Saturday, 30 January 2010

Portland Works Sheffield cutlery works under threat

The campaign to save Portland works is entering it's last days now. The planning meeting will be some time between now and 18th February.

Portland is the first place in the world where stainless steel was made into cutlery, probably more people in the world today use stainless cutlery than speak the English Language, it could be argued to be our most widespread cultural export. The works is still being used by a range of traditional Sheffield metalworking trades including forging tools, making traditional pocket knives and engraving and die making. Portland was bought a few years ago by a property speculator and the planning application would result in the eviction of all the 20 or more businesses that use the works and conversion to flats.

There is a nice piece in the Sheffield Telegraph here 

It is frustrating that the living heritage of a site like this is not yet recognised by any government agencies. There are very good safeguards in place to protect the fabric of the building but having visited several cutlery works that have been converted, and this last one which has not, then I can say the loss of character is nothing short of catastrophic.

We can only hope that the rapidly building public opposition to the proposal will have an effect on the soon to face re-election councilors who have to make the decision. It is doubly frustrating that if the application is approved it will almost certainly be public money via HLF and English Heritage that subsidises the conversion yet the benefit will be to the pocket of the developer.

If you have not already done so you can join the save Portland facebook group
Visit the blog
Or for those that want to become more involved by writing an opposition letter or joining the campaign group visit the website

Thursday, 28 January 2010

country crafts, town crafts, Paul Felix photographer

The February Edition of countryman magazine features several articles on traditional crafts. I bought it because there is a 4 page feature on my bowlturning work with some nice discusion about the Heritage Crafts Association. There is also a nice feature on the work of Paul Felix who has been photographing traditional craftspeople for 20 years. He has a wonderful online archive of images on his website here  and more here 
 I first came across Paul's work 10 years ago when he published a great book called "last of the line" about endangered crafts. I have to confess to have been a little disapointed not to be in the book but I had only been bowlturning 5 years when it came out and he didn't know of me, lots of great craftsfolk are in there though and I heartily recomend it.  Buy it second hand here
Paul has just colaborated on a new book on crafts which will acompany the BBC mastercrafts series, I currently have the proofs of that book for review which will be coming soon.
Two articles on traditional craft in a magazine is unusual but in this issue of the Countryman there are also articles on traditional woodmanship and blacksmithing. "Country crafts"perhaps get more good publicity than "town crafts" perhaps because the latter are mistakenly viewed as being somehow less skilled due to the influence of industrialisation. Perhaps it is a hangover of the influence of Morris and Ruskin who both regarded the industrial crafts with distrust and the rural idyll through rose tinted spectacles. Personally I am very interested in both.

Rather than differentiating between town and country I would look at what is sometimes called "the politics of work" how much skill is involved, how much autonomy does the worker have, how much pride in a job well done? Morris felt these things were impossible in a factory though perhaps working conditions have improved rather since the worst days of the industrial revolution. From my own experience I would say that it is certainly possible to take great pride in work and have a very rewarding job whilst being a small cog in a big machine. It is a bit like the difference between team sports and individual maybe. Of course there are a great many mind numbing jobs where all skill has gone into making the machine which can be run by a souless, skilless operative.There are many old industrial crafts however where each stage involves great hand skill, practice, dedication and the perfection of these skills tends to give pride in a job. The Sheffield cutlery trade is a good example where many workers continued in the trade long after there were cleaner, better paid, more highly regarded jobs on offer and the pride in the tradition of the job and the skills they had developed is often given as the reason. Herbert Housleys "back to the grindstone" documents this

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

how to make a Sheffield pocketknife in 50 pictures

 Last week I posted about visiting a traditional Sheffield pocketknife maker with Jon Henley from the Guardian. Now you can see Jon's slide show here

 If you like it why not post a comment here or sign up to the guardian site and post a comment below the slide show. The more interest there is shown in these shows the more likely we are to get more of them.


Friday, 22 January 2010

folding knives in Spain and Sheffield

Visiting Trevor Ablett last week reminded me that I never posted pictures of the folding knife makers I visited in Spain last October. There were many similarities and some differences between the two businesses which I would like to discuss at the bottom but first some pictures of the workshop.

This is Antonio Diaz Bermudez of Taramundi a traditional knifemaking town in Asturias. He is heating a bar of high carbon stainless steel in the forge ready to forge a blade.

