Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Victorian Farm, Owen Jones swill basket maker.

We don't have a TV but several folk told me I should watch the BBCs "Victorian Farm" on iplayer.

Most of the presenters are friends, Ruth Goodman a Tudor expert has used my bowls for years, the latest episode featured two other friends Owen Jones my all time craft hero and in my opinion a "living national treasure" this is a short video of him making a swill basket.

I have been doing shows with Owen for 15 years and what makes him unusual amongst craftsmen today is that like me he makes most of his income from making and selling his baskets not from demonstrations, teaching, grants etc. He does do a couple of courses a year and I would highly recommend them. If you do a course at his home you will also get an excellent lunch served from my bowls and plates.

Another presenter Alex Langlands has an interest in traditional crafts and we have been coresponding about our new organisation. Yesterday Alex sent me this email

"The BBC series 'The Victorian Farm' has proved quite a success story so far with the last twp episodes gaining a greater share of viewers than ITV and C4 (surprise, surprise: people are not as interested in celebrity tantrums and car chases as they are in a traditional rural way of life). Most importantly from our perspective is that many people are contacting me wanting to know about how to make baskets, lip salves and hurdles etc. and how, generically, they can employ some of those skills/products in their everyday lives. I'm being asked by the BBC what a follow up series should include and I'm pushing traditional crafts and skills as a core aspect - I'll keep you posted."

Here are the links to the iplayer program if you missed it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Intangible Cultural Heritage UNESCO and traditional craft

This morning I was sent a new report on Heritage Crafts Training in Australia, it is a PDF which I can forward to anyone who is interested. I learned quite a bit from it amongst other things I did not know that there was a UNESCO convention on "intangible cultural heritage" It is inspiring here is a brief excerpt of what it has to say on crafts.

“Traditional craftsmanship” seems in many ways to be the most tangible of domains in which intangible heritage is expressed, but the focus of the Convention is not on craft products as such, but rather on the skills and knowledge crucial for their ongoing production. Any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus not on preserving craft objects—no matter how beautiful, precious, rare or important they might be—but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others, especially younger members of their own communities."

and a link for more

This was created in 2003 and 107 countries have signed up to the convention but not the UK, these are the states that have

I have just written to my MP to ask why we are not signed up to such an excellent convention. If we were it would help traditional crafts in the UK enormously.

Friday, 23 January 2009

"Englands last master Cooper"

This interesting article appeared in the Telegraph 14/01/09

"England's last remaining master cooper Alastair Simms has predicted that the nation's barrel-making trade will go to the grave with him. "

Alastair Simms - England's only master cooper predicts demise of barrel making
Mr Simms said his "only regret" is that no one will carry on the trade when he retires

Mr Simms, 45, began working as an apprentice cooper on his sixteenth birthday and finally attained the rank of master in 1994.

When he joined the trade there were thousands of barrel makers across England practising a craft that dates back to Roman times.

But timber shortages and the emergence of modern metal casks has seen the number of master coopers dwindle until he is now the only one left.

Mr Simms, a father-of-two who lives in Devizes, Wilts., said his "only regret" is that no one will carry on the trade when he retires.

He said: "Coopering is not just a dying trade it's already dead. There are only four breweries left who employ coopers in the country and I'm the only master.

"It's a proper old-fashioned, historic trade and if you don't have a natural ability for woodworking and skill with your hands then you can't learn it.

"I'm going to keep working as a master cooper until I'm dead but I'm very keen to pass on my knowledge to another generation.

"I have loved my career and have no regrets except that no one will carry it on.

Hopefully we will find an apprentice soon so that we are secure for the future."

Mr Simms currently works for Wadworth Brewery in Devizes, Wilts., where he makes wooden barrels for beers such as 6x and IPA.

He became a master cooper in 1994 when his apprentice Peter Coates finished his training and became a journeyman cooper.

In 2000 there were fewer than a dozen master coopers still practising in England but following retirements and deaths he is now the only one remaining.

Mr Simms added: "You can definitely taste the difference between a beer brewed in a wooden barrel and one brewed in a metal cask.

"The one from the wood will have a far better flavour because the oak finishes it off with a more rounded taste.

"I accept metal barrels are necessary for the long distance transportation of beer but it's a shame that has led to a decline in the coopering trade.

"In the past wooden barrels were the only way to store liquids and food. They used to be essential for trade but faded away with the emergence of cheap metal and plastics.

"I don't really know why I'm the only master cooper left. It's just one of those trades that has died a slow, sad death over the years."

Mr Simms begins the barrel making process by splitting seasoned English oak planks into staves and then shaping their edges into precise angles.

Around 20 of the staves are then slotted inside metal hoops before they are left in a steam-room where they expand and lock into one another.

The heads are then fitted onto the top and bottom of the barrel before it is finished by hand and tested ready for use.

