The healing power of calligraphy

The ancient art has had a modern makeover, garnering millions of fans – including the Duchess of Sussex. And the benefits can be life-changing…

Calligraphy: Magdalena Huber

How’s your handwriting these days? When we barely pick up a Biro to jot down a shopping list (why bother when you can tap it out just as speedily on your phone?), you’d be forgiven if your penmanship is a bit below par. But for devotees of modern calligraphy, or lettering as it’s often known, the art of beautiful handwriting is alive and well.

More relaxed and freestyle than traditional calligraphy, you’ll spot the artful loops, flicks and flourishes on everything from wedding invitations to the specials board at your local gastro pub. The art form has enjoyed a resurgence in recent months, too. A combination of the ‘Meghan effect’ – national retail chain Hobbycraft reported an incredible 40 per cent spike in calligraphy kit sales last year when it was revealed that the Duchess of Sussex enjoyed the pastime – and a proliferation of modern calligraphy accounts on Instagram, sharing gorgeous, intricate lettering (which are often combined with motivational quotes), has inspired more and more of us to pick up a pen.

Unlike the trend for adult colouring books (hands up if you have one abandoned on a shelf at home), it takes dedication to master the flowing strokes of modern calligraphy. But that’s all part of the joy of it for these five women – who each credit calligraphy with enhancing their lives in very different ways.

‘It has been transformative for my mental health’

Jessica Mickleburgh, 24, is a mental health advocate and budding calligraphy artist. She lives in Devon

I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), which means my moods can be very unstable. I can go from manic to horrendously depressed within a day – I’m up and down like a rollercoaster. It’s as if my emotions are 10,000 times stronger than other people’s.

Three years ago a combination of mental and physical health problems forced me to leave my job as a healthcare assistant. Stuck at home, I needed something other than cuddling my cats to keep myself occupied. As I was scrolling through Facebook, a calligraphy video popped up, which I thought looked fun.

I didn’t have a desk or money to buy workbooks – I just had a pack of Crayola pens – so I taught myself from online videos. Instantly, my days were fuller. Calligraphy gave me something to focus on, which felt really good. Eventually, I saved up and bought more materials; as I practised it got easier.

One of Jessica’s watercolour designs incorporating her lettering skills

I now have an Instagram account, @thebpdletterer, where I share my calligraphy progress and discuss my mental health issues. Initially, I wouldn’t post any of my efforts unless they were perfect, but then I saw the hashtag #postitanyway, which encourages you to share your work, even if you’ve spelt something wrong or you don’t like the way one of the letters looks. It doesn’t matter: it just shows that you are human and not a robot.

Whenever I post about my BPBPD alongside my work, people message and comment, thanking me for being so open about it. I’ve made some very close friends through @thebpdletterer – I even met one of them in Canada.

I’ve now got a desk and I practise daily for up to five hours. My plan is to turn calligraphy into some kind of business. It’s early stages, but I’d like to create prints and stickers about mental health. I’m also getting married and I’m already designing our ‘save the date’ cards.

I wouldn’t be in such a strong place mentally if it weren’t for calligraphy. Whenever I do it, I’m in this creative space in my head; nothing has control over me there, my mental health doesn’t control my calligraphy. It’s very freeing, just to sit down, put everything out of my mind and focus on a single word. Follow Jessica at @thebpdletterer.

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‘It’s a distraction from family stress’

Jennie Guiney, 44, a full-time mum, is married with two children aged 11 and 13, and lives in Wiltshire

Lettering is an extremely mindful hobby. You can’t do it if your brain’s going 200 miles an hour; you need to concentrate.

For me, it’s a brilliant distraction from stress. I have two children and I homeschool my 13-year-old son, who is on the autistic spectrum. He is high-functioning but struggles with anxiety, which can be challenging and sometimes dominates family life. Add teenage hormones into the mix and there are occasional meltdowns.