The blade is forged using a very large hammer held right up by the head. This is going to be a folding grafting knife.

The blade is formed in a single heat, maybe 15 seconds work at most, the blade is nicely tapered to reduce the amount of grinding required and the pointy bit at the end is formed, this will be sharpened and makes the grafting cut.

The blade is cut off and falls into a small heap on the floor, they normally do 6 or 7 knives at a time. This is the perfect size of batch to gain maximum efficiency out of repetition at each stage without getting too bored before moving on to the next bit.

The blade is heated, dropped into this little holder and quenched in oil to harden the steel.

Now a small piece of boxwood is rough shaped for the handle using this glorious little stock knife.

The handle is then turned on a lathe.

And a slot cut for the blade to fit into.

Next a metal collar is formed for the handle, this is a tight push fit over the handle which was turned to a conical shape.

The handle is scorched to add a little character.

And sanded smooth.

Now handle and blade are fitted together, just like the Sheffield knives the pivot point is a metal pin though unlike Sheffield knives they do not have a spring, to keep them in open or closed position, they are what are called friction folders.
Drilling the hole for the pivot pin.

At this stage there is quite a bit of handwork to get it so that it opens and closes sweetly.

And finally Antonio gives it a quick rough grind

Before passing it over to Antonio senior who grinds the bevels, first on a big water lubricated wheel, note how it is all done by feel, he does not look at the work.

Then he goes onto a fine belt sander.

A quick coat of varnish finishes the wood nicely.

Then a final honing of the edge.

Nice and sharp.
The finished knives.

Like Trevor Ablett they are incredibly efficient using small batch production in a small workshop with low overheads. They had an order for 200 that they were hoping to make over the weekend. So what was different to the situation in Sheffield?

Well first and most obviously here we have a living craft tradition that has been passed down the generations. One of the reasons that make it viable is that their workshop is very much on the tourist trail. Taramundi is well known as a traditional centre of knifemaking (well maybe not as well known as Sheffield) and the council promote it. This is only one of a range of workshops and working museums which form part of a story showing the history and culture of the area. This small workshop has on average 300 visitors a day during the summer. I imagine a proportion of them buy a knife or two as I did so where Trevor sells his knives all at trade price the Antonios sell them mostly retail.

I suspect it is about more than money though, most craftspeople have a great pride in the skills that have taken many years of practice to develop. The commonly recognised figure is that it takes 10,000 hours practice to master a skill, whether it be becoming an excellent footballer, mastering a musical instrument, or making a folding knife. For a young person to put that degree of effort into something they really need to know that there will be a market at the end of the day but it is also important that there is some recognition of the level of excellence that has been achieved. I think this is perhaps one thing which has been lacking in the traditional crafts in the UK. They have been perceived perhaps as a little amateur, maybe regarded simply as manual labour, something that low achievers and opt out folk do. This could hardly be further from the truth. There are many incredibly highly skilled, highly educated, totally dedicated folk working in the traditional crafts in the UK and I believe that the years that they have put into perfecting those skills will soon be recognised.

I have to say that to leave Sheffield and visit this little town in rural Spain and see the pride and professional marketing of its craftspeople made me feel rather sad that cutlery, knives and steel are not even recognised as being part of Sheffield's cultural heritage let alone supported and promoted. Why is it that it is not possible for a visitor to Sheffield to see a workshop like this?

Friday, 15 January 2010

more publicity for traditional crafts

Another busy day on Heritage Crafts Association work today, but then my workshop is still snowbound so it's easier to get into Sheffield. First meeting was a very positive visit to Kelham Island Museum to meet the director of Sheffield's Industrial Museums Trust, John Hamshere. John was very interested in the work of the HCA, enthusiastic and supportive. We are currently exploring possibilities for an apprenticeship type scheme to try to help some of the craftspeople of the cutlery industry pass on their skills. At Kelham Island they have a row of workshops for traditional cutlery crafts and one of these would make an ideal base for an apprentice to set up. The museum is well worth a visit.

Next it was off to meet Jon Henley of the Guardian. He is  doing a feature on Trevor Ablett pen and pocketknife maker who I have blogged about before. It will be part of his excellent "disappearing acts" series and will be in the Sat 23rd Jan Guardian. But my blog readers get a sneak preview. Jon writing, Chris photographing, Trevor posing.

