Monday, 27 April 2009

The Times article on rural crafts

This excellent article was published in the Times on Saturday

Gardeners turning to the rural craftsmen to sweep away gloom

by Valerie Elliott, Countryside Editor

The worst recession in 60 years might have hit the City hard, but the world of traditional country crafts is enjoying something of a boom.

Across Britain craftsmen who have been honing their skills without fanfare for years have experienced a sudden demand from people keen to hark back to bygone days.

A new awareness seems to be developing of the need to protect the environment, buy local and support traditional tradesmen, who make quality goods that are built to last.

Among the beneficiaries are John Rudd, 70, and his son, Graeme, 38, the last commercial rake makers in Britain. They have barely noticed the economic downturn and make up to 1,000 rakes a month at their workshop in Dufton, near Appleby, Cumbria, where four generations of the family have carried on the craft since 1890.

A hay rake made by them should last at least 30 years. Some rakes are still used for haymaking but most are used for collecting garden cuttings or sweeping gravel on drives and paths.

Mr Rudd senior, who has been making rakes for 54 years, is thrilled that he has seen off modern competition, though times were tough in the 1970s, when rakes were mass produced in aluminium and plastic.

He said: “We are lucky because golf clubs like them to clear bunkers and they are used for the sand on athletics tracks. Lots of people have bought them this year because of the snow. We just keep going and we are the only people producing them. We sell through wholesalers and they go to ironmongers and agricultural merchants, where they sell for about £20.”

Little has changed since Mr Rudd made his first hay rake as a six-year-old boy. Even the design with 16 teeth is the same. The fashion for allotments is also helping Kevin Skinner, 57, from Hailsham, East Sussex, who is inundated with orders for garden trugs.

“I have not been affected by the downturn. Gardeners could just use a plastic tray for weeding but trugs are something people adore. I am making 50 a week. People are also buying them for picking fruit and vegetables, collecting eggs and laying flowers. I have even sold them to pubs and restaurants to store napkins or cutlery.”

The past three months has also lifted demand for traditional brooms, or besoms. Mark Cottrell, one of the last traditional makers, who runs Oakwood Sawmills, near Reading, said: “I have done so well since Christmas I have sold right out of stock.

“I have hardly noticed the recession. There is definitely a trend for an original broom. It’s nothing to do with the Harry Potter effect. People just want the real thing to sweep up leaves. With all the interest in growing vegetables, the other side of my business has gone ballistic. I have never sold so many bean pods and pea sticks.”

Scythes are even fast replacing strimmers. There is no traditional scythe- maker left in Britain, but they are becoming so popular that Simon Fairlie, of South Petherton, Somerset, is importing them from Austria. “Scythes are cheaper than strimmers. With global warming, people are trying to cut down use of fossil fuels. Strimmers make a lot of noise and break down a lot. If everyone owned a scythe we’d get much quieter Sunday afternoons.”

Meanwhile, the decline in the use of plastic bags is driving sales of willow baskets at P H Coate & Son, of Stoke St Gregory, near Taunton. The company, which started in 1819, is based in the Somerset levels, which provides ideal conditions for growing willow.

Jonathan Coate, a director, said: “Business is very upbeat, especially for the wicker shopping trolley on wheels. People are going off the plastic ones and we think more people are shopping locally instead of using the car. We are noticing that people don’t mind paying a little extra for something grown and made in the UK.”

Tom Levitt MP and heritage crafts

On Saturday Morning I went along to one of my MP's surgeries. I think most MP's do this in their constituencies, Tom Levitt books an hour in a local cafe and anyone can turn up and raise issues with him. I took along a riddle made by the last riddle maker one of Tom's constituents in Whaley Bridge.

We have talked about the plight of heritage crafts several times before over the years and he has been supportive and raised questions with the appropriate ministers. Now that we have formed the Heritage Crafts Association we felt it was time that we met with the ministers directly so Tom is going to try to book a meeting with Barbara Follett Minister for culture where we can highlight the case for heritage crafts. We feel that we can highlight potential jobs that are in danger of being lost and could be saved with moderate investment which is good news in the current economic climate. The crafts we are talking about are also a greatly unvalued resource in the heritage and tourism industry that offers great potential.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Closure of the Textile Conservation Centre

The Textile Conservation Centre was founded in 1975 by Karen Finch OBE and was based at Hampton Court Palace for nearly 25 years. It is of international importance having trained over half of the textile conservators working in the world today.

