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Heritage Crafts – an inspired future

The annual conference of the Heritage Crafts Association was held in London this week and I was one of the privileged guests for a day of fascinating insights into the world of heritage crafts and their future.

Coming from a family driven by artisanal making, I have long been interested in the future of traditional crafts and the risk of their disappearance. The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) is the leading light in the battle for protecting, promoting and expanding knowledge of traditional craft skills in the UK. The HCA/Radcliffe “Red List” of Endangered Crafts was published in 2017 highlighting the need for safeguarding crafts such as bell founding and clock making in the UK. We have already lost the craft of Gold Beating and cricket ball making. Other crafts such as clay pipe making, parchment and Vellum making, fan making and metal thread making are listed as “critically Endangered”, meaning that there may only be one remaining practitioner or that there is no mechanism for these skills to be passed on to new generations of makers.

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The painstaking process of scraping a skin to make Vellum.

The HCA was instrumental in the House of Commons unanimous vote to retain the use of Vellum for the recording of Acts of Parliament. Devastatingly for the craft, three votes in the House of Lords (bastion of ancient traditions!) overturned the decision in the mistaken belief that archival paper would do the job equally well and more cost effectively. Ironically Wim Visscher, one of the last descendants of the only Vellum and Parchment making company in the UK, William Cowley, was awarded an MBE in the New Years Honours List this year in recognition of his commitment to the ancient craft. Wim has valiantly carried on his family business, founded in 1870 by his great-great grandfather. The business has six staff, all specialists in their field and invaluable to the craft’s continuation. Wim explained that despite recent dips in business they would continue to employ these craftspeople as to do otherwise would lead to the death of the craft. 75% of the skins offered at market are rejected for parchment and vellum making. Every tiny blemish will show in a finished piece of vellum and the lengthy process of liming, hair removal, tensioning, scraping, cleaning and drying leaves no room for imperfections in a highly valuable end product destined to last for over a thousand years!

“Crafts for the future” was the theme for invited speakers. Emma Bridgewater, gave a fascinating insight into the development and production process of her ceramics.

 

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Emma Bridgewater – “The future is better if we are reconciled to our past”

 

She was very clear that she does not regard herself as a craftsperson, but more a facilitator with an immense appreciation of the traditional skills of The Potteries and Stoke on Trent’s indigenous skilled workforce. Her initial concept of re-creating the lost craft of spongeware decoration inspired by collected shards of pottery, led Emma on a journey of discovery and experimentation.

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sponge decoration on Emma Bridgewater ceramics.

Although she has based her successful business in the heartland of traditional ceramics production, Emma found it difficult to engage local young people to take on apprenticeships. She says that there is still a sense of bitterness in families that were affected by the decline of the industry and production being transferred overseas. The success of the Emma Bridgewater brand is largely due to the intrinsic traditional craft of her products. She says “it is the ‘craftness’ and the ‘hand-madeness’ that people want to buy” and left us with her opinion that “being analogue in a digital world is tremendously appealing”.

 

One of the critically endangered crafts on the “Red List” is fan making. Jacob Moss curator at The fan Museum in Greenwich explained a little about the heritage and craft of fan making which dates back to the 16th century. The wardrobe inventory of Queen Elizabeth I at one point listed no fewer than 27 fans. Intricately decorated and carved sticks combined with painted or textile fan materials became an art form in the 17th and 18th centuries, but again production moved overseas and the artisan fan makers have gradually died out. In an effort to re-vitalise the craft, the Fan museum staged the Street fans extravaganza in 2017, working with street artists and renowned fan makers to create a series of artists fans.