Jon was so taken with Trevor's knives he ordered 3 himself.

Trevor normally has a few finished knives in stock but he has been very busy on a large order of Etricks, these are an unusual but traditional design.

Over a hasty lunch we discussed the work of the HCA, the plight of traditional crafts, the fact that at both national and local level we are not recognised within the arts and culture area (where the inovative has been prioritised over the traditional) nor as heritage whish is restricted to buildings and monuments. Just round the corner at Portland Works we saw an excellent example. Portland is the first place in the world where stainless steel was made into cutlery. I suspect that approaching half the worlds population use stainless cutlery today making it a more widely used cultural export than the English language. We visited the workshop where that first cutlery would have been forged which is still used today for forging tools, the last place in Sheffield forging tools like bolster chisels.

They can forge 4 bolsters a minute but still most chisels sold in the UK are made more cheaply in China.

Because it is so special this building is Grade II* listed the highest designation, the fabric of the building is protected but not the culture and the heritage that comes from 150 years of continual use for metalwork trades. A few years ago the building was bought by a speculative property developer who has applied for planning permission to evict the businesses and turn it into flats. There is a group who are trying to oppose the move but under current planning legislation so long as the fabric of the building is preserved then it is difficult to argue that there is a loss of cultural value.

The HCA are working hard to campaign for a change in policy so that this sort of cultural heritage is recognised and valued as much as the buildings. After all Sheffield is known the world over, not for its nice flats that were once metal trade buildings, but for steel and cutting tools. I can't imagine Stratford turning it's back on Shakespeare and saying we can't be stuck in the past we have to be forward looking.

Monday, 11 January 2010

meeting Tanya Harrod

Friday I went to London again and had a day of meetings, first with Kathryn Hollingsworth director of Aawaz communications PR company and a basketmaker. Kathryn and her friend Andrea are happy to help the Heritage Crafts Association with our PR work and bring a wealth of experience.

Next stop was DCMS to meet with Annabel Houghton the adviser on heritage. This was a precurser to a meeting with Mick Elliot director of DCMS on 12th Feb when we will be hoping to highlight the fact that traditional crafts do not currently fit in any of the support organisations. We are not recognised as "arts" because arts funding prioritises the innovative over the traditional and we are not recognised as heritage because that is defined as building, monuments and artefacts. We need to gain acceptance that the skills that have been passed down for many generations are part of our heritage and should have an area within DCMS and one of their NGPBs such as English Heritage should have living heritage included in their remit.

Last meeting of the day was supper with Tanya Harrod. I am slightly in awe of Tanya's writing she is a towering figure in the world of academic study of the crafts and I did not know what to expect. She is the author of the prize-winning (and highly recommended) The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press 1999) visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, editor of the Journal of Modern Craft etc.,41,92

It could be easy for someone who has lectured so widely and studied so deeply to be aloof but Tanya is warm and welcoming. She has been working for a while on a biography of Micheal Cardew and is very much at home with traditional as well as contemporary crafts. In fact we talked about the way in which one major element which was always a part of crafts seems to have been forgotten. That element is what is sometimes called the politics of work. The whole debate about whether work should be fulfilling and wholesome was a key to the arts and crafts movement in the 19th century and many of those involved in the crafts into the 1960s but seems to have been lost from the studio crafts more recently.

I am particularly interested in this area. I am a big fan of EF Schumacher's books "small is beautiful, economics as if people mattered" and "good work", as well as all the earlier writings by Ruskin, Morris, Gill etc. What I like about Schumacher though is that he does not limit his ideas to idyllic country crafts and turn his back on all industrial production in the way that Ruskin did. Tanya and husband Henry showed me a couple of lovely films shot between the wars to bolster national pride. I forget the names but one was about pride in work and looked at the skills and honour involved in skilled industrial production from coal-mining and glass blowing to making components for aircraft engines.

The conversation echoed the thoughts of Mark Jones director of the V&A when he said that we pay to much attention in the art world to innovation and not enough to excellence. I think pride in skills and a job well done are about to have rather a resurgence.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

apprenticeships in traditional crafts

"Where can I get information about apprenticeships in traditional crafts?" is a question I am often asked. The other question when I publicise the work of old traditional craftspeople who are the last doing a particular skill is why don't they have an apprentice. People ask me the same thing.

