Thursday, 29 July 2010

German Journeyman

Meet Dietrich a German Journeyman.
 His odd costume tells those in the know that he is a fully trained craftsman traveling and looking for work to broaden his experience. In Germany folk instantly recognise this and so it makes life easy to get lifts when hitchiking or folk will simply offer him food and lodgings in exchange for some work. His pack was made by another journeyman and has a steam bent wooden frame with leather straps. He has been traveling for nearly 3 years with just his belongings in this pack.

This is his journeybook a rather wonderful handmade, leather bound book in which the various people he works for make notes. He is not allowed to write in it himself and when in Germany each day he will get it stamped at the local post office to prove where he has been and that he has not gone back to the two areas he is not allowed (his home and the area he did his apprenticeship)

In medieval times crafts across Europe were governed by guilds. The guilds had many functions, they acted as a brotherhood and looked after their members in times of hardship but most importantly they acted as the protector of quality. They managed the schemes whereby folks made the progression from raw apprentice to journeyman to master and they also controlled who could practice and who could sell their products. It was rather draconian with searchers employed by the guilds checking for people selling goods, if they were not guild members the goods could be confiscated, bought at rock bottom rate or if substandard broken up. Apprentices would pay a master to teach them their skills over a 5 or 7 year period then when they became a journeyman they would travel and work in many different master workshops broadening their skills before perhaps taking the tests to become a master themselves.

By the 19th century in Germany like England the guild system was on it's last legs and from around 1850-1870 there were no journeymen. Then the system was revived and ran with small numbers until the 1980s when typically there would be a few dozen journeymen on the road at any one time. Over the last 15 years there has been a tremendous expansion in interest from people who want to really immerse themselves in craft for many years and today there are around 800 journeymen on the road.

It is a very serious undertaking, first there is the three to five year apprenticeship with one master in timber framing, cabinetmaking, blacksmithing or whatever, then you join the journeyman organisation and set out for a minimum of 3 years but often up to 5. Along the way they stay in many countries, meeting and living with the local people, working in exchange for food and taking on occasional paying work to refill the coffers. The main purpose though is exchanging skills, so it was that Dietrich came to me. We carved spoons, turned bowls worked a couple of days on a bridge project and the last day he was here we built a small timber framed gateway together.

And then it was time for Dietrich to pack his bags and head on his way. Next stop Bristol to buy some tools, then briefly to Germany and then some time in Sweden where he is hoping to learn birch bark work. A rather wonderful life for a young man, it is travel but with a purpose and giving as well as taking wherever he goes. He makes me look very small, I am not really Dietrich is very tall. If you see him or anyone else dressed like this on their travels do offer them a bed for the night and a meal.

More about journeymen here and here and here

Thursday, 22 July 2010

arts funding cuts, are traditional craftspeople worried?

We all know that as a country we have to tighten our belt and spend less. In Jeremy Hunt's first speech as Culture Secretary he said he could assure the arts community that it would not be a soft option for cuts though he also wanted to promote American style philanthropy within the art world.

There is now a bit of a stir in the arts world as cuts to arts funding in the region of 30-40% are expected. This article outlines what is ahead for the arts as the department of Culture Media and Sport are told to cut their staff by 35-50% (and when I was last there to meet Director of Culture Mick Elliott  I was told half the staff were currently working on the Olympic preparations)

"Arts organisations are bracing themselves for a torrid time because Hunt wants to keep publicly-subsidised free entry to national museums, on the basis that it improves tourism and the wider creative economy. An initial trawl has also found little suggestion of waste or mismanagement in the preparation for the Olympics in 2012. This effectively leaves arts, media and heritage...
Arts Council England, which receives £445m to give out to 850 organisations around the country, has warned that it would have to stop funding for at least 200 organisations."

The Crafts Council are one of those 850 organisations receiving a grant of  £2,808,584 this year. See the other 850 here

The arts community are obviously upset and feel this sets British culture back to the dark days of 25 years ago. This article is typical of the mood though a quick google search on "arts cuts" throws up dozens all saying similar.

