Robin Wood talks to Endangered Crafts Manager Mary Lewis about knitting her first Gansey, an endangered craft on the Red List of Endangered Crafts.
Mary and family
What does a normal day with the Heritage Crafts Association look like? If there is such a thing.
I start early with coffee. I spend a lot of time at the computer, especially during Covid, but I do also spend a lot of time talking to craftspeople. This mostly happens by Zoom at the moment and I can’t wait until I can start getting out again and meeting people in their workshops. This is a significant perk of the job, although I have to be wary of the occupational hazard that is wanting to buy all of the beautiful objects that I see being made! In normal times I would be on the train, meeting interesting and inspiring people, giving talks and trying my hand at various skills.
I do weave craft into my daily routine, I take knitting/thinking breaks and I have been known to stitch my way through long meetings (they can’t see my hands on Zoom). I use craft as a way to ‘de-frag’ my head; it helps me to focus and get my thoughts back into nice orderly lines. It was a revelation to me when I attended my first HCA board meeting and discovered that it was socially acceptable to knit! I had found my people.
How long have you been interested in heritage crafts and what started your interest?
I have never not been involved in heritage crafts. My dad, Gerwyn, is a maker of all things wood so I grew up playing with pole lathes and messing about in coracles. My mum, June, is also quite handy with a needle and so I was also doing patchwork, embroidery and sewing from quite a young age. She did also try to teach me to knit but I hated it and declared that I would never do it again; too slow and too frustrating. I didn’t really settle on a craft until I was in my thirties with a young child and a stressful job. I took up crochet when I was living in a yurt in Hampshire and it was the perfect craft for evenings on the sofa or by the fire. I found the rhythm and repetition very soothing and it is still my go-to craft for relaxation. The revelation was that it requires so few tools and can be on hand at all times. Crochet led me back to knitting and I now don’t go anywhere without a yarn-based project.
With hindsight, my unhappiest times have been when I haven’t had access to craft. I remember finding myself in my halls of residence in London that smelled of plastic carpets and vinyl, with no sewing machine and no bits of wood to play with, feeling really quite bereft. I now