Sunday, 26 July 2009

English Heritage, traditional crafts and Birmingham's Jewelry Quarter

English Heritage recently bought a silversmiths workshop in Birmingham

Simon Thurley was quoted as saying "We have stepped in to save JW Evans because it is one of the most important Victorian and Edwardian manufacturies in existence. Its loss would not just be for Birmingham but the world. We now need to secure its long term future as a business and as somewhere people can learn about the source of goods, with which Birmingham supplied the Empire. It is rare to find a country house in desperate straits these days, but the big challenge of the next few years is looking after our industrial heritage. That is much less secure,'

At the start of the English Heritage video here

The commentator says "at the heart of this decision is the desire to safeguard a skilled craft which is seriously under threat."

Birmingham City Council also recognise the importance of the living craft skills to the character of the Jewelry Quarter. The area is designated as a conservation area and is a proposed World Heritage Site. The council's management plan highlights the significance of the
area due to "The substantial survival of an historically important manufacturing trade within a distinct urban area." and "A viable level of specialist skills traditionally employed within the core trade." and concludes "The Quarter is unique within the local, national , and international context, for it's high concentration of craft industry with associated trades in one small area....As such it is of major significance with no imediate parallels in Britain or overseas."

This is wonderful to see the recognition of the importance of the craft skills to the heritage of the area and a stark contrast to the situation in Sheffield. With all this stated interest in the skills one would expect significant investment in ensuring their survival. There is recognition that cheap workshops are vital to that survival of the skills and that with prices for residential land eight or nine times higher than industrial use that "if left unchecked, residential developement could overwhelm the quarter." threatening it's survival.

Whilst there follow excelent policies for the preservation of the special buildings of the area there apears to be no specific plan for the support of the special skills which have been highlighted as being of such importance to the character of the area. Under the heading "Grant Aid" we read The highest priority is to secure funding for repairs to buildings at risk."

Recognising the importance of these skills is an important first step to preserving them for future generations we now need to work out what the major threats to the skills are and find ways of ensuring they are passed on.

More info on the Jewelry Quarters website here including a video here

Saturday, 18 July 2009

buy a piece of Sheffield history for £20

Yesterday I visited the kutrite scissor works in Sheffield, I have written about them before here and here, they are wonderful chaps, the three guys working there have 150 years experience of the cutlery trade between them. This is Cliff, the "putter togetherer" that is the official job title that you would advertise in the days when there were 60 scissor firms in town.

Anyway after my previous posts about them some people have asked about buying a pair of their wonderful scissors. They normally only sell to trade but have agreed to do a mail order service for my blog readers and supporters of the Heritage Crafts Association. We chose one of their most popular lines 8 1/4" dress making shears, I think these tools are at once a mini sculpture and a gorgeous piece of engineering. The cost is just £20 plus £5 P&P.

The difference between these and a cheap pair of scissors is that these are drop forged out of high carbon steel then hardened and tempered to give a very tough and hard long lasting tool. The other big difference is the setting. On a pair of cheap modern scissors the two blades never actually touch they lie parallel to each other and do not cut as a pair of proper shears do. The two blades are skilfully ground and set in a slight curve so that they always touch just at the point you are cutting.

The effect of this is a gliding slicing cut that just feels wonderful. Why 8 1/4" and not 8"? Well back in the days before VAT there was a thing called purchase tax which applied to scissors but not tools. Shears over 8" were tools and so you will never find a pair of traditional English shears at just 8".

So here we have the perfect gift for anyone who has ever been frustrated at the lack of quality in modern tools. For just £25 inc P&P you can have a little bit of Sheffield history and help to keep this wonderful trade going for a little longer.

How do you buy them?

Sadly they don't do paypal or credit card payments so it has to be an old fashioned cheque made payable to "Kutrite of Sheffield Ltd" include your address and a note asking for 8 1/4" dress making shears. Post it to

Kutrite of Sheffield Ltd
Kelham Works
72 Russel Street,
S3 8RW

Thursday, 16 July 2009

meetings with English Heritage, NADFAS and ICON

Tuesday was another meetings in London day. We had excellent meetings with English Heritage, NADFAS and ICON all of whom are supportive of what the Heritage Crafts Association are trying to achieve. We were given some good new contacts and ideas. One particularly interesting idea was looking at how English Heritage are already begining to use heritage crafts skills (and not just building crafts) in their work. I have been working on a project this week carving a big dish for Dover Castle, this is part of a major project using many craftspeople to recreate the interiors as they would originaly have been. I have already supplied bowls and mazers, this one is going to have a boars head served on it, it took me a while to find any useful reference to copy and the nearest we could find in the end was a rather nice though smaller and earlier dish I saw several years ago in Oslo, it was found with the Oseberg ship burial.

We particularly liked this dish as it had a chevron pattern chip carved around the edge, a symbol that survives on contemporary stonework nearby and which we used on the mazer rims.

I had to grind an old chisel to a skew angle and narrow edge to do the chip carving but once I got it right it worked really well.

In the evenings I have been working on a huge birch soup ladle.