I would like to discus the very real difficulties involved in passing skills on and propose some ideas for potential ways forward. I would welcome comment and discussion of these issues in the comments box at the bottom of the post.

If we go back a few hundred years in the UK there was a full apprenticeship system and it was impossible to work in most trades without having been a time served apprentice. Apprenticeship was viewed as significant training, taken seriously and paid for by the parents of the apprentice much as folk would expect to pay for a university education today in the hopes of better job prospects. After 5 years or so depending on the trade the apprentice would become a journeyman or day labourer, that is they were free to leave the workshop where they were apprenticed and work for pay in other workshops. After a period doing this they may choose to set up business and become a master themselves, all this was regulated and policed by the guild system. Today there are only a few trades where training is essential in order to practice, gas work and farriery are two that spring to mind.

Now if we look at the situation today when I get asked, as I often am, if someone can be my apprentice they are not asking to come and work with me for 5 years. They are asking to come for maybe 3 months or 6, they would not expect to pay me for the training I would be giving them and most would actually expect me to pay them for the work they feel to be contributing.

The I look at the endangered crafts I have written about here such as Trevor Ablett the pen knife maker or Mike Turnock the sievemaker and I ask myself what is the incentive for these folk to take on an apprentice? When you are a self employed one man band craftsman one of the real benefits is the high degree of autonomy to choose how and when you work. As soon as you bring an apprentice in it becomes more of a 9-5. Then there are extra burdens of health and safety legislation, employer liability insurance etc. Most of these jobs involve many skilled processes and few non skilled ones. Other than sweeping out and tidying my workshop there is nothing in my production process that an unskilled apprentice could help with. If I had an apprentice working on the lathe in fact it would mean I was not working I was teaching them so having an apprentice around is actually a significant hindrance to a craftsman in a small workshop. The situation is different in larger workshops where there is tea to make, lots of cleaning to do, simple non skilled raw material preparation or whatever and the apprentice gradually takes on more skillful jobs as they progress. This is the way apprenticeship still works in Japan, the new apprentice starting just by sweeping up for several weeks keeping the worksite tidy and gradually getting to know the routines and rhythms of the workshop before they start with the most simple jobs.

So if traditional apprenticeship is a difficult model in today's craft world then how do people get into it? When I look round my contacts in the field I see a few who did traditional apprenticeships nearly always in the family taught by a father or uncle. This situation justifies the mentors investment of time in the apprentice. By far the most common entry route now however is what can be called the "self directed learner". When you ask folk how they got into it they will often say they are self taught but when you esquire further there will often be a host of different avenues they have pursued to gain knowledge it is not just trial and error.

So when I wanted to learn blacksmithing skills to forge my own tools first I was inspired by a chap called Don Weber demonstrating simple toolmaking for woodworkers, he demystified it and made it seem possible. Then a friend and I visited a local smithy and learnt the basics of fire management. We set up a forge and bashed metal, then bought a book "The complete Modern Blacksmith" by Weygers and learned more. Every time I got a chance I talked tools and steel, to old engineers or anyone who had any knowledge I could glean. Finally when we moved near to Sheffield I was able to visit workshops of professional grinders, have access to proper tool steel stockholders and get the best advice on steel qualities and hardening and tempering. If I was learning today I could have saved enormously on the learning curve through internet resources such as the British Blades web forum where folk share knowledge freely about toolmaking skills.

I think this journey is typical, often a chance encounter gives the inspiration, this is followed by an increasingly dedicated (obsessed?) quest for knowledge which has to work in parallel with the increasing skills due to lots of repetitive practice.

So how do we create the conditions in which folk can pass the skills on? The Heritage Crafts Association is currently looking at trialing a new type of apprenticeship which would put more emphasis on the learner and less on the teacher. The idea is to create the conditions in which a dedicated learner can access the information they need and have alongside the facilities to immediately test and develop their knowledge by practical work. This model apprenticeship would provide basic subsistence living expenses for the apprentice and also access to one or more mentor craftspeople. These folk would be paid for the time they spend training the apprentice. The apprentice would not be with the craftsperson full time but would have their own workshop where they practiced skills and have regular visits to their mentor to learn new skills.

I would be interested to hear from any blog readers with experience in this area, how did you get into the crafts or develop your skills? Do you know craftspeople who have or have not managed to pass their skills on? Does anyone have experience good or bad of different formal or informal training or learning environments?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Savile Row Tailoring, part of England's Heritage?

