Delivered by Greta Bertram, HCA Secretary, at the launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts, 3 May 2017 at the House of Lords:
Photo by Lesley Butterworth
In Cambridge, where I’m lucky enough to live, we are surrounded by beautiful and historic buildings, many of which are unique. If just one of them was threatened with demolition or was allowed to fall into disrepair, people would be up in arms. There would be protests, demonstrations and it would no doubt make the national news.
Within the last ten years, we have lost four of our heritage crafts in the UK. These didn’t hit the headlines, yet these crafts are just as much a part of our rich heritage as our historical buildings. These extinct crafts include gold beating and sieve and riddle making. Only last month the Heritage Crafts Association was asked where British hand-made sieves could be bought, and the answer was, sadly, nowhere.
Historic England has a listing system for historic buildings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has a red list for endangered species. But this is the first time that anyone has looked at traditional crafts in the UK and identified those most at risk. Generously funded by The Radcliffe Trust, the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts looks at every single heritage craft taking place in the UK today, focusing on those where there is a significant reliance on hand-work and with high levels of hand skill.
We have looked at 169 crafts in total (although we’re bound to have missed some) and, after careful consideration, have assigned each craft to one of four categories: extinct, critically endangered, endangered and currently viable. Where we didn’t have enough information to make a classification, we put them into a data deficient category.
Seventeen crafts have been identified as critically endangered – this means that they’re at serious risk of becoming extinct. These crafts have very few practitioners, generally spread across just one or two businesses, and usually with no trainees learning the skills. We sincerely hope that none of these seventeen join the four that have already gone.
There is one skilled master vellum and parchment maker in the whole of the UK. There are two skilled clog makers (and there’s currently a revival in clog dancing), and four skilled horse collar makers. There are two businesses making coaches and wagons, one person making fans, and two businesses making hat blocks. There are three people marbling paper (indeed, we heard only heard about the third one last week), and only one piano manufacturer. And there are just a handful of trainees across these seventeen crafts! (All of this information is in your booklets).
So, what are the problems and challenges? Well, they are, typically, many and varied, and often connected. For some crafts it’s an ageing workforce, a shortage of training opportunities or difficulties in recruiting trainees. For others it’s a fluctuating market, competition from overseas or the unwillingness of customers to pay that little bit more for handmade British items. Some crafts have problems with the supply of raw materials and tools (think of all the timber diseases we keep hearing about) and others point out that people just don’t know they still exist. For yet more it’s the myriad obstacles that have to be overcome if you are self-employed (which nearly 80% of craftspeople are) or running a microbusiness.
Sadly there isn’t a magic bullet cure-all solution, but the research has highlighted how precarious the future of all heritage crafts are when they are in the hands of only a few skilled craftspeople.
So, now that we have identified the most critically endangered crafts, and understand more about the challenges they, along with all crafts, are facing, what next?
We feel it’s crucial for the government to clarify the role of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in supporting heritage crafts, as they do for contemporary crafts, and to make the necessary changes. For too long we have been bounced between heritage – which means historic buildings and museums – and arts – things that you can put on a shelf and admire.
In 2003 UNESCO produced a Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This focuses not on the physical things like buildings, monuments, and artefacts, but on the non-physical aspects of our heritage like traditional performing arts, festivals, and, importantly for us, craft skills. The UK is one of only 22 countries out of 194 that haven’t ratified the convention, the government saying only that ‘it isn’t their priority’.
We would like to be pro-active in ensuring those seventeen critically endangered crafts don’t become extinct, and also in preventing any other crafts from entering that category. For that, the broader issues of the heritage crafts sector need to be addressed, particularly relating to training, recruitment, and market issues. And that requires proper funding and support.
Finally, this is a significant piece of research which should not be shelved and forgotten. Like Historic England’s listed buildings register, or the red list of endangered species, The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts needs to be regularly monitored and a thorough (and funded) review conducted every 3–5 years.
We are incredibly grateful to everyone who has supplied information about the crafts, and cannot thank the Radcliffe Trust enough for funding this research, which has enabled us to shine a light on this important part of our shared cultural fabric. We sincerely hope that the Red List will serve as a starting point to encourage future interest and research into heritage crafts, and to ensure that these rich and diverse craft skills carry on into the future.
The University of Lincoln has developed a new system to use virtual reality technology to train young blacksmiths, saying that it wants to get more people involved in trades that are in danger of disappearing. Using their virtual blacksmith’s forge, users can experience the basic principles behind blacksmithing, and the hope is that young people might go on to take it up for real.