I got into calligraphy three years ago after watching a particularly hypnotic video on Instagram of someone brush-lettering [using a brush pen to create thick and thin strokes]. The benefits have been amazing. Unlike, say, going to the gym, it’s something I can do in my home with my children around. Downtime is incredibly important and this is something just for me. It’s a massive sanity-saver. I’m very much in the moment when I’m doing calligraphy and it leaves me much more relaxed. If I don’t do it regularly, I get antsy, so I squeeze some practice in as much as possible.

Jennie spreads calligraphy joy by leaving lettered stones for people to find.

It has unlocked a creative side of me. Ever since I got a D in GCSE art, I’ve said to myself, ‘You’re not an artist.’ That’s how it was for the past 30 years, but then I found this outlet and rediscovered my creativity. Modern calligraphy is great if, like me, you haven’t got the patience for all the strict rules of traditional calligraphy.

Since I started, I’ve accumulated a lot of supplies and have completely taken over my husband’s study with all my inks and pens. If I spot a stationery shop when we’re out, my kids always groan, because I have to go in and try out all the pens.

I like to experiment with different media; I’m hand-lettering stones with little quotes at the moment and leaving them in places for people to find. It’s part of a movement called ‘art abandonment’. I always put my Instagram handle on the back of the stone. Someone found one I’d left on holiday in Devon and tracked me down online. It’s nice to spread a little bit of joy.

The loveliest thing that’s come from my calligraphy is that it has encouraged my son to nurture his own artistic side. He’s very good at drawing, and he’s learnt to turn to it when he’s feeling stressed. So my hobby hasn’t just benefited me, it’s helped him, too. I say ‘hobby’, but it’s so much more than a casual activity you might pick up and drop: for me it’s a total obsession. It brings me so much pleasure.

Follow Jennie at @_theleftyscribe_

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‘I live with chronic pain and need an escape’

Ruth Tisdall, 37, a nurse, is married and lives in Manchester

Two years ago I was diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome. I get a lot of pain in my hip. The cause is unknown, but doctors explain that it’s like hearing the alarm bells that tell your brain there is pain, even though there isn’t a trigger. I’m in pain most days. Sometimes it flares up and gets worse, but I manage to work part-time as a nurse.

I read that being creative can be helpful for managing chronic pain. It’s not fully understood why, but I thought I’d explore it.

I’m limited in what I can do, so any hobby really has to work for me. I find calligraphy extremely meditative and relaxing. It feels as though it’s blocking the pain signals slightly; I think it’s because each individual stroke of the pen is very absorbing, so my attention is shifted away from the constant pain.

There are more complex forms of relaxing’calligraphy, but I keep it simple: I just have my brush pen and a piece of paper so that I can do it on the train, on my break at work or in a meeting – whenever I need some relief. Ideally, I would practise calligraphy daily but it can be hard for me to sustain one physical position for any length of time.

On my Instagram bio I have the hashtag #progressnotperfection. It can be intimidating when you first start calligraphy and it doesn’t look how you hoped – sometimes you can feel like throwing your pen across the room – but it’s about persevering. It took about six months to get my lettering to look how I wanted it. I was determined to master it. You can find free worksheets online, print them off and trace over the letters; that was helpful for me, because your hand learns the movements.

It can be hard as an adult to find the confidence to try something new, but modern calligraphy is something anyone can do. I have a large collection of pens – 150 and counting; my husband buys me them as presents – but you only need one to get started.

Follow Ruth at @ruthelizabeth_journals.

‘This is what gets me through the night feeds’

Lucy Davies, 35, a lettering artist, is married with a baby son and lives in Hampshire

I had my son Jasper ten weeks ago. I teach modern calligraphy workshops, but since going on maternity leave I’ve been enjoying calligraphy as a hobby again. I had to stop working a couple of months before Jasper was born, as I had a very big bump. I do a lot of hand-lettering for clients [see below], including on big chalkboards for weddings and restaurants, so it ended up being physically impossible.

