Monday, 18 November 2013

Glass Engraving

Glass has been engraved for some 3,500 years. The art form has its origins in Mesopotamia where seal engraving was practised with immense skill on hard stone.
The Romans were great craftsmen in the technique of cameo engraving and, to a lesser extent, in intaglio and point engraving on glass. Engraving flourished in various glass centres of the Empire, notably in Alexandria.

During the fifteenth century Venice became the new centre of excellence in glassmaking and, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, freely drawn linear designs appeared which were made with a diamond. Prague, at the end of the sixteenth century, witnessed the rebirth of wheel engraving on glass and from there it radiated to many central European cities. By the end of the eighteenth century wheel engraving dominated the craft.

 In the late seventeenth century in England the glassmaker George Ravenscraft discovered that by increasing the quantity of lead oxide in glass he could produce a beautiful, clear, bright 'metal' which was ideal for facet-cutting. Because this also produced a physically softer glass it was welcomed by the eighteenth century Dutch artists, the innovators of the most delicate of engraving techniques, who found that it was sympathetic to their stipple engraving.

 New techniques of acid etch, introduced in the first half of the nineteenth century, and of sandblast which followed later in the century, brought the price of 'decorated' glass within the reach of more people.
 Laurence Whistler revived the art of diamond point stipple in 1935. In the second half of the twentieth century the electric drill gave many more artists the opportunity to explore glass engraving. Since 1975, the revival of interest in the medium has also stimulated a resurgence of demand for engraved glass from architects, curators and collectors.

The Guild of Glass Engravers ( was founded in 1975 in order to establish a professional body for this art form. The primary aims of the Guild are to promote the highest standards of creative design and craftsmanship in glass engraving. The Guild acts as a forum for the teaching and discussion of engraving techniques and new developments from around the world as well as acting as a source of information to the public on all aspects of glass engraving and advises the growing number of individuals and institutions wishing to commission work.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Crochet Cabin Lace

Crochet Cabin Lace

lace spelling out 'Cabin Lace'

Crochet lace is one of many forms of lace, some dating back through the centuries. Crochet lace is made using thread (usually cotton) and a crochet hook. Different thread sizes and thicknesses and different hook sizes will result in a tighter or looser, finer or larger lace. Each type of lace also has many variations within its ‘type’.

lace on shelfCabin lace was produced by boatwomen to decorate and personalise the cabins of their narrowboats and horse-drawn working boats dating, I believe, from the late 1800s, when many families moved onto their boats during times of hardship, to the present day. The consensus of those writing about Cabin Lace seems to be that the boatwomen would have copied pieces of contemporary lace that house dwellers used to edge pillowcases, table and tray cloths, and other household items. Many of the boatwomen were not able to read and created their lace by copying samples and adding their own designs. The lace would be used to decorate the spaces between ceiling and walls, shelf edges, to make curtain ‘pelmets’, and to decorate curtain edges, and it appears, virtually anywhere it would provide decoration. Cotton thread, coarser than that traditionally used for household linens, was often used so it would endure the washing and boiling needed to clean it of the dust and soot from the stove, cooking and cargo being carried.

Lace showing two cats with a bowlIt seems to be a tradition among current cabin lace workers to show where a pattern came from and how or why they have given it a name. Janet Reeve, in her pattern book ’Cabin Crochet of the Inland Waterways’ describes how crochet workers often referred to the patterns given to them by other women by the name of those women. Other lace has been named after the boat it decorated.

Currently, lace is often used as a window dressing on Narrowboats. My work is mainly sold to boat owners. Meeting boat owners face-to-face enables me to discuss their ideas with them, adapting or designing patterns for lace and porthole covers to match their boat name or theme, or to fit non-standard size windows. A new departure for me is take part in the 'Pop-in' shop at 3 Market Place, North Walsham, Norfolk. The Waterways Craft Guild provides an accreditation scheme to maintain the standards, support and encourage this wonderful tradition. Their website shows six accredited Cabin Lace Makers, but not all of these sell their lace professionally, and not everyone selling lace is accredited (