In 1998 the Centre merged with the University of Southampton, one of the UK’s top research-led universities, and in 1999 relocated to a purpose-designed building on the University's campus in Winchester. Now less than 10 years later it is set to close. This represents a sad loss of skills and a world class example of skills teaching too. In some ways it is not the universities fault as it is not self financing as a part of the school of art and design.

It seems strange at a time when new schemes are being set up and money poured into heritege building conservation skills that such a success story as the textile conservation centre should be closing.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Heritage Crafts and Creative and Cultural Skills

Now this may not seem like the most fun blog post I have done for a while but I think it is potentially one of the more important for the future of traditional and heritage crafts in the UK.

Since our inception the Heritage Crafts Association have been working closely with Creative and Cultural Skills the industry led government body that determines training policy in our sector. CCSkills have been working on the "Craft Blueprint" this is "an action plan putting employers in control of shaping the industry's future by:
  • assessing the short and long term skills needs
  • mapping out the factors needed for change in the sector
  • reviewing the training that is currently provided
  • analysing the main gaps and weaknesses
  • agreeing how we will work with key funding partners."
The Heritage Crafts Association have had a lot of input to highlight amongst other things the issue of many elderly sole traders possessing unique skills and the problems preventing them from being passed on. The reduction in crafts training in education and further education has also been highlighted as an issue.

The Craft Blueprint is now in its final draft form and will be launched at the House of Lords on June 10th. Then the work starts on taking the recommendations forward and the HCA will be working closely with CCSkills to address the issues that have been highlighted.

On Wednesday this week I was in London for the annual meeting of woodturners hosted by the Worshipful Company of Turners. I took the opportunity to also visit CCSkills and meet with Jenna Lea-Philpot the wonderful adviser and passionate advocate of the crafts who has been helping us input into the blueprint and Tom Bewick the chief executive of Creative and Cultural Skills. Having conducted all our correspondence with email and phone calls it was good to finally meet in person and I am sure that the ongoing relationship will have positive results though it will take time.

Monday, 13 April 2009

traditional pottery in the UK

I am a huge fan of traditional pottery and draw a lot of inspiration from potters, their work, their pots and in many cases their writing too. Pottery seems to have a connection with the earth and with it's historical routes in a way that I like to think my work does but much of woodworking in the UK has lost. As I start to write this I don't know if I can say anything meaningful in just one blog post, we will see.

Let's start in the medieval period when virtually no plates and bowls were made from pot (people ate and drank from wooden bowls) but there were a great many potteries making earthenware cooking pots, storage jars and beautiful jugs. English medieval jugs have been praised, are revered around the world and have evolved and been rediscovered by many potters working today.

In the 17th and 18th centuries pottery changed, for the first time many open forms were produced. Dishes became a common form many of which were decorated with slip, that is a thin clay of a different colour to the main body of the pot often applied by pouring in a decorative pattern. Thomas Toft is the maker everybody knows but this grand work does little for me, I love the simple slip trailed dishes that were made in vast numbers for everyday use.

There are some dishes at Haddon Hall that I adore, they are made with such a free hand and also have the patina of many years use. I would love one of these dishes to bake lasagna.

In the early twentieth century there were still a few country potteries turning out traditional slipware, saltglazed stoneware and such but then largely through the influence of Bernard Leach (author of "a potters book" and translator of a personal favourite "the unknown craftsman") there was a revival of small scale potteries producing domestic ware. Some of these worked in old British traditions many blended in Japanese techniques and high fired stoneware became much more popular becoming very much part of our modern traditional heritage. Bernard Leach's grandson John still makes a range of domestic stoneware at Muchelney Pottery

Leach's greatest pupil was Micheal Cardew who made some of the most glorious slipware pots ever, his greatest pupil in turn was Svend Bayer, a favourite potter of mine who I shall do another post on later. For now though lets stay with slipware, to many Clive Bowen is the greatest name in slipware working today, I love his work but I would like to look instead at Doug Fitch a slipware potter who has an excellent blog here Doug works in Devon, there is a tremendous group of potters in Devon I don't know why, presumably the clay is good, perhaps when they all moved there housing was cheap but it is interesting that the Devon tradition should be so vibrant today when so many of the other areas the did support good pottery traditions have died out.