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Pull of gravity  Fan by  Philippe Herard/ Sylvain Le Guen. from the Street Fans project

Workshops were held in Greenwich market for the public to try  their hand at creating their own fans. The museum used crowd funding to finance the project as an important educational outreach to highlight this very nearly lost craft. One of the few exponents of the craft is based in France, Sylvain le Guen creates incredible structures and worked closely with the fan museum on the Street Fan project to help the artists create their fans. Unfortunately my online search for a fan maker in the UK only came up with one site, that of John and Pippa Brooker , who have now retired, but thanks to a search on the HCA site I discovered that Caroline Allington at the Fan Museum, is teaching Victoria Adjoku the craft after she joined the museum especially to learn fan making.

The little known, Red-listed craft of Fore-Edge painting was explained by the UK’s only remaining artist in the field. The gasps of admiration and surprise in the auditorium were audible as many of us suddenly understood what Fore-Edge painting actually is. Martin Frost showed images of his work and explained how he paints along the finest edges of book pages in a manner that the image only becomes visible when the pages are carefully fanned open.

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Fore-edge painting by Martin Frost.

The outer edges of the pages are gilded so that when the book is closed the picture is invisible. It is like something out of a Dan Green novel; antique Bibles and historic books with hidden works of art only visible to those in the know. But it is not only antique books that are being treated to this art form. Collectors of limited edition books commission paintings to be added to their prized books, sometimes the images are related to the books contents, more often a stunning watercolour landscape, and occasionally a little titillating piece of erotica! Martin spoke eloquently about his art and is teaching the craft in an attempt to avoid it’s demise. and was awarded the HCA Maker of the Year Award.

 

One of the most ardent topics of conversation during the day was the concern about the lack of hands-on craft teaching in today’s education system. People explained that they have encountered sixteen year olds that want to take up an apprenticeship in a craft based industry, they have never before had the opportunity to use hand tools, or physically make things at school. This is putting the UK at a disadvantage in terms of innovation in craft and other areas. For example, the Royal College of Surgeons has expressed concern that because students do not have the opportunity to learn traditional craft techniques or how to handle tools, the manual dexterity of aspiring surgeons is of a much lower level than in the past and dedicated courses are needed in how to physically manipulate needles, thread and scalpels. The focus on academia and STEM subjects has, in the opinion of many craftspeople, caused potentially successful makers to be discouraged in the education system and therefore not been inspired to follow an artisanal career. Emma Bridgewater suggested that the link from art schools to industry should be supported by business mentorship, putting craftspeople in touch with schools and art colleges to explain how to effectively create a viable business. Paul Martin of BBC TV’s “Flog it!” also pointed out that although all too often the BBC programmes that he works with would like to involve children in hands-on experiences of crafts, they are unable to do so because of the prohibitive Health and safety restrictions involved. but he says “I do see a renaissance of 10 year olds wanting to have a go”.

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Paul Martin “My job is to get more of you onto TV”

The HCA Chair, calligrapher Patricia Lovett took this opportunity to announce that the organisation has set up a Parliamentary all-party group for Craft which is a fantastic piece of news.

 

I could probably write another six pieces from all the fantastic makers that were featured during the day, from the bespoke artisan saws of Skelton Saws  to the stunning rush weaving of HCA Award winner Felicity Irons of Rushmatters where in addition to creating natural rush products courses are also available to learn these traditional skills.

The Heritage Crafts association is run entirely by volunteers and exemplifies all that is best in the world of Heritage Crafts. Membership gives an on-line newsletter, listing for craftspeople on the Makers Directory and the vital knowledge that you are playing an important part in the protection of Craft Heritage. But for just £20 what more could you ask for!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collect 2018 – in search of textile crafts

The Crafts Council’s Collect 2018 launched at the Saatchi Gallery on the Kings Road yesterday with a superb selection of galleries and makers from around the world. With over 400 artists exhibiting the whole of the Saatchi Gallery is filled with work spanning the spectrum of the modern craft practice. Boundary pushing ceramics and glass pieces sit alongside contemporary jewellery and bookbinding. I did notice a distinct rarity of textile pieces overall, which was a little disappointing, so am concentrating my efforts in a celebration of the few pieces that are featured.
There were some exemplary pieces of constructed textiles to be seen in the Collect Open section of the show, notably work by Korean textile artist Jiu Jang who has created site-specific pieces for an installation symbolizing the divine power of Numen, which rules the “eternal cycle from birth to death in all natural elements on earth”

Jang uses natural fibres to create monumental “garments” layering, stitching and felting fibres and dying with the seeds of the ebony tree to give a rich gamut of charcoal greys and earthy browns. The tactility of these pieces is reminiscent of ancient artefacts and the scale of the work is an impressive testament to the craft and patience of the artist.