My fascination began with seeing the window lace and porthole covers on passing Narrowboats during a holiday on one. My brother and sister-in-law own a narrowboat and wanted me to make some shelf-edging lace for their cabin when I shared my thoughts about making-to-order with them. After contact with a ‘Master’ in the craft of Cabin Lace and some research, my work and the shop began. However, because fine work is quite labour intensive, I earn very little at present. Like many other artisans starting out, I think I also undervalued my work and have slowly increased my prices. Since starting out I have also started selling cotton, crochet hooks, patterns and developing my own patterns for sale to encourage others to keep this traditional canal craft alive, and to support my business. I have also branched out into making other items, such as my own design cushion kit, a Christmas Banner, and Bride's Purse, which still uses the finer cotton not so commonly used today. My plans for the future are to tutor crochet classes for beginners, and provide online tutorials for the same and in Cabin Crochet, for the growing numbers of narrowboat owners who want to decorate their boat in a traditional manner.
 By Sarah Welsh, Senior Journeyman in the art of Cabin Crochet

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Draught Harness and Horse Collar Making

Terry Davis at work on a collarThe ancient craft of draught harness and horse collar making dates back some one thousand years and still continues today much as it has always done. HCA Friend Terry Davies still carries on the skills and techniques required for this traditional craft.

The use of horses as a ‘working tool’ is dependent upon the application of fit-for-purpose harness and here the skills of the harness and horse collar maker play a vital role.
Collar making, using Rye straw and leather was, up until the early twentieth century, a separate craft practiced by a sub-division of harness makers who were trained specifically for the purpose and who were inextricably linked in the production of draught horse harness.
The skills of the collar maker lie in the ability to produce superbly crafted collars of great artistic and utilitarian merit, to fit the diverse range of size and conformation of horses on which they are used. Collars that fail to comply with the needs of the horse have the potential to seriously injure or curb the animal’s ability to perform its tasks efficiently. The old adage of ‘one horse one collar is an appropriate one that still governs the making of collars to the present day. 
Terry Davis at work on a collar
 In current times, the role of the horse as a ‘working tool’ has been superseded by technological advances and many of the affiliated crafts associated with their use have fallen into serious decline. The remaining collar and harness makers in the UK can now be counted on the fingers of one hand. 
There has been, however, over the past two decades a strong revival in the use of horses. This is driven by aficionados who remain attached to the horse and the long history surrounding it.
Carriage driving and the eco-friendly interest in the working horse has brought about this revival and so collar making as a traditional craft continues to be practiced with demand coming from both the home and European markets. It is hoped that this can be maintained and the long established traditional skills of the craft can be preserved. 
Detail of horse collar making
by Terry Davis 
Images of Terry Davis, © Joshua Davis, by kind permission

Friday, 2 August 2013

Sharing Cultures 2013 Technical Visits

Sharing Cultures 2013 international conference on intangible heritage that I attended last week in Aveiro, Portugal (see previous post), included a day of visits to see local expressions of intangible heritage – so I thought I’d give a quick summary of some of the things we saw.

We began the day with a visit to an 'ovos moles' studio, a traditional sweet from the Aveiro region. ‘Ovos moles’ means ‘soft eggs’, and the recipe was created by the nuns of the area who had a surplus of egg yolks because they used the egg whites to starch their habits. The sweets consist of a wafer-like outer casing made to the same recipe as religious hosts, with a filling made from egg yolks, sugar and water. Ovos moles have EU ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ status (like Melton Mowbray pork pies), as a result of which they can only be made in the region and no changes can be made to the recipe - e.g. you can't add flavourings or dip them in chocolate. I found this very interesting as it raises familiar questions in the intangible heritage debate about the extent to which measures designed to safeguard something can actually lead to its demise because they stifle the creativity and change necessary for something to remain relevant.  
Salt pans at the Ecomuseu Marinha da Troncalhada
Our second visit was to the city's ecomuseum to see salt harvesting. Historically, salt extraction played a major role in the local economy, but the rise of new methods of food preservation, such as refrigeration and freezing, led to a rapid decline in demand for salt, especially from boats going cod fishing in the North Sea – today most of the salt is used to grit roads in winter. As a result, the number of ‘salinas’ has fallen dramatically – from 270 in 1970 to 8 in 2011. Concern for the loss of cultural, landscape, ecological and ethnological values associated with traditional methods of salt production have led to the city exploring ways to keep the heritage alive – through artisanal salt production, combining salt production with other products, and through tourism – such as the ecomuseum, which has two crystallisation pans for visitors to have a go at scraping out the salt. See here for a detailed article on the subject.

