Wednesday, 25 March 2009

save Portland Works

Folks who have been watching my blog for a while may remember me visiting Stuart Mitchell a knifemaker in Sheffield. He works in Portland Works which was built in the 1870s as a cutlery works. It has an incredibly important part in Sheffield if not world history as the place where stainless steel was first manufactured in 1913.

Today the rent from metalwork workshops is not as much as from inner city flats so the owners have applied for planning permission to convert it, evicting the various metalwork businesses. Another of these Wigfall tools are one of the last works in Sheffield forging tools still using the historic forge workshops that were originaly built for the job.

To me this is a prime example of Living Heritage, Sheffield is synonomous with metalworking and cutlery, everyone reading this will have stainless steel cutlery in their home and in many it will have been made in Sheffield. The Victorian Society and English Heritage have taken an interest in the building which is grade II* listed but their interest lies primarily in the the fabric of the building. To my mind the real heritage of this site and the thing that is special is the continuity of use for the pupose the building was designed for and the importance of that trade within the culture of Sheffield. There were many such works in Sheffield and nearly all are now flats.

The MP Richard Caborn has taken up the case and there is a facebook group here where you can find out more or sign up to register your support support for the folk fighting to save this important bit of Living Heritage.

The UNESCO convention on living heritage says "Any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus not on preserving craft objects—but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds"

I suspect that a survey of working crafts people would rate affordable workshop space as very high on their list of "conditions needed to produce crafts". This is particularly so for the metalworking crafts who need "heavy industrial" planning permission and workshops can be very expensive. The value here though of these historic crafts working in this historic building has to be more than the sum of the parts. We could save the building and turn it into flats and have the crafts moved to new industrial units but to me that would still be a significant loss of heritage value.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

apprenticeship the book

I have just read a rather enjoyable short book called "Apprenticeship, The Necessity of Learning by Doing" By Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley & Martin Gay Ford.

At £8 for 50 small pages it is not a cheap book but I certainly had my £8 worth from it.

The forward by HRH Price Charles is in itself worth reading, I'll quote some of it here.

"In his Essay on Typography, written in the 1930s, Eric Gill observed that "tho'
industrialism has now won almost complete victory, the handcrafts are not killed and they cannot be quite killed because they meet an inherent, indestructible, permanent need in human nature." In this Gill articulated the essential truth at the heart of the human artistic endeavor, the unique and mysterious need of human beings to satisfy emotional and spiritual urges."

"I have long felt that one of the great tragedies of the latter half of the Twentieth Century has been the loss - and indeed, the denigration - of so many skilled trades in this country."

I have many friends that have gone through traditional apprenticeships both in this country and through the rigorous German apprenticeship and journeyman system. I know many others that are highly skilled craftspeople that have taken different learning routes.

One of the problems with apprenticeship is that it works for larger workshops but not for many crafts skills which tend to be done by single craftspeople. These crafts were historically often passed on in the family but as they decline there is little incentive for a single craftsperson to bring an apprentice in to teach. There have been many reports highlighting the decline in crafts skills particularly in the building trades and many initiatives and much money spent on apprenticeship schemes in the heritage building trades. One of the best a 2008 report called "Heritage is in our Hands, a review of Heritage Trade Training" suggests traditional apprenticeship is not the answer "a new approach is needed to ensure these skills and critical knowledge continue to be available to future generations. It is strongly recomended that a new approach, based on teaching and learning flexibility that recognises the value of different learning pathways, holds the key to success."

This is much in line with my own thinking, my feelings were that the traditional apprenticeship, has or had its place but we now need to find new ways to pass these skills on. I was expecting the Kindersley book to be backward looking and dated but it feels up to date and relevant and makes some very good points. Lida was apprenticed to her future husband David Kindersley who had in turn been apprenticed to Eric Gill, some of the best insights in the book come from the record of those two apprenticeships.

Kindersley had written to Gill enquiring about apprenticeships and been told there were no vacancies. He was determined though and went to visit anyway. Gill interviewed him, changed his mind and told him "I think if you come back in a month I can take you. You see the chap who is coming has been to an art school and I don't think he will last more than a month."

"What was it that passed through Eric Gill's mind in that moment...Evidently he was impressed by this teanager who had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, and had already taken concrete steps toward doing it. This seemed to him much more promising, as a basis for an apprenticeship, than training at art school."

I'll finish with a little quote from the front cover which, if read carefully, really sums it up "In the right environment an experienced person can show almost anyone who really wants to learn how to do a particular job well."

Monday, 16 March 2009

Northampton centre of the shoe industry

Last night we rewatched "Kinky Boots" a very entertaining and amusing film based on the true story of how one old established shoe company faced with cheap imports and declining sales diversified into fetish footwear.