*In England an apprentice cooper becomes a journeyman cooper upon completion of his four-and-a-half year training.

He gains the rank of master when he successfully trains his first apprentice. Training is overseen by the National Joint Industrial Council of the Cooperage Industry.

However, in Scotland the rank of master cooper is given to anyone who owns their own distillery and cooperage."

This link takes you to a bbc interview

here is the link to the telegraph article

more crafts a traditional ladder maker

I have just been sent a lovely letter from Stanley Clark a retired ladder maker. He is 70 in April and no longer capable of making ladders but wishes to share some of his extensive knowledge of the craft.

He was apprenticed in 1954 straight from school to John Ward and Son Ladder makers, Bugbrooke Northampton. His letter tells how builders liked a narrow ladder as it made it easier to carry a full hod of bricks up and they generally had 2 ladders on the scaffold one up and the other was set in a hole on top of a straw bale so they could slide down holding the outside of the narrow ladder a little like a firemans pole.

Thatchers ladders were made to measure the thatcher would be measured from instep to knee so that when he stood on one rung his knees would come at the right point on one above as they worked kneeling on the ladder.

"We also made ladders for farmers that were made out of bent willow poles, they would just rock and not break when being pushed away from a loaded farm waggon etc. at one time we could not make them fast enough"

Stanley said they were "built like atheletes due to the incredible physical nature of the work". They all worked a break neck speed...He could knock out 6 to 8 ordinary 18 rung ladders in a day, or 4 double extension ladders with 15 rungs a day. They cleft oak and ash rungs and hand shaped them with a draw knife..later in his career they turned them.

Stanley contacted my friend the timber framer Henry Russel after seeing him doing a TV program. We are hoping that maybe we can get a few of us together with Stanley and some materials so that he can pass some of his skills on to us. Stanley is also clearly an accomplished artist and has painted a series of pictures of the workshops as he remembers it. I hope to be able to show some of them here when I have asked his permission.

I am going to look into various sources to see if there is any way we can find some funding to spend time with Stanley, pay for materials and make a proper video record as we try to preserve these old skills. I am sure that one day in the future someone will find it useful to know how to build a wooden ladder quickly and efficiently. In fact I am sure that it would be possible to make a living today if you could make 6 or 8 ladders in a day!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Campaign for Traditional Crafts

This seems like a good subject for the first post of 2009. My major aim for this year is to achieve a national organisation to campaign for traditional crafts.

Why is a new organisation needed?

The traditional crafts are currently in a state of crisis. Many skills which have been part of our culture for centuries are now practiced by only a few elderly craftsmen with no new apprentices, some could be gone within ten years. The knowledge and skills of these craftsmen is itself a part of our cultural heritage, what the Japanese call “an intangible cultural asset”

At present the traditional crafts fall outside the remit of government funding agencies and have no cohesive voice. When I talk with friends about this subject they simply can't believe that there is no government support for traditional work crafts.

These quotes from my coresondence over the years may give an indication of the position, first Janet Barnes, then Director of the Crafts Council.

"My emphasis is on promoting British Craftspeople internationally. Looking forward is another thing in other words innovative practice-and not looking back and not being historical."

In an email to me in 2000 Janet said

"it has always been my understanding that the Crafts Council supports crafts that are skill based and have an innovative approach to design or use of material. I think the best approach for the Traditional crafts is to pursue the heritage angle for public funding purposes and this really means the lottery."

Here an extract of a remarkably frank letter from Kim Evans exec director Arts, Arts Council England 2001

"You are correct in your analysis of support for innovative craft practice; this is where nationally funded organisations have focused their attention over the past twenty five years or so. Indeed this has been the case with the visual arts as a whole where the innovative has been prioritised over the traditional, one reason being to make the most of limited funds" "It is unlikely that the Arts Council would see itself taking a more inclusive role in this area."

in 2004 the publication "Crafts in the English Countryside" contained the key recommendation;

"the establishment of a traditional crafts council to complement the
fine arts and contemporary crafts remit of the crafts council, and to
serve as an umbrella for all crafts operating in the heritage sector.
Like the crafts council it would promote and nurture public interest in
traditional crafts, support their products and services by extensive
exhibition and educational programmes and work to secure business
support and training."

A group of us are now working towards this goal.

The new organisation will

• Identify crafts that are in danger and where viable ensure their survival.

• Support, advise and work with the individual craft organizations and act as a focus to share good practice and information.

• Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional crafts as part of our heritage and culture.

• Ensure as far as possible that crafts are passed on from one generation to the next and also that a full video record of the skills is archived.

• Support initiatives to increase the quality and quantity of crafts teaching and promote the wider benefits of practicing craft activities.

Tanya Harrod author of "Crafts in the 20th Century" said of the situation

"It does seem terrible that there is no organisation to protect such skills. We must do something."

Watch this space.......