In contrast to Jiu Jang’s wholly organic fibres, RCA graduate Hannah Robson has created a series of richly coloured woven structures using metal threads woven with yarns to create self-supporting textile structures and large hangings with 3D surface elements. Hannah incorporates copper wires in the warp of the weave and cleverly constructs forms that spring into 3 dimensional forms once they are removed from the loom.

The tradition of the woven tapestry has been used by Jilly Edwards as a story-telling medium, she has created a series of thirteen tapestry segments, each representing a four week time span. Colours are inspired by skies, and landscapes around her Bristol studio and map changing weather patterns. Presented on a long table top, this tapestry is a subtle and sensitive example of constructed textile skills.

As a lover of stitch I was intrigued by the work of Emily Gibbs. Layers of coloured silk organza are hand stitched in the seemingly simple running stitch as drawings or “portraits” of fellow makers exploring the idea of portraits, looking at depicting the person through their workspace and tools. This series of embroideries is a celebration of the often underrated skills of makers encompassing crafts such as glassblowing, pottery metalwork and shoemaking.


Amongst the 40 galleries exhibiting at Collect 2018 I only found a brave three that featured any textile based work, notably 50 Goldborne has travelled far to find their textile based offering. The gallery exhibits the Ubuhle Collective from South Africa, which is reviving the tradition of beaded textiles as art. Millions of meticulously hand sewn beads form sumptuous images and patterns reminiscent of tropical flora.


Afke Golsteijn’s hand embroidered bird sculpture is shown in the Gallerie Marzee exhibit, with hand stitched silk as the flowing tail of this piece.

And the Katie Jones gallery is showing a selection of indigo-dyed pieces by renowned Japanese textile artist Shihoko Fukomoto.


I may of course have missed some pieces, but as I have an eagle-eye for textile art, it is a real disappointment that I had to search so hard amongst over 400 artists in these prestigious international gallery offerings for contemporary textile craft pieces, when we know that the world of textiles has such a rich craft heritage. Hopefully 2019 will be a better year!

Makers Tales at the Guy Goodfellow Showroom

This week sees the official launch of the ‘Makers Tales’ series of artisan showcases in the Guy Goodfellow Collection Showroom in Chelsea, London.

Sarah Burns, who works under the name ‘Dora Fabrics‘ is a devotee of natural dyestuffs and has spent the last few years searching for native plants in the fields and hedgerows around her Sussex studio on the South Downs, and experimenting to develop an array of sumptuous colours that you would never imagine coming from plants such as the humble Ash tree or bramble.

Sarah escaped her life in the city working as an economist to follow her creative dreams, and re-trained as a printed textile designer, moving out of London to the idyllic countryside of Sussex. 

The designs in the Dora Fabrics collection are reminiscent of 1950’s woodcut prints; simple, graphic designs that originate from Sarah’s observations of her local surroundings. The graphic qualities of the prints are belied by the gentle colour palette created from the naturally dyed base cloths that Sarah creates.

For the ‘Makers Tales’ show Sarah has dyed sumptuous lengths of crunchy silk with dyes from the weld plant, which gives a glowing warm yellow, walnut and Ash bark which has given a rich pewter grey-green. Colours change depending on the mordant (or fix) that is used and on the fabric base, so Sarah’s dye recipe books are like a bible of invaluable observations.