And this is the environment into which the Heritage Crafts Association has launched itself and is going looking for funding...hmmmm not very promising perhaps. Having said that I have often prided myself that I survive in my own business with no public subsidy by making things which people like to use in their lives and are happy to pay for. Many traditional craftspeople I talk to have noticed little fall off in sales due to the economic downturn, perhaps folk recognise that it is time to stop buying masses of stuff that will be in landfill in a couple of years and they want fewer things but with a little more meaning.

I feel that recognising traditional crafts as part of our heritage and promoting them a little as such would not only give very good return on the investment and be great for tourism but also bring us in line with international heritage policy. Our current position which only recognises buildings and monuments as heritage is rather an anachronism.

If you like the idea join the HCA as a friend and help us make a difference.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Lyme Lerret

What a beautiful name for a beautiful vessel.

Each area of the British coastline evolved particular types of traditional boats developed to suit the shoreline and the local fishing methods. The Lerret was the boat of the Dorset coast read more about them and how they were used here and here. By this time last year there was only one Lerret left in seaworthy condition and that was built in 1923 but now there are two.

This is a wonderful story, Gail McGarva was grant aided by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust to build a new Lerret at the boat building academy in Lyme using the old techniques and it is now just about finished. The launch will be a public event and I would be going if it was not so far away. Gail will launch the new Lerret from the slipway in Lyme Regis at 1130 on Saturday 31st July.

"We took the lines from the last seaworthy Lerret -'Vera' of 1923 to create the 'daughtership'. The shape of the boat is wonderful- a true reflection of the evolution of form and function.The boat was designed to be launched from the steep stony shelved beaches of Lyme Bay and her shape wholly reflects this. Flat-floored in the midships with the most swooping curves to the double ended stems. I am persuading the elm into shape with the help of steam and patience. The build of the Lerret has ignited a whole oral history project.People have been coming forward with their photographs,drawings and stories.In conjunction with the Lyme Regis museum I am applying for some funds to create an oral history book and exhibition speaking out the stories of the Lerret."

As a traditional woodworker myself I have the utmost respect for wooden boatbuilding and for me this style of small clinker built vessel is just about a beautiful as they come. Directly descended from Viking and Saxon boats the construction techniques have changed little. Steam bent planks are overlapped and joined by copper boat nails. I use the same nails in my oak bridges, they grip really well and don't react with the tanin in the oak. I think there is only one place left making them John Reynolds in Birmingham and when you phone up they put a batch through for you the size you want.
Here are a few more pics of the build in progress.

Gail McGarva is clearly a remarkable and motivated woman dedicated to preserving these skills and the whole living history of these vessels. She was interviewed on woman's hour last year and you can listen here

I heard several years ago about a remarkable scheme in France, when they realised they were on the brink of loosing the skills to build their regional boats the French decided to build a new on of each of their regional boats. The boats were I believe sponsored by local businesses and afterwards used to take tourist on trips. Each town then had a new local boat but more important the skills were passed down. It was felt important that rather than just preserving and fixing up old boats they should build a complete new one and that each generation say every 25 years or so they should build another so that the skills could be handed down again.

We have so many regional boats from Whitby Cobles to  Flatners, Norfolk Wherries to Thames sailing barges. How wonderful it would be to see a new one of each built every 25 years, how inspirational it could be for the local community and what a wonderful hands on way to learn about local culture and heritage. I imagine the children who helped Gail McGarva steam bending the timbers for this boat will remember it for many years to come.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Headley Trust support for HCA

We are delighted that the Headley Trust have agreed to support the Heritage Crafts Association with a grant of £30,000 to pay a part time administrator for 2 years

HCA has come a long way in just 18 months and primarily funded by donations from the committee (totaling over £5000) and more recently by supporters signing up to the friends scheme (now totaling over £1500 thank you). We have been limited in what we have been able to achieve because we all work full time and do HCA work in our limited spare time.

