Cara McDonagh set up her vintage homeward business, Tatty Bits, to rescue us from mass-produced furniture and dull decorations. She haunts car boot sales to find pieces in need of some TLC and then lovingly restores them at home. Her online store features quirky china, kitsch tins and toasty old-fashioned tea-cosies. Bibelot sits down for a cuppa with Cara (from stylish cups, naturally) to discuss our collective obsession with all things retro, and the importance of a supportive cat.
1. How did Tatty Bits come about?
Tatty Bits came about because my obsession with all things ‘old’ was getting out of hand. I also loved visiting vintage fairs and thought ‘I could do that!’ but as I’ve discovered it’s not as easy as it looks and is a lot of hard work. Thankfully I still really enjoy it.
2. What would be a good starter project for someone who has never up-cycled before?
Pick something small and manageable that is structurally sound. Items like footstools laundry bins or sewing boxes are good, and often don’t involve complicated upholstery. Don’t think you’ve got to completely overhaul a piece of furniture, sometimes a really good clean and a coat of wax or varnish can transform an item.
3. What have your five most memorable “finds” been?
Every “find” brings a frisson of excitement. As well as pretty china I also favour the kitsch and the peculiar. For example A 1950s book of 282 salads with recipes from Humphrey Bogart and Betty Grable. Finding a sewing box full of old cotton reels buttons and a history of someone’s sewing career is always touching. I found a 1950s mini German organ at a carboot which I was particularly pleased with. It wasn’t very melodic but it looked fantastic. Anything you can get for free is always good. I recently salvaged an old wooden ladder from a neighbours front garden. They thought I was mad as I lugged it back to my flat covered in pigeon poo and dead spiders. But it’s cleaned up really nicely and will be great for displaying books or china.
4. What sort of objects are you drawn to?
I’m always drawn to brightly coloured china. Vases and teapots. Anything with vibrant colours always get my attention. I also love books and anything with unusual titles or illustrations.
5. When are you happiest?
Rummaging around at a carboot or a jumble sale and amassing a haul of unusual items. Bringing it all home and unwrapping it all is always a real joy too. Jumble sales can be a bit of an adrenaline rush. Yes seriously! People queue round the block to get in then there is a mad rush when the doors open and you need sharp elbows to get a good look-in.
6. How do you balance working life with your business?
Balancing the day job with Tatty Bits is a challenge and I always wish I had more time. I’ve become a lot more organised and recently purchased a lovely new shed to store all my stock and tools. I’m looking forward to painting it in ice-cream colours to bring a bit of the seaside to North London.
7. Describe your working routine – studio, kitchen table, caffeinated beverage of choice, music, silence?
I’m not sure I have anything which resembles a routine… it involves the living room, kitchen and garden and copious amounts of tea. There are half finished bits of furniture all around my flat silently begging me to give them some attention. Radio Four is normally on in the background. If the TV is on then it will be a classic episode of Columbo.
8. What role does Mini-moo the cat play in Tatty Bits?
Mini Moo (Full name Elaine Marjorie Mini Moo IV) is an essential part of the business. If she’s not inspecting new stock and climbing all over new furniture then she is providing a vital role sitting on bubble wrap and newspaper. I couldn’t live without her.
9. What’s behind our collective obsession with all things vintage?
I think our fascination with vintage is partly an appreciation of well made, beautiful items. Not something you can really say about a piece of Ikea furniture lets face it. It’s also about nostalgia and bringing back memories of childhood or of a family member. It’s lovely when someone buys something from me which has really struck a chord. Everything is so homogeneous these days and buying vintage means you can be a bit more quirky and unique.
10. What five things can’t you live without?
There’s not really anything I couldn’t live without but I am a home bird at heart so being in my flat, Mini Moo on my lap and a nice strong cup of tea is all I really need to keep me happy.