When talking with Sarah, the joy of what she does is infectious and luckily for us she offers courses in dyeing where we can all experience the excitement of the unknown, foraging for plants, chopping, boiling and testing to our heart’s content in the fresh air of the Sussex countryside. Coming away with ranges of colour swatches and a new found respect for nature’s incredible bounty.

Of course, if you don’t fancy the process of dyeing then Sarah can be commissioned to create lengths of hand dyed linen or silk to suit your colour scheme, but be aware that the nature of the method means that you may need to wait until a particular plant comes into season, as in the world of Dora Fabrics Mother Nature dictates the seasons and their colours!

Sarah can be contacted via: http://www.dorafabrics.com

The show runs until the 14th June 2017

‘English Work’ at the V&A.

The current ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition of Medieval ecclesiastical embroidery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum took me way back to my student days when I was lucky enough to be of the generation when it was still possible to study Embroidery A’level. My lovely embroidery teacher allowed us to take off on flights of fancy with creative embroidery whilst instilling a respect for the timeless techniques of the past. It is hard nowadays to imagine a state school sixth form running an A’level course with only three students, but at the time we never even questioned it! Alongside our study of artistic and contemporary stitch techniques the history of embroidery was an integral part of the course and I was thoroughly absorbed for a while in the world of ecclesiastical embroidery and it’s techniques. The no photography protocol of the V&A meant me taking out my note book and sketching some of my favourite  fragments, and even this was time consuming, leaving me to speculate on the unnumerable hours that were spent actually stitching these pieces!

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The language of this exhibition was not unfamiliar to me as a past student of ecclesiastical embroidery, although I did hear several people wondering “What is a ‘chasuble for?” or “Which is the ‘split stitch’ and which is ‘couching’? ” ( A chasuble is the highly decorated tabard that a priest wears over his normal robes whilst celebrating Mass) Split stitch and Couching are shown  here:embroidery-stitches

In the 13th Century, English embroiderers were at the pinnacle of embroidery workmanship. Church and high society aspired to commission their garments from the English embroiderers in London.   bologna-cope

Large embroideries like the  Butler Bowden and Syon Copes were made by highly trained professionals, both men and women. They were employed in workshops which were funded by merchants and noble patrons. The merchants took the profits, not the embroiderers who received only modest payments for their work. Most workshops were in London where the necessary capital was available and which was the principal port through which the imported materials arrived. The phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ was first coined to  describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, full of elaborate biblical imagery.’English Work’ or Opus Anglicanum remained the most sought after work until well into the 15th century.

I was looking forward to the rare opportunity to see ‘up close and personal’ the incredible detail in the embroidered vestements worn in the Medieval Church. I found it sad to think that the hours of work that were put into the embroideries were lost on the congregation, as they would not have had time or opportunity to ‘read’ the pictorial stories depicted on the garments, nor would they have been able to see the minutiae of the stitches that created these incredible works of art. There are exquisite examples of intricate stitching and beautiful fragments of embroidery in this exhibition, but I did feel that it was a missed opportunity on the part of the V&A. In comparison with the recent exhibitions of the past year , this one fits the norm of a dry, old fashioned, ‘museum’ exhibition. I had the impression of wandering amongst embroidery and theological aficionados, who, albeit enthusiastic, certainly did nothing to enliven the atmosphere.

The staging of this exhibition is in a dry, traditional style, some of the beautiful work is presented so far back in the glass cabinets, that it is impossible to make out the details. There are fantastic stories depicted in many of the Church garments, none of which were adequately told in the labelling. The minute stitches really needed to be magnified, but there was no way of doing so. A short film demonstrated the technique of one style of stitching, but was small and nestled between two glass cases, so difficult to see if there were more than two or three people looking. All in all I left, even after my second visit, feeling frustrated at the lack of interactive or engaging display.

However, if you have any interest at all in the world of textiles or history, then this may be the only opportunity  for a long while to see such a comprehensive collection of some of the worlds greatest embroidered treasures, so essential viewing !

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