It seemed everyone in the heritage world was waiting this week for the big announcement today of the Heritage Lottery Fund's next major skills funding project.

They announced today
  • £2.3m will be invested as an extension of HLF’s successful £7m Training Bursary Programme
This is great news for the heritage building and conservation crafts, the bursaries have been a tremendous help in training in these valuable skills.
  • £5m will create a new programme, entitled ‘Skills for the Future’, to launch towards the end of the year. This will offer new work-based training in the skills that are needed to look after our buildings, landscapes, habitats, species, and museum collections.
Again this is good news for conservation of our physical or tangible heritage of things. What we need to see next is an equivalent scheme to protect the intangible or living heritage. All these projects concentrate on protecting things and the skills are seen as a way of doing that, the HCA believes that crafts skills are an important part of our cultural heritage in their own right. We should train blacksmiths not only because they help repair old buildings but because we were once a nation of smiths, it is our most common surname. Once we acept this then we can start to asses what we have such as the remains of the Sheffield cutlery industry, sadlery in Walsall, shoemaking in Northamton.

English Heritage recently bought a wonderful old silverworks in Birmingham, JW Evans, full story here the story reminded me very much of the scissor factory in Sheffield which I shall be visiting tomorrow. The problem is the building and tools are only a part of the heritage value of the place, the skills and accumulate knowledge of generations of craftspeople passed down through the generations is important too.

Monday, 13 July 2009

more on traditional riddles and sieves

I just downloaded some pictures I took on my last London trip for the the Heritage Crafts Association committee meeting last Sunday. We meet in a basement room just round the corner from Charing Cross which is kindly provided free of charge for us. Charing Cross tube station has rather nice artwork with images of medieval craftsmen at work and one image shows a riddle being used.

This seems somehow appropriate since the business of Mike Turnock the last riddle maker has become almost symbolic of the work we are trying to do. When Brian Crossley and I visited Mike last December it really looked almost certain that the craft would die out within a couple of years when Mike retired, he is 64.

Here are a couple of images from that earlier blog post.

The great news now is that since the HCA have been publicising his work and the plight of the craft Mike has had several approaches from people seriously interested in taking the business on when he retires including a local family that would like to run it as a family business training their 17 year old son to make the riddles. If that came off then the craft would be off the "critically endangered" list for many years.

I was thinking back this morning to my time working in nature conservation for the National Trust. For a time I worked at Toy's Hill in Kent epicentre of the 1989 "Great Storm" and an area with some of the last remaining lowland heath in Kent. In nature conservation we used to survey and asses what we had of value on a property with particular interest given to habitats and plants and animals which were rare locally or nationally.

It seems like we need to work in similar ways with our traditional crafts now, surveying what we have, finding out which are in danger locally or nationally and taking steps to ensure they survive. When I look at the money and effort that would be put into preserving the last breeding site for a particualr butterfly in Kent say it seems incredible that no money or effort at all goes in to preserving the knowledge of the last sievemaker in the UK.

Whilst trying to find a bit of information about when the Charing Cross images were installed I came across this site which gives some fascinating information on the history of the name Charing Cross which dates back to the year 1290. We live in such a fascinating country with so many layers of interconected history.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Terry Kenny coracle maker

This is the last of my photos from Norfolk Show, I wanted to share the work of Terry Kenny a coracle maker from Newport Shropshire. Terry has done a great deal to popularise the coracle over the last 20 years, up until the 1950's coracles were primarily used for fishing with nets on rivers like the Severn and Teifi. The craft declined with the fishing industry but over the last 20 years there has been a resurgence of interest in these craft as people go on courses make a coracle and use it to potter about on ponds, rivers and canals.

I went on a course and built a coracle with Terry about 16 years ago whilst I was still working for the National Trust, back then there were few people running courses but now a google search gives many pages of coracle courses. Terry helped set up the coracle society in 1990 see their website here and many of the folk running courses today probably learned from him.

The coracle is a simple boat to build, delightful to use and great fun to go on a two short course and come away with your own boat to paddle around in. Here is Terry's website

And a few of the pictures you will see there.

If you want to do this I would recommend a kayak..

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Jeremy Atkinson clogmaker

Until a couple of years ago Jeremy was the only clogmaker in the country still using the traditional knives to hand cut clog soles and make traditional British clogs. As was traditional in the mill towns of Lancashire and Rural Wales I have a pair of working clogs and a pair of posh clogs, I also have a pair of his shoes and sandles so I am a bit of a fan.

The knives are not easy to use but once mastered give tremendous controled power and leverage.
British clogs always had a wooden sole (alder, birch or sycamore) and leather uper unlike the Dutch and French sabot. There is a lot of understanding that goes into making a clog that is comfortable to walk in rather than just stand still in and Jeremy's just work.

There is some footage of Jeremy using the knives in this video about my wife Nicola's research into how craft skills are passed on

That film was taken at St Fagan's museum in Cardiff whilst Jeremy was teaching Geraint who now makes clogs there. So now we have at least two makers hand cutting soles, the craft is still endangered but perhaops not quite so critically so.