Now that I’m creating things for myself, there isn’t the pressure of meeting a brief. I find it really therapeutic as I can go with what I’m feeling.

I do a lot of calligraphy on my iPad; there’s an app called Procreate that you can use with an Apple Pencil. With the iPad I can practise anywhere, even while I’m feeding Jasper, or have one hand rocking his bed and the other drawing. It also means that if I’m shattered and my work’s not great, I’m not wasting paper.

Sometimes Jasper will be in the sling while I’m at my desk with my pens, doodling and drawing. I’ve got lots of my work pinned to the wall and he’s quite happy gazing at all the shapes.

I’m not able to practise every day – having a newborn is a little crazy and there’s no routine – but it’s nice to be able to snatch moments for myself. So if he’s napping and I’ve got a couple of hours, the housework can wait.

As an artist, I think it’s important to me to keep up my practice; I don’t want to lose that part of me. It would be easy to say, ‘Oh well, I don’t have time to do that now because I have a baby’, but I want to be able to do something that I love just for me.

Through my Instagram account, I’ve found a great community of calligraphers. When I posted a picture of Jasper for the first time, I had stacks of messages from my followers. And it turns out a lot of them are mums with young babies, too, so through that I’ve got a new motherhood gang who I can turn to when I have questions.

When I go back to work, my plan is for Jasper to be my little sidekick in my studio for a few years. Maybe I can even train him up. He’s going to have the best handwriting at school, that’s for sure.

Follow Lucy at @littleoldgoose

Photo by Claire Graham

‘Discovering calligraphy upgraded my career’

Lucy Edmonds, 35, founder of the Quill London stationery brand, is married with a six-week-old daughter and lives in London

Falling in love with calligraphy was entirely accidental but it has changed my life. I founded my stationery company Quill London back in 2012, however it was a couple of years before I spotted this beautiful writing all over Pinterest and learned its name: modern calligraphy. It was big in America but not really a thing over here. I thought my stationery-loving customers would enjoy it, so I recruited a professional calligrapher and hosted one of the first modern calligraphy workshops in London.

There was a crazy level of interest: 4,000 people were on the waiting list. I think that millennials, in particular, wanted to get off their screens and do something more analogue. At the same time there was an explosion in the ‘experience economy’, with people wanting to spend their money on doing things rather than simply buying stuff. I was lucky that my workshops tapped into both of those trends.

As for my own calligraphy skills, I was learning along with our early customers. I didn’t plan to become a professional calligrapher but I got hooked. Most of us are used to instant gratification, so it’s refreshing to have to put the hours in to learn something new.

Now calligraphy is a huge part of my business and has opened up exciting projects, from teaching workshops in Japan to working with fashion brands such as Gucci and Net-A-Porter. I create invitations, place-cards, menus, large-scale signs – I’ve even made stationery for celebrity weddings, although I’m not allowed to say whose.

My pinch-me moment was being asked to write a how-to book. Three publishers had spotted the calligraphy trend and all wanted me to write it – that was completely bonkers.

The success of my calligraphy work has meant I was able to open a permanent shop-studio in Islington, North London, and I now have a team of five people. We have an exciting mix of commissions, and teach private and public workshops. It’s a big trend, thanks to social media and the Duchess of Sussex – she’s definitely brought some good PR to the world of modern calligraphy.

Follow Lucy at @quilllondon

How Meghan made her mark

Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

The Duchess of Sussex picked up the hobby during handwriting classes at school and went on to use it to support her early acting career, where her clients reportedly included Dolce & Gabbana. ‘I’d sit there with a little white tube sock on my hand so no hand oils got on the card, trying to pay my bills while auditioning,’ she said. ‘I’m glad that in the land of no one seeming to appreciate a handwritten note any more that I can try to keep that alive.’

Inspired? Read then write…


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Inkspired by Betty Soldi, £16.99