Doug makes a range of pots but the ones that stand out for me are his slipware jugs, full of vitality and very much part of a living tradition goin back to those medieval potters 600 years ago, never static, each generation reniventing the tradition and adapting old techniques to meet the needs and tastes of the day.

Most exciting for me is that Doug recently acquired by wonderful good fortune Micheal Cardew's original moulds for making the moulded dishes and having seen what he does with jugs I am really looking forward to seeing how the dishes turn out, perhaps I will get my lasagna dish after all.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

tell your friends about the Heritage Crafts Association

I have been talking about this on the blog since last year but now we finally have something for everyone to see and to sign up their support. The HCA website went live last night with information about endangered crafts, photos and videos. There's an explanation of what the HCA hope to do to change the trend and support this important part of our heritage and how you can join in by signing up as a suporter (it's free) telling your friends by email or on facebook or putting a button like this

The Heritage Crafts Network

or banner like this on your blog or website.

The Heritage Crafts Network

In the first 12 hours we have 35 people signed up on facebook, at that rate we would have 13,000 in a year, those sorts of numbers would really help us when we come to make grant applications or negotiate with government to show that people do care about heritage crafts. If you are on facebook you can join the facebook group and share it with your friends here.

Friday, 3 April 2009

how old crafts die out

It is a common misconception that crafts die out when they become outdated and uneconomic in the modern world. The reality is always more complex and I want to share an example to show what typically happens when an old craft finally dies.

Simple wooden hay rakes have been a part of British life for 1000 years or more. This Roman one has metal tines.

These medieval images are French but this shows how little the design has changed over the centuries.

As with most crafts there were regional variations but after 1000 years of refinement the basic form of a hay rake is fairly well sorted.

Now we are going to fast forward to 2005 and meet Trevor Austen outside his rake workshop at Smeeth in Kent the earliest record of the rake workshop there is 1871 and it had been in continuous production since. What made Trevor unique was that he was the last rakemaker who was using locally sourced timber. He used coppiced ash for all parts of the rakes and cut the trees up and made all parts of the rakes in a one man business.

Trevor took over the business and saved it from closing in 1966. He has seen the ups and downs typical of many a rural craft over the years but kept going. I used to demonstrate out at craft shows with him where he would make rakes and sell them direct to the public, he could make 100 a week which is impressive. He had more recently been exporting rakes to the USA, Germany and Japan, it was a viable business working without any subsidy, contributing to the economy, but not strong enough to take on staff, train apprentices and expand. Here he is using a rounder to make the handle smooth.

Trevor had hoped to continue working as long as possible and finally to attempt to pass the business on as a going concern but sadly after several years of illness Trevor was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Whilst there is no support network for rare craft businesses when they are running there is money to record them when they close down so two short films have been made of Trevor's rake workshop one by the Museum of English Rural life here and another funded by a £16,95o HLF grant to the Agricultural museum at Brook

I have been coresponding with Trevor recently. He has lost power and co-ordination of his body yet his mind is active a difficult position for a craftsman.

Here is Trevor explaining how the rake works came to close down.

"l am afraid there were a number of problems associated with the Rake Works that l was not able to solve given the circumstances of mobility and the inability of no voice to talk to people , l first of all had a load of large business orders to deal with including having a new export order from Japan for over £2000, but with this news l had to tell them l was unable to go ahead.

l had hoped that my brother would take on the workshop but my landlord died making his son the new landlord who sees the site as development alongside with redundant farm yard next door so has not been keen to have tenancy changed names. The workshop it has been suggested that H & S would not allow it to operate..because people see it being powered by flat belts and engines that are not electric..they condem anything old as unsafe ??

So our machinery is finding new homes with people who will use it at shows etc, hand tools are finding homes for use when barters are offered , a few pieces will enter a local museum.

Little room was left for us to maneuver into saving it (other than for others to pick the bones clean) then to try an break it all up giving my family a bit of money for their efforts, little that it will bring.

Sorry l have a bitter tone with me l will get more amenable as disappointments wear off."

It seems sad to me that this viable business should close its doors at a time when many folk would love to work in such a fulfilling job. There are many more businesses like this that will go in the next 10 years. Our aim with the Heritage Crafts Association is to highlight their plight and creat conditions that enable the skills to be passed on before they are lost forever.

2001 article from the Telegraph