This is Jeremy's website though I must say he is notoriously difficult to buy a pair of clogs from, you have to nag for a while.

Adam King besom maker

This is my mate Adam King, he has been into traditional crafts all his life having grown up doing craft events with his dad Stuart King. Stuart and I visited Romania together researching traditional craftspeople in 1998. Adam is one of the last besom broom makers, he cuts young birch branches in the winter and dries them thoroughly, bundles them and wraps them really tightly with wire bindings.

Then the top of the broom is trimmed with a huge and very sharp axe.

Adam may look young but he has long experience and knows how to look after his body. He was telling me that this is the bit of the process that takes the biggest toll on you physically as the shock of the blows travels back up your arm. Note how just at the point of impact he has actually relaxed his grip totally to avoid that shock.

Next he cuts an ash handle and points the end

and trims the bark and rough knots away.

He positions the handle in exactly the right place in the head

then whacks it hard on a stump to drive it into place

Before it goes too far a quick spin checks the balance is right, it makes no difference to folks buying them to pretend they are Harry Potter or to give the mother in law as a joke but for folk that want to sweep leaves up the balance is important.

Then he drives in a wooden peg so the head can never come loose.

When demonstrating at these shows we all get used to the constant click and whir of cameras.

So quite a bit of work for a £12 broom, hard work but rewarding and keeping a skill alive that goes back centuries and is still useful today.

A nice article by Jon Henley in the Guardian here and Adam's website here

Monday, 6 July 2009

Rob and Julie King willow basketmakers

Whilst there are more willow basketmakers than swillers or trugmakers it is still a declining craft. There are a good number of amateurs and many people using basketmaking skills to produce sculpture, the area that is in decline is the full time working basketmaker producing functional baskets and this is arguably the area that demands the highest skill, some would say that it is only through production work that your skills become honed.

It was a joy then at the Norfolk show to meet Rob and Julie King who work hard and make beutiful functional baskets at a speed that makes them affordable.

Rob sits at his work with the basket on a board, this was the traditional English way and apparently unlike any other basketmakers anywhere in the world.

Note Julie's fine rush hat.

Basket making is hard on the hands and speed and efficiency is everything if you want to make a living.

It is clear as Rob is working that there is very little concious thought going on, his body is just doing the job, very much as many people drive a car, a very complex task which takes several years to become thoroughly competent but once you can do it it no longer feels hard, and you can chat away without thinking about the driving.

Rob and Julie are also folk musicians and were talling me about how licensing laws had made it very difficult for folk musicians to play in pubs any more, the pubs need a license for live music now which is prohibitively expensive if they just want a small folk session.

Rob and Julie's workshop is a Dareham in Norfolk, here is their website.

Owen Jones oak swill basket maker

Owen is one of my craft heroes. He learnt the craft from a retired swiller at a time when nobody else would take it on and has single handedly kept it alive for nearly 20 years. The swill is a Lakeland basket and they are regularly pictured in Beatrix Potters books. Designed for tough farm use such as picking potatoes, they later found a large market hauling bobins round the Lancashire cotton mills, today they make the perfect laundry basket, holding just a washing machine full. Actually I have about 15 of them and they are all used from kindling baskets, to a lovely poannier style one we use for picknicks and baskets for carting bowls around. Many of them have been crammed into the back of my van and thrown around for 15 years and still going strong.
The difference between a swill and any other basket is that it is made from oak. First Owen has to cut and split his oak into sections about an inch square by 2, 3 and 4 foot long, then he boils them for many hours. The next morning is riving day, he fires up the boiler again and when the water is hot he picks out the bits of oak one at a time and whilst still hot he tears the oak apart again and again untill he has thin strips. These then have to be dressed by scraping them with a knife before they are ready to weave. Compared to most basket makers who can buy a bundle of willow ready to weave it is incredibly time consuming.

There was a Derbyshire swill and another in the Black Country, both slightly different and both died out. Owen has taught around 1000 people over the last 15 years how to make a swill, I did a course with him 5 years ago and it was a wonderful experience. The thing is once you have seen how much work goes into one few people ever think about setting up to make more. Over the last couple of years Owen has managed to pass the skill on to one other maker who had been doing quite well but sadly he has been suffering from problems with his wrists. This all goes to show how potentially fragile a craft is when you only have one or two makers. The report "Crafts in the English Countryside" suggested that any craft with less than 100 practising craftspeople should be considered "at risk". At shows Owen sits working all day to make 3 baskets from his prepared material, watching him here is Debbie Booth, a highly talented willow basketmaker.

Last year Owen was filmed making a basket on the popular Victorian Farm program and since he has had a great demand for his work by mail order and all his courses are fully booked. He never struggled to sell all he could make at the price he charges though and is now finding he struggles to find time to do the other important stuff in life like tending his veggie garden and going for bike rides.

This link to a blog post I did in January has some video of him making a basket and a link to his website. It is always thought provoking spending time with Owen, he has such a good attitude to life, work, family, everything in balance, and he normally has his kelly kettle brewing for tea too.