In Molesworth & Bird’s Lyme Regis studio, captivating seaweed specimens sprawl across paper in shades of dark olive and moss through to plum and rhubarb. The otherworldly fronds are reminiscent of trees and branches found above land, but their sense of movement is changed, from growing under the surface of the sea. Gathered from the Jurassic coastline where Mary Anning once searched for fossils, some specimens are so delicate and lace-like, they are mistaken for watercolours when pressed. “They just sink into the paper,” Melanie Molesworth (pictured right) explains. “We have to persuade visitors to the shop that they are very much real.”
Melanie co-founded the seaweed design company in 2018 with Julia Bird (pictured left), who she met over 30 years ago through mutual friends. They became close after working as stylists for a magazine publisher in London, working on different titles in the same building. After moving away from the city (Julia to Cornwall, Melanie to Dorset), they began pressing seaweed, after being fascinated by a collection of specimens Melanie bought in a London antiques shop while sourcing props for a photoshoot. Coincidentally, they were all gathered from around a five mile radius from her home. “Some of them are noted as being from Seaton Hole, some from Charmouth,” she says. “It’s a lovely link to see similar specimens when I go foraging today.”
In the beginning, Melanie made some cards with pressed seaweed prints for a shop in Lyme, similar to the exclusive cards and prints they have created for TOAST. Then, the pair were invited to create a ‘seaweed salon’ with their framed pressings as part of a local open art house, and it just went from there. “We didn’t realise it would hit a note with so many people,” Melanie says. “We’ve always loved them but we never knew anyone else would be as interested in them as we are.”
Yet, foraging for seaweed has long held a fascination, particularly for women in the 19th century. They trawled coastlines and clambered across rocks in billowing layers, scouring for specimens to collect and press. “We’re so inspired by those women,” Julia says. “It was a passion; they were really intrepid.” George Eliot wrote in a journal entry after visiting the tide pools of Ilfracombe that she was “quite in love with seaweeds,” and it’s said that Queen Victoria had an album of pressings. Margaret Gatty, the writer of 1872’s British Sea Weeds, implored women to wear comfortable shoes while foraging to ensure a sense of freedom: “Feel the luxury of not having to be afraid of your boots… Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm — confident in yourself.”
For Melanie and Julia, the excitement of finding a new specimen is thrilling. “Over time, we’ve become more aware of the pieces that are rarer,” says Melanie. The duo only gather seaweed that has washed up naturally on the coastline, or is floating freely in the shallows after a storm, to ensure there is no damage to the ecosystem. Yesterday, Julia found a new specimen that she hadn’t seen in the UK before; they keep records of what they have found in a catalogue, and have recorded over 100 different specimens. “But in fact, there are more than 650 specimens in the British Isles,” she explains. What draws them to each piece is principally the shapes and colours. “It’s not so important to us that it’s a scientifically perfect specimen,” Julia explains. “We love it when they're faded and a bit sea-bashed sometimes. Some of the beautiful pale pink colours are very faded as they've been drifting about in the sea. That can make them so beautiful.”
The best time to gather seaweed is at low tide. The pair are entirely attuned to the way the seasons and weather affect the pieces they find. “When pieces break away in a storm, and float around in the sun on the water, the colours fade quite quickly,” Julia says. That is when they find very light pinks, or yellows if there is a heatwave. “If we’d gone a few weeks before that, they would have been mostly dark reds. They grow in a much deeper area of the sea, so you only really discover those when they are floating about in the shallows of the water after a storm.”
One of the joys of seaweed pressing is that it is so simple to do. Both Melanie and Julia often take pieces straight from the beach to their kitchen tables to press at home. After the seaweed has been washed, they submerge a piece of paper in a water-filled tray. Then, the specimen is added and arranged on top of the paper with a small paintbrush. The paper is lifted out, dabbed, and greaseproof paper is placed on top. Layers of cardboard and absorbent newspaper are added, then placed in the press. The smaller, wispy specimens can be ready quite quickly, while the larger pieces can take weeks to dry, and require the absorbent papers to be changed regularly.
Journeying across the sand in the liminal place where the water meets the shoreline has an undeniable pull, as you are never truly sure of what you will encounter. A few years ago, Julia and Melanie went on a road trip to the Isle of Wight with the seaweed press in the back of the car, and intend to go on more travels around the British Isles, creating collections rooted in each place. “The fantastic thing about the sea is that it’s always changing,” Melanie says. Julia has bravely developed a passion for wild swimming. “I swim too, but not in the depths of winter!” Melanie adds. It seems that once the ocean has gripped you, it is impossible to let go.
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photography by Matt Austin.
Watch Melanie Molesworth and Julia Bird go seaweed foraging on the Lyme Regis coastline and create pressings in their studio on our Instagram.