One thing I had not really appreciated when I first watched it were the lovely close up shots of the antiquated machinery working thick leather to make gorgeous traditional shoes. It made me want to know more about the Northamptonshire shoe industry so this morning I had a quick google. Here are a couple of interesting quotes;

"For many centuries, Northampton's staple industry was the manufacture of shoes, and records show that the town made 4000 shoes and 600 boots for the army in 1642, and further huge numbers for Oliver Cromwell's army in 1648."

"By 1831 a third of all the men living in Northampton were shoemakers. Prior to the 1850s they were all 'home-workers', making shoes in their cellars or garden sheds. Commercial Shoe Manufacturers were really only warehouses in which finished shoes were received, inspected, packed and dispatched."

The Kinky Boots story is based on the family business WJ Brooks of Earls Barton and 4th generation MD Steve Pateman who took over the declining business in 1993. They made quality mens brogues but like all the Northampton shoe businesses were in dire straights due to competition from cheap imports and the strong pound hitting the export market. By 1998 he had been forced to cut the staff from 80 down to 30 but they were still struggling. That was when they diversified into fetish footwear, it proved successfull for a few years untill that market too became flooded with cheap imports and apparantly WJ Brooks stopped manufacturing in 2000.
20 years ago Earls Barton had 6 thriving shoe factories now there is only 1.

So what is left of shoe making in Northampton? The football team are knicknamed "the cobblers" and it has a world famous museum of footwear. What will be left for the next generation? is the name of a football team and a museum enough to mark 300 years as a world centre of shoe and boot production? I remember visiting Dalarna in Sweden and hearing of a particular regional basket, only made there. Every child whilst in primary school would learn to make one of those baskets as it helped them conect with their history, to know who they were and where they were from. I would love to see children in Northampton making shoes, in Walsall learning about saddles, in Sheffield making a folding pocket knife, in Kent picking and drying hops and apples. I don't want to see large industries subsidiesed when they can no longer compete but this is as much a part as our heritage as the buildings and museums we devote a lot of attention and money to and in many ways more fragile and easily lost.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Crafts documentary film

This week I have been working with Tim Clements a documentary film maker who is starting work on a project to make a documentary on heritage craftspeople. It was a very interesting process I think for both of us. Tim had interesting ideas about what he wanted but was feeling his way and using me as a guinea pig to establish a format for the film. In many ways film making is a craft in itself so I think we were both very interested in each others work and ideas.

What made it a pleasure to work with him was that he is making this film off his own back out of passion. He started out making documentaries but has drifted into other work, particularly doing camera work on other projects. The documentary format seems to be out of favour certainly with TV at the moment but Tim wants to do it anyway because he likes the format and thinks it is a good way to treat an interesting subject. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with as the project develops. One of the things he wanted to do was to show the finished craft objects in use so on the last evening he set all his lights up and filmed as we had dinner. I hadn't thought to stage what we were eating in order to get lots of wood on the table so it was only the usual wooden plates, no bowls on that day.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Coming soon the "Heritage Crafts Association"

It has been a very busy week with lots of work, a mini break camping trip with an old friend to Robin Hood's bay but the highlight was yesterdays meeting in a basement in London where we made major steps forward with out new Heritage Crafts Association.

Our committee has grown to 8 and we had an all day meeting to thrash out our aims and objectives, a business plan, financial planning, website, and we also decided on our organisations name "The Heritage Crafts Association". Here is a very dodgy camera phone image of what may prove to be quite a momentous occasion.

Whenever I talk to folks about what we are doing people are amazed that there is not already an organisation to look after and promote "living heritage". We have English Heritage to look after buildings, Natural England to protect the landscape but no one to champion the living heritage. That is all the aspects of our culture that make us who and what we are today. This includes folk dance and songs, customs like pancake day, bonfire night or Notting Hill Carnival and the area that our new orgnisation is championing Heritage Crafts.

We hope to work with other organisation and government to preserve and promote our heritage crafts ensuring that they are passed on to the next generation. Once they are gone it is incredibly hard to recapture the lost skills so passing skills from one generation to the next has always to be the first priority. We are aware of many heritage skills that are in crisis. English Heritage have done much work to help with skills that are involved in building conservation but whilst they are are very supportive of our group and have offered goo dhelp and advice their remit does not extend to all the crafts not conected to buildings. So the last cooper, sievemaker or folding knife maker all fall outside their remit. We have taken on the chalenge of ensuring these skills survive.

We have a tremendous range of skill and experience in our small group and we are confident that we can make a real difference. Watch this space.

And now a few gratuitous holiday snaps.
Bridlington harbour.

One of my favourite places in Whitby, St Mary's Church, parts of the building dating from the 11th Century I liked this rather fine roof and the layers of alterations from 11th through to 19th centuries.

And when in Whitby you can't leave without visiting Fortunes for kippers. Proper hand craft food production the small smoking shed driping with the tar of many years smoking.