In the afternoon we went to the ‘Association of the Friends of the Lagoon and the Moliceiro Boats’ to learn about the traditional painting of ‘moliceiros’ boats – small boats used for harvesting algae. The boats are painted using particular colours – red, yellow, blue, green and white – which are separated in a prescribed way. The boats have four picture panels – two at the prow and two at the stern – which are not repeated, and these are surrounded by a patterned border. Sexual innuendo is a popular theme for the panels we were told! There are also ‘rules’ regarding the colours and designs used on the insides of the boats. The Association appears to be very active in keeping the shipyard going and keeping the skills of making and painting the boats and of sailing alive, as well as in promoting the tradition to the wider public.
Local residents making adobe bricks
Our final visit of the day was to a local ethnographic museum, which used to be a family farm (the family still live nearby). I didn’t have a chance to look around as I was too distracted by the elderly locals demonstrating traditional skills for us – including adobe brick making, netmaking, plant grafting, and basketmaking (which I was hooked on). We ended the day with a feast of fish, bread and wine, and live music and dancing from the local residents.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Sharing Cultures 2013

The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

Last week (with support from MERL and the University of Reading) I was lucky enough to represent the HCA at Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), held in the city of Aveiro in Portugal. 

So, what is ICH? Normally, when we think of cultural heritage we think of tangible, physical things such as buildings, monuments, sites and museum objects. The concept of intangible cultural heritage recognises that there are many non-physical things which are also a part of our heritage. This concept was formalised by UNESCO in its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which set out five domains of ICH – oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship. Unfortunately, the UK government has not ratified the Convention, and there has been a general unwillingness to engage with the concept of ICH in the UK. However, the HCA strongly supports traditional craftsmanship as a fundamental part of the living, intangible heritage in the UK.

The conference featured two days of parallel sessions of presentations (which meant I could only attend half of them), with a day of workshop visits to see local expressions of intangible heritage in the Aveiro region (separate post tofollow). In addition to papers on each of the five domains of ICH, there were also sessions on education and ICH, musealisation of ICH, and safeguarding and managing ICH. It was very much an academic conference and while there was a lot of very interesting academicising on ICH, there wasn’t much about the practical implementation and implications for heritage management.  

I gave a paper on craftsmanship as heritage in the UK, using basketry as an example craft to explore ideas of applying values-based approaches usually used in the management and safeguarding of tangible heritage to intangible heritage, and looked out how such an approach can inform the work of the HCA. 

Various papers caught my attention for different reasons – in my HCA capacity, in my work at MERL, and for my own personal interest – although there weren’t as many papers on craftsmanship as I would have liked. In fact, there were only three – including mine! There were three stand out papers from an HCA perspective.

Firstly, Austin Parsons of Dalhousie University, Canada, gave a fascinating paper on traditional Nova Soctian sash-window making. It seems that the craft is facing many of the same issues that craftsmanship is facing in the UK – an ageing workforce, issues in skills transmission with few people learning the skills, and a lack of demand/market. He explained how these issues are being compounded by conventional approaches to conservation in tangible heritage – the principle that you should repair, not replace. Austin proposed the reverse – that it is better to replace damaged sash windows with new ones built using the same materials and techniques, thus preserving both the integrity of the building and the craft of sash-window making. 

Dorothy Ng Fung-Ping of the University of Hong Kong gave a paper on the conservation of Cantonese Opera (yueju), Hong Kong’s only listing on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, inscribed in 2009. Prior to inscription, there had been growing support for and recognition of the value of Cantonese Opera as part of Hong Kong’s heritage by the Hong Kong government, and this coincided with a drastic reform of the secondary education curriculum in 2005. As a result, Cantonese Opera has been integrated into the secondary curriculum – in Chinese and English language classes, in home economics, in ethics, in religion – and Dorothy outlined the practicalities of how the Hong Kong government had gone about this. It has obviously been hugely time- and resource-intensive, and only covers one expression of ICH, but shows what it’s possible to do when the government takes ICH seriously.

Finally, Nancy Stalker of the University of Texas gave a paper on ICH and cultural diplomacy in post-war Japan. This paper focused on the ‘false gap’ between officially-viewed heritage practices, such as kabuki, and popularly-perceived heritage practices, such as ikebana (flower arranging), which, despite being practised by millions of people, are not given official heritage status – the principle being that cultural practices must be endangered before they can be designated as heritage. This made me question how the situation compares with the UK. 

If you want to find out more about ICH, take a look at UNESCO’s website and the International Journal of Intangible Heritage, which is free to download.