Click on the video below to play (UK only)
Eventually the university hopes to develop a virtual village that will allow users to experience a whole range of traditional crafts, and even receive one-to-one training from experts all over the world. The Heritage Crafts Alliance (set up in North Yorkshire in 2011 to focus on building crafts, and not to be confused with us) are quoted in the Look North report as supporting the project.
Heritage crafts need to embrace technology and new sections of society if they are to survive and this development look very interesting, though for me the sensation of actually being present in the environment and the interaction with the materials are vital factors in the lure of heritage crafts, and it will be a long time before technology can replicate this. If this is to become a teaching tool, is it even possible to convey the types of tacit knowledge that make up these craft skills without these sensuous factors present?
It seems to me that the life many people aspire to at the moment involves spending the working day in important meetings or at a computer or doing similar cerebral work, then in the morning or evening jogging or pumping iron at the gym to get that perfect body.
These gyms seem bizarre places to me, I have walked past them in London full of folk pounding away like so many hamsters on wheels. The bizarre thing is that all those machines are consuming electricity, I’d like to see a gym that generated electricity or better see those folk out carrying shopping for old ladies or some other useful physical activity. Besides that I struggle with the idea of pounding away just to get the current trendy body shape. I think far better to live a balanced life that involves a mix of cerebral and physical activity. At the moment I am converting my ex village police station into a holiday cottage, there is a lot of hard labouring work which a hard nosed business annalist would say I should pay a labourer £50 a day to do whilst I got on with more lucrative work. I earn an average of £80 a day so I can’t argue with the economics but there is something more important than economics to me. By doing the labouring myself I get a feeling of empowerment, and also a good workout which would cost my cerebral friends a hefty gym fee. Here I am starting to demolish the old wall separating the old garage from the police station office, I reckon you could charge for this it was such fun.
Why is it that doing this stuff as part of the working day is looked down upon whilst paying to sweat in the gym is viewed as a good thing? This is all part of my philosophy of living a balanced life with work involving hand, head and heart.
HCA trustee Greta Bertram shares her first notes from Japan
I’ve been in Japan for 2 weeks now (with another 4 to go) and have already seen plenty of wonderful Japanese crafts. Although it is hot in August, I have to admit I`m a fan of hot weather so I’m having a great time. I’ve so far been to Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagoya (inlcuding Tokoname for pottery and Arimatsu for shibori `tie-dyeing`) and Kanazawa (gold leaf and kaga-yuzen dyeing). Tomorrow I`m off on a day trip to Wajima, famous for it`s lacquerware. The past few days have been a bit tricky, as many things have been closed for O-Bon – a bit national holiday for honouring the spirits of the ancestors.
Here’s a very brief introduction to some of the things I`ve seen so far. It`s amazing how widely exhibited crafts are, everywhere. I began my crafts exploration with a trip to the Japan Traditional Craft Centre in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. It`s essentially a salesroom/exhibition space – all the objects are exhibited beautifully, and all of them are for sale. I tried to make a list of every type of craft on display, but there were just too many to count and I had to give up! The temporary display changes every two weeks, and there was also space for a crafts-person-in-residence. Unfortunately, photos weren’t allowed.
Traditional Craft Industry is a status designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and to be designated as such a craft must fulfill the following criteria.
- The article must be used mainly in everyday life.
- The article must be primarily manufactured by hand.
- The article must be manufactured using traditional techniques.
- The materials should be mainly those which have been traditionally employed.
- The industry must be of a regional nature.
Japan also has a traditional crafts mark which is administered by each local craft association according to the criteria set by the Ministry. According to the Centre, the mark `guarantees quality and authenticity and they are indeed the pride of the craftspeople`.
I found the 5th criteria really interesting. I would say that Japan has very strong regional identities, with crafts, theatre, food etc. being associated with different places. Every prefecture in Japan has a traditional crafts centre with an exhibition facility (as do many of the craft associations, and these often have resident craftspeople demonstrating their work to visitors). I found a map showing all of the crafts and where in Japan they come from, and the variety is incredible. Today I visited the Ishikawa Traditional Craft Centre in Kanazawa, which displays the 36 crafts of the region (including lacquerware, kutani ceramics, kaga-yuzen dyeing, butsdan-making (Buddhist altars), paper lanterns, umbrellas, candles, lion-masks and kaga-embroidery! Is there anything like this in the UK? I can`t think of anywhere, even in London…
Yuzen dyeing is a bit like batik – a resist is created using rice paste, the design is painted in with colour and then covered with another layer of rice paste before being dyed.]
