Carole Cogan reveals how an entrepreneurial attitude and firm friendship with business partner, Alma Pierson, rekindled her passion for retailing and the art of hand-pulled silk-screen printing.
Born and raised in Dolywern, Carole Cogan is probably best known for the three decades she spent as the cheerful face of one of the best little gift shops in Oswestry, Pickles & Co., on the corner of Church Street and Festival Square. But Carole’s creative entrepreneurship was forged long before she opened Pickles in 1986. A trained artist, she attended Wrexham School of Art on leaving school and went on to complete a Fine Art degree at Newport College of Art.
We’re chatting on a chilly Saturday morning in March, snuggled around the Old Cowshed’s log burner located in the centre of the old barn where Carole spent many happy hours milking cows with her dad. Her faithful old spaniel, Millie, lies on the hearth, hogging the heat as is a spaniel’s wont.
The Old Cowshed is a labour of love long in the making. “I’ve wanted to do something with this old barn for years,” she reveals. “In truth, I got a bit bored after 18 months of retirement.
I wanted a challenge, but not something that was going to be overly demanding of my time. I was faffing about in the attic one day and came across three old silk-screen frames. Then ping! The idea for The Old Cowshed was born.”
Carole ran the idea past her old friend Alma Pierson, a woman blessed with more creative talent than is actually fair on the rest of us. Alma and Carole had forged a firm friendship after working together for over 25 years when Carole was building her successful dried flower business and Alma later went on to be the shop manager at Pickles & Co for 12 years.
Inspired, the pair scuttled off on a silk-screen printing workshop in Norfolk and under the expert tutelage of Caroline Somerville (do check out her Instagram here… she’s amazing) they rediscovered their mutual love of the art form. New techniques were learned, Celtic and other creative concepts enthusiastically explored, and the pair pledged to go into partnership. Now they are on a mission to give a platform to other local artists and artisan crafts creators, and offer their customers a delightfully engaging experience in this rural idyll.
The Old Cowshed is a hidden gem. An Aladdin’s cave of crafts, candles, cards, Celtic screen-printed merchandise, ceramics, unique jewellery items and gifts. Off the beaten track, you stumble across it on a walk along the Old Road between Pontfadog and Glyn Ceiriog. It’s a little oasis of creative excellence.
Creative talent allied to a good head for business is in Carole’s DNA. Her father, Trev Ty-Issa, was a successful farmer, and her mother the renowned flower arranger, Iona Trevor-Jones.
Immediately after graduating from Newport, Carole fired off a speculative letter to Liberty’s of London, boldly asking for an appointment with their scarves buyer. To her astonishment she received an invitation to present her range of silkscreen scarves to the head buyer at the famous Regent Street store. “I was beside myself with a mix of fear and excitement,” she laughs.
“I travelled to London on the train on a really snowy day and was late arriving at Euston. I thought ‘that’s it, I’ve blown it’. This was in the ‘70s so there were no such thing as mobile phones in those days of course. The buyer was very understanding and to my total shock I travelled back home with a supplier contract in my pocket. When I think back, I can’t quite believe how I had the front. I felt like I’d won a gold medal at the Olympics.”
Carole’s roller coaster journey into the world of business was off to a flying start. By the late ‘70s, she had taken on the family farm at Ty-Issa after her parents bought the imposing Trelydan Hall near Welshpool and began growing and drying flowers. “We won a major contract to supply dried floral arrangements to Debenhams and were soon exporting to department stores and independent gift shops in Europe, Japan and South America,” she explains.
Before long, Carole had a team of 40 flower arrangers operating out of Ty-Issa and the Old Malthouse in Willow Street, Oswestry. The business became so successful that husband, David, left his job at Lloyd’s Animal Feeds to look after the financial side, and the pair have been business partners ever since. But a change of buyer at Debenhams in the mid 1980s signalled a change in direction for the High Street department store and the dried flower contract pretty much… well, dried up overnight.
In 1991, Carole, took the opportunity to open a second Pickles & Co., in much larger premises (now the Italian restaurant Prezzo) directly opposite the original shop. The dried flowers continued to sell well overseas, and with vastly improved floorspace Carole added a wider range of merchandise, including homeware, rugs and clothing.
After four decades of relentless hard work, Carole and David decided to deliberately shrink the business in search of an easier life and a planned exit into retirement. Carole sold the larger store to concentrate on the original Pickles & Co., which she eventually sold in 2014. Retirement and a yearning to spend some quality family time in New Zealand beckoned.
It will come as no surprise to those who know Carole that life walking the dog and tinkering with a bit of arty fartyness would eventually lose its allure. “I realised I was yearning for something more challenging. But I wanted to do it on my terms and also in a way that would showcase the amazing creative talent we have locally. I’m really proud that out of the 10 local craftspeople whose products we stock, most are within a three mile radius.
“Alma has been working closely with local Pontfadog beekeeper, Kirsty Williams, to develop a range of products from her beeswax,” says Carole. “It’s a great fit for us all. The beeswax wraps are proving really popular with customers seeking a more natural way to keep food fresh. We’re hoping to introduce some new beeswax lines soon.”
Delightfully quirky reclaimed wood products handcrafted by Alma’s husband, John, eye-catching Gwili pottery pieces, beautiful hand-made cards and needlework are displayed with rustic authenticity alongside Carole and Alma’s exclusive range of hand-pulled screen print merchandise and other distinctive gifts made in Wales. Browsing the wonderful range of silk-screen printed aprons and teatowels, sniffing at candles, handling the fabrics, pottery, crafts and other carefully selected gifts in The Old Cowshed is a genuinely relaxing, sensory shopping experience… and a great way to avoid Saturday morning housework.
The welcome is warm, the freshly made pots of tea and coffee are free. Better still, Carole produces a tin of chocolate biscuits and invites her customers to simply sit awhile on the old Welsh settle by the log burner and just enjoy the chance to chill and chew the fat.
Having just celebrated The Old Cowshed’s first anniversary, the pair are now running workshops for locals wishing to learn the art of hand-pulled silk-screen printing.
“Small groups are very welcome,” says Carole. “The freedom of working in the way we want is that we can be flexible, so if a club or a group of individuals want to come in on a certain day at a given time, we can accommodate that. We had the Castle Mill & Pontfadog WI in here recently and had a hoot.”
Follow The Old Cowshed on Facebook, Instagram and on the web. The Old Cowshed is open Saturdays 10am – 4pm.