Clay pipe making, wainwrighting, tanning and making spinning wheels – all are skills of the past that can offer us a sustainable future. This is the message behind a drive, launched this spring, to preserve endangered traditional crafts in Britain.
With a new award of £3,000 available, together with fresh support from outdoor pursuits company Farlows, the Heritage Crafts Association is calling for a renewed effort to save old skills and pass them down to the next generation.
The association’s list of “critically endangered” ancient techniques has often been regarded as simply concerned with conserving history. But renewed interest in sustainability, together with a growing dislike of throwaway consumer culture, has prompted a new campaign. “I think and hope that we are becoming more aware that we may lose the legacy of these crafts if we don’t support them,” said Robin Philpott, chief executive of Farlow.
“These craftspeople are often not widely known about, even in their communities. But we need them. If people take the time to teach these skills, even within the family, it will help.”
The new HCA award was set up this month by Prince Charles, the association’s president:craftspeople are invited to submit a proposal to help secure the survival of a craft ranked either endangered or critically endangered on its official list. Judges are to include Patrick Grant, known fromthe BBC’s Great British SewingBee, and Patricia Lovett, chair of the association.
“We have a rich heritage of craft skills that can be regarded as just as important as historic buildings and treasured objects,” Lovett said. “However we are in danger of losing a number of these crafts: our research has found that in some cases there are only one or two makers left.” The at-risk list is compiled by combining a conservation status “red list” system used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist.
A heritage craft, usually carried out by an individual in small workshops or at home, is considered viable only if there are sufficient makers to hand down their skills to a younger generation. Last year the traditional paper-making skill of “mold and deckle” was judged extinct, and the vanishing of production in turn endangers paper making. Those deemed merely to be endangered are those crafts which are not financially viable as a sole occupation and those which have no clear system for training or passing on skills. Among these are fan making, watch making and walking stick making – all involving the manufacture of items that are still popular with the public, and even regarded as essential by some.
Farlows, a company closely associated with fields sports and makers of traditional fishing rods, works directly with many artisan manufacturers, in particular tweed makers, and so its management has decided to formalise that arrangement by backing the heritage association, which they see as a key umbrella body.
“There is a real knack to making something like a split cane rod. People who fish really value it,” said Philpott.
The danger, according to Farlows, which began trading 180 years ago and in 1942 switched all its manufacturing to support the war effort, lies in widespread mass production. Although the company now has a Russian owner, its management say it still aims to keep alive the key trades it supported when it was owned and run by family members.
The HCA brings together amateur groups with professional societies and guilds to try to ensure a future for the skills involved. It also lobbies the government to take more notice of these skills in its wider provisions for maintaining British cultural heritage.
Robert Mckergan, 66, is a stick-maker from Portstewart, County Londonderry. “For me, it started as a hobby, but I feel we need these crafts to go on. I am a retired engineer and while you can teach yourself as I did, not everyone can do it. You need to be competent with your hands.
“You couldn’t live on this work, I don’t think. Each stick is about 20 hours’ work. But you get a sense of achievement and of purpose. When I see a tree, I see all the potential carvings. And of course the smell that comes from a piece of wood, say cherry, as you work is lovely.”