[Photo Photo IMG_4603 and IMG_4602. Caption: Ishikawa Prefecture is famous for both its lacquerware and its gold leaf. The gold leaf is repeatedly pounded and pounded between sheets of special paper made from a plant that I’ve forgotten the name of until the gold is only 0.0001mm thick (I think). What`s interesting about these bowls is that they`re replicas of the top 100 lacquer bowls in Japan. I was amazed that there`s actually a list of the top bowls!]
Another place for displaying traditional crafts is in department stores. The big stores (like Takashimaya, Sogo, Mitsukoshi etc.) often have one floor dedicated to traditional Japanese products (porcelain, kimono, household goods etc.) and another floor which serves as a gallery space. I was lucky enough to visit the Sogo department store in Yokohama when they had several days of craftspeople from around the country demonstrating and selling their work.
A basketmaker at work in Sogo department store. These baskets are made out of Japanese Rose.
[Photo IMG_4423. Caption: Some of the prices were incredible – the little knife at the bottom was no more than about 5cm and costs about 150 pounds.]
While this obi costs about 5,600 pounds!]
Japanese `traditional` crafts are by no means stuck in the past – this technique was developed by the maker, and involves putting hundreds and hundreds of tiny pieces of opal onto the lacquer and sanding them down until smooth. The amazing thing was how the opal changed from red to green as you moved it in the light.
And it`s not only the techniques that are new – it`s the objects too, like this Iphone case!]
From what I’ve seen so far, traditional crafts really are much more a part of people`s lives in Japan then they are in the UK. Hope to be able to update again soon, with a few more photos.
Well I never knew that Tonbridge was famous for the making of cricket balls. This is a craft process involving a lot of hand skill. I had little idea what was inside a cricket ball, a lump of compressed cork, a tightly wound ball of string.
In the 1960’s there were 85 folk making balls in Tonbridge alone, but there was already mention of cheaper balls made in Pakistan and India, I love this 1960’s article from the Kent messenger especially the union reps title.
I am not sure how many ball manufacturers are left in Tonbridge. nor what proportion are hand stitched as against machine made but I do remember watching a guy from Alfred Reader’s stitching balls at Art in Action in 1996.
Reader’s are clearly still the major brand name in cricket balls I just called them to ask about how their balls were made and was told by a wonderfully frank and honest lady that they are all imported and only “finished” here. Bit naughty when they proudly bear the “Made in England” brand, years ago when I worked on a cutting table in Leicester lingerie firm I was told it was legal to put “Made in England” so long as some manufacturing process had taken place….and sewing in a “Made in England” label counted as a manufacturing process. The old Reader factory was sold off for housing development. The more I learn about how we treat our heritage the more I think it is bonkers. Just look at this travesty, clearly the powers that be decided what was important was to keep the factory frontage with it’s nice big sign, so they knocked it down and stuck a horrid modern house on the back. I have no doubt this makes great economic sense and was the way to make the most money out of the particular site.
So we will be following up the glorious English game with the ECB and hoping that we don’t find the sort of story of child labour that was highlighted with footballs a few years ago. If anyone can find us info on any UK made cricket balls I would be pleased to hear and we will give the makers a good plug
Last weekend I attended Art in Action a most wonderful show near Oxford. We were offered a free HCA stand after the organisers attended our spring conference at the V&A, we had the usual range of traditional craft items on display with voluntary staff telling visitors the stories behind how they were made. I also did a talk each day in the lecture rooms on the work of the HCA.
I was demonstrating spooncarving and daughter Jojo made everlasting gypsy flowers from willow.
It is a huge show of primarily skill based arts and crafts, so much to see it takes a whole day. Sadly I was so busy on the stand I had little time to look around or take photos but here are a couple fo snaps taken en route for lunch. Gail McGarva with her wonderful Lyme Lerret.
An incredibly detailed carving of a mallard drake. This one is worth clicking to expand the image.
One of the beauties of Art in Action is that most of the artists and craftspeople are given space to set up a workshop and demonstrate their work. You can see anything from artists painting proper portraits, grinding their own pigments to weaving, glassblowing and blacksmithing, the quality is all excellent.
The ethos of the event is lovely too. It centres around giving and service, the volunteers that run the event are kind and helpful and I know no other event where all the stand holders are continually supplied with tea and biscuits served with a smile. This is the campsite with the poshest portaloos and showers I have seen.
We hope to be invited again next year and will ask for space for more traditional craft demonstrators.