There are many things we could have done but have not had time to. For instance the Heritage Lottery Fund are keen for us to apply to the "Your Heritage" scheme to fund some local craft projects. The craft map is just the start of finding out who is practicing traditional crafts in the UK and helping to support them. We hope that an administrator will help us to expand this project, to create a searchable database which will help folk find craftspeople more easily and link directly to their websites. We wish to work towards commissioning some more detailed quantitative research into the state of traditional crafts in the UK. This has been tremendously successful for the National Heritage Training Group as a way of finding what the position is and accessing funding to deal with the issues highlighted.

It will take a little while for us to draw up a job description, person spec and advertise the post but we hope to attract a talented and committed person who can help us really move HCA on to the next stage of it's development and start to make real differences to working craftspeople.

David Willetts maiden ministerial speech

I like this a lot....pointed out to me by Amanda Jones of the Crafts Council.

"This great city and this excellent university matter to me for many reasons. My family comes from here. Many members of my family worked in the craft jobs – as silversmiths, gun barrel makers, and glaziers – which made Birmingham the city of a thousand trades. And a few weeks ago you hosted the third of the leaders' debates in the great hall of this university, a key moment in the Election campaign. Like so many people I was of course following the debate closely, but not so closely that my eyes did not wander to the backdrop of the massive stained-glass windows of the hall; I reflected that my great-grandfather was one of the glaziers who installed them. Indeed my grandfather remembered being taken as a boy to the grand opening because Joe Chamberlain, the university’s first Chancellor, believed that the working men who helped build it should have a role at the event. That confident celebration of the craftsman, as well as the academic, is one of the values I associate with this city....."

"There is another trap I wish to avoid as well – privileging theoretical over applied, cerebral over manual. Rigour and excellence are not confined to intellectual pursuits. They're just as evident and necessary in craftsmanship, in technical spheres, in manufacturing. In fact they require many of the same qualities, which is why they so often flourish together. This argument is put most beautifully by the great David Hume – one of my heroes – in his essay "Of Refinement in the Arts". Forgive me for quoting him at some length.

"An advantage of industry and of refinements in the mechanical arts is that they commonly produce some refinements in the liberal; nor can one be carried to perfection without being accompanied, in some degree, with the other. The same age, which produces great philosophers and politicians, renowned generals and poets, usually abounds with skilful weavers and ship-carpenters. We cannot reasonably expect that a piece of woollen cloth will be wrought to perfection in a nation which is ignorant of astronomy or where ethics are neglected."

When you go to the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge, you can see historic exhibits which celebrate the great physicists who have contributed so much to our understanding of the world and still do. They have preserved there the finely made cloud chambers which made the early physics experiments possible. That depended on highly skilled glass blowers. I am told that glass blowers are still at work on this campus.

Another reason such distinctions are artificial is because we know that learning and practice of any kind – and at any age – makes us healthier and happier. Learning – be it studying a subject or mastering a physical craft – promotes personal fulfillment and well being. Richard Sennett's excellent book, The Craftsman, makes this clear, as does the exciting new book by Matthew Crawford, The Case For Working With Your Hands, which has had such an impact in America."

You can rest assured HCA will be attempting to get a meeting with David Willetts to talk about craft training in universities an area where most of the news over the past months has been bad.

full text here

Sunday, 11 July 2010

traditional baskets in Ireland

Whilst at the Museum of English Rural Life a few weeks ago Terrence McSweeney told us the wonderful story of his mother's basketmaking. I asked him to email me details which I am sure others will enjoy as much as I did so here you are in Terence's words.
In 1976 there were only a few professional basketmakers in Ireland: Blindcraft in Dublin, the Shanahans of Carrick-on-Suir, John Delaney in Limerick, and the Quinlans in Tallow Hill. My mother learnt first from Blindcraft and later spent a year under the guidance of Joe Shanahan of Carrick-on-Suir. She has been making baskets ever since, but only made a living from it until the early 90's (before children). The following is an extract about the Shanahans from Joe Hogan's book Basketmaking in Ireland:

"The Shanahans managed to remain working full time at baskets even during the time of least demans in the late 1960's. Joe and Mikie Shanahan were grandsons of John Shanahan who set up the business.... The Shanahans were one of the few firms in Ireland to have made the quarter cran herring basket, which was used by the fishing industry until the late 1960's. With the decline in demand the Shanahans enlisted the help of Córas Tráchtála, the Irish Export Board, who put them in contact with the Irish pavillion in New York, through whom they were able to establish a valuable export market for their baskets in the USA. This led to Joe taking part in a promotion at Bloomingdale's Store in New York in the early 1980's. Joe and Mikie also featured in the documentary series Hands, ... As a new generation became interested in basketmaking, Joe and Mikie found that people were looking for apprenticeships, and while they were hesistant at first, believing that basketmaking was a trade with little future, they subsequently trained a number of apprentices... Mikie Shanahan died in 1983 but Joe continued to run the business, sometimes with the help of apprentices, until his own death in 1992."

Of the 4 or 5 people to be apprenticed to the Shanahans Catherine Hayden (my mother) and Barbara Kelly in Co. Wexford are the only ones still weaving. Basketweavers were notoriously secretive about their skills in Ireland and my mother tells of how difficult it was for Joe to teach people from outside his family in the beginning. While there my mother learnt in very much a "production" setting and this resulted in a very high standard of work. Interestingly I have noticed, as I learn from her, that there are numerous stylistic and technical peculiarities in my mothers work which I have never seen anywhere else. Speaking to Joe Hogan (an authority on the craft in Ireland) I have realised that these peculiarities are specific to the part of Ireland where the Shanahans worked, the Suir valley, and may well have been at risk of disappearing.

Finally here is my mothers statement from the crafts council website: "I feel very lucky to have learned my craft of basketweaving, 25 years ago, from Joe Shanahan, Carrick-on-Suir, the last in a long family line of traditional basketweavers. They cut and gathered their willows from cultivated sallie on the islands of the river suir. My main objective is to continue to make solid robust, traditional baskets following the weaves and techniques that were passed on to me. I would also aim to allow some of the traditional designs to evolve and improve, which tends to happen naturally as I try to make every basket better than the last."
It was wonderful to hear how Terrence valued this part of his and his country's heritage and that despite living in London and training as an osteopath he continues to be a keen advocate and practitioner of traditional crafts. This reminded me rather of the situation in Sweden where many people from all walks of life still value this part of their heritage.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

the case for working with your hands

Back in April after a day breaking stones for a new footpath I wrote asking if hard work was good or bad.

Jeff one of my blog readers in the US mentioned a new book by Matthew Crawford. "Shopcraft as Soulcraft:An Inquiry into the Value of Work" It was not out in the UK so I ordered it from the US and now I have read it I can highly recommend it. It is not written from a craft perspective but from someone who fixes old motorbikes, something I have spent many hours doing but the ideas are totally relevant to anyone who works with skill with their hands. Matt studied philosophy and worked for a New York "think tank" before opting out to run a bike repair shop so the discourse may get a little esoteric for some at times but it is peppered throughout with amusing and insightful personal experiences from the workshop.

The good news is that it is now available in the UK and since we don't have "shop class" we get an Anglicised title "The case for working with your hands; or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good." It is a polemic, starting from a set position and defending it rather than an objective balanced inquiry but it is done in good humour. It doesn't really consider the possibility of a balanced life consisting of good office work with some fulfilling physical activity in leisure time.

One new idea which I had never really considered went a little like this. From the 1950's onwards physical work and blue collar jobs have been looked down upon as people began to look forward to the knowledge economy, we let China make everything and we would make money from information technology. For quite a few years it looked like an office job was the thing to have and manual work was never going to get you anywhere. The point that Matt makes is that now the office has gone through something not unlike the industrial revolution, where jobs have been deskilled and most of the decision making has become formalised and standardised. Individuals follow formulas instead of making decisions themselves. Once the job has been deskilled companies are finding that they can outsource those office jobs to places where wages are cheaper too. In fact looking to the future with instant global communication there are not a great many jobs that can't be outsourced to areas of cheaper labour except the skilled trades such as building, plumbing, fixing cars. So Matt argues if you want a job for your kids with a certain future encourage them to learn a trade.