I just wanted to share with my blog readers a rather wonderful blog by a Savile Row Tailor Thomas Mahon. "The English Cut"

This was an early blog post from March 2005

"I do think the institution that has clothed most of the world's most influential people for the best part of two hundred years deserves Heritage Status. And it doesn't have it. Unofficially it does, of course. But officially it doesn't.
We have an organization here in the UK called English Heritage; as the name suggests they look after all that’s dear and special to this green & pleasant land. They protect everything from ancient monuments and city parks. Also they help to maintain historical artifacts like old coal mines and waterwheels for future generations. Now what about the tailors? Don’t you think they're part of English Heritage?"

This was his training "I began my career training for 7 years with S. Redmayne, a great little company. After that I spent 5 years with my alma mater, Anderson & Sheppard, the most famous and respected tailor on Savile Row. There I was undercutter to the great Mr. Hallbery, who you could intelligently argue was the greatest tailor of the twentieth century."

He has made work for all sort of folk from Prince Charles to Brian Ferry but the blog is best for it's insight into the trade, what makes the difference between a great bespoke suite and an off the shelf? Having said that he is aware that most of his blog readers are not in the market for a £3,000 suit and gives good advice on choosing a good ready made or "made to measure" (yes that is very different from bespoke).

Friday, 1 January 2010

2010 the year for traditional crafts to be recognised as part of our heritage

My first blog post of 2009 talked about the need for a traditional craft organisation here.

Just a year on I feel so much more positive about the future of traditional craft skills. We still have a way to go but the foundations have been laid for 2010 to be the year when traditional crafts become recognised as an important part of our cultural heritage.

The year has started well. Mark Jones director of the V&A is the first patron of the Heritage Crafts Association and was made a knight in the the new years honours list. We shall be holding a press launch of the HCA at the V&A in March to highlight the issues facing traditional crafts in the UK and the fact that they fall outside the remit of all support agencies and government departments.

Two other Patrons have joined us, Alex Langlands who folk may have seen presenting the BBC Victorian Farm series and Roy Brigden keeper of the Museum of English Rural Life.

Alex is currently filming a follow up series and has already been  rick building, tanning, barrel making, lobster pot making, hedging and forging a devon style bill hook. 2010 will also see the launch of Monty Don's new Mastercrafts tv program. If these prove successful we could see crafts becoming as popular on tv as celebrity chefs which would be a huge boost to the field. The HCA has been working hard to get the message out that whilst crafts are important in many ways perhaps the least recognised is the fact that they are a part of our cultural heritage. Smith is after all our most common surname.

I want to share a vision for the future of crafts now by looking at a story of two baskets. I have posted before about my good friend Owen Jones the last swill basket maker here.

Owen makes swills which are a traditional Cumbrian basket made from split oak. They were made from oak from the local coppice woodlands and used for everything from picking potatoes to holding bobbins in the local bobbin mills and by the local charcoal burners too. Beatrix Potter was clearly a fan of the design and the often apear in her lovely watercolours as in the tale of Benjamin Bunny.

 I would argue that this basket is as much part of the cultural heritage of the lake district as dry stone walls, Wordsworth and Herdwick sheep yet it is not recognised as such. Owen has not received any support for his work nor is there money available for him to take on an apprentice.

A few years ago whilst traveling in Sweden I visited an ethnographic museum and found a young man making baskets in a similar way out of split pine.

I had seen similar old baskets in the museums and was told that like the swill this was a particular specialty of the region of Darlana. I assumed the young man like Owen must be quite unusual in having the skill to make these baskets and was astonished to find that most children learn to make one of the baskets whilst at school. It is a simple little basket designed for picking the local lingon berries and there is a folk story about how the design originated.

My vision for the future of crafts in the UK would have children in Cumbria given the opportunity to experience swill making, children in Sheffield given the opportunity to make cutlery to use at home, children in Stoke would make a pot to eat their breakfast from and all the elderly craftpeople who are the caretakers of the skills and knowledge associated with these crafts and passed down through the generations would be encouraged to pass it on and money made available to help them do so.

I know fellow traditional craftspeople may feel this is so far from the current situation as to be wishful thinking but we do protect and preserve our old buildings and museum collections. These skills are every bit as much a part of our heritage and I believe that by the end of 2010 if we work hard we can get them recognised as such.