrying some codeine which was forbidden, so they took everything apart. It was late so we had to camp in the car park of the customs hall as there was a curfew. Toilet facilities were not good. There is no decent loo between Georgia and Beijing.
“There is nothing like travelling overland. You see the changes in the landscape and how people live. I am thinking of making a train trip from Charlbury to Tokyo. Ollie and I often thought about that. From Calais, instead of turning south, why not just keep going east?”
Why is she closing the shop? “I wanted to return to the creative life”. She finally achieved her ambition of studying painting with teachers in Bristol and Norfolk. Her home, which used to be the office and before that the home of local builder Albert Nash, is full of canvasses and she showed us studies in the style of Manet and Turner (see below), the latter painted at her house in the west of Ireland. “I have been trying to avoid it all my life. Painting is high art – it is Olympian – so I would be very disappointed if I could not do it before I get too old”. The normal cycle for the shop is for stock to be ordered in the late winter and delivered for the new season in August, so it makes sense to close in September.
She is emphatic about two points. Firstly, she has nothing but praise for her “wonderful staff –the only weak link is me.” Secondly, “Burford has been very kind to us. There are lovely people. I don’t know what will happen to retail but Burford is a honeypot. It’s a wonderful place to live, with a great community spirit – just look at the festival. The people are thoroughly good eggs. There is history all about us. There is a new generation of shopkeepers who have come here and the Chamber of Trade is doing good work. The shopkeepers are very nice to each other and there is great camaraderie.” Clearly MI6’s loss has been Burford’s gain.