I very much enjoyed the book and would recommend it, I think that having intellectual folk make a conscious choice of working with their hands and writing eloquently about it raises the status of manual work which I feel is a good and honourable thing.

For another write up see this article from the Telegraph and just because I love old bikes too let's finish with a picture of Matt in his workshop with a gorgeous old bevel drive Ducati.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

HCA at Norfolk Show

Just clearing photos off my camera, it was interesting to see how dry and brown everything was down south, I think it is only when you travel abroad and come home that you realise how amazingly green Britain generally is. Driving home coming back into Edale we met sheep in the road which made us feel like we were back home.
Then it was a quick turnaround and off to Norfolk Show.
 The woodland crafts area there is in a beautiful setting. It is a long way to drive for 2 days and I don't sell much but I meet up with some of the best green wood workers in the country and we have a very enjoyable time. Simon Lamb a local spooncarver and HCA supporter came and helped me set the stand up and talked to folk about HCA whilst I was turning. We were set up next door to Robin Fawcett

One of the great entertainers of the green wood world is "Wocko the woodman" a lovely chap and very capable woodworker. Recently he has been learning cooperage and was showing folk how casks were made.
We did a live interview for BBC radio Norfolk on the work of the Heritage Crafts Association. I remember years ago finding live radio or TV stressful but like most things it gets easier with time.

A new addition to this years show was a wheelwright, Nick Lyons, here he is chatting to ancient woodwork specialist Richard Darrah.

 And his nice hand cart. Like many wheelwrights working today he learned his trade on the NETS course at Hereford which, after over 30 years, closes in July.

The woodland crafts area has been run for 20 years by my friend Eric Rogers and since he is near his 80th birthday he has decided this would be his last year. We organised a whip round and bought him a selection of wonderful craft items including one of Owen Jones swill baskets.

With Simon to help I was off site by 7.30 and home by 11pm though with a 8am start it was a long day. Yesterday I set out all the bowls I turned at Glastonbury and Norfolk to dry in the workshop, they need to have air flow around them to stop them going mouldy and will dry naturally in about 6 weeks. These are porringers.

And a mix of Mary Rose and Irish style bowls.

 I love to see work piled up like this, an art critic once wrote of a collection of my work in an exhibition in the USA that they were "as alike and heartwarming as slices of crusty bread."

Friday, 2 July 2010

HCA at Glastonbury festival

There are some major perks of my work and I certainly count a week at Glastonbury Festival as one.

My friend and HCA supporter Nigel Townshend came down to help set up and man the stand and tell people about the work of the Heritage Crafts Association. This is what our stand looked like, I rather like the mix of rustic shelter and sharp professional banners I hope that sums HCA up, serious and professional about protecting and promoting traditional skills though I have to say we did also have a great fun time.

A view over the site before the visitors arrived. The green crafts fields are on the slope looking over the main festival and much quieter. We were told to stay in the adjacent teepee field cost £800 per person. It is difficult to show in pictures the scale of the site, it really is the size of a city, in fact I think when the visitors arrive there are around 120,000 people on site making it about the size of Bradford and the largest performing arts festival in the world.
Evening before the crowds arrive.
 When the sun shines on a festival there is a lot of love about.

Once the public arrived we were hard at work through the day, me turning bowls.

 and Nigel chatting to folk about why traditional crafts are facing problems today and what we can do about it.

The emphasis of the crafts field is on workshops where you can get real first hand experience of crafts such as forging.

Or throwing a pot on a kick wheel.
Folk running workshops or demonstrating have to apply and are selected for the greencrafts area and I very much hope that we can go back next year with an increased HCA presence. Several top craftspeople have mentioned that they would like to join us and I can not think of many nicer ways to spend a week than in good company sharing our love of our work through the day and chat around a campfire in the evening. Oh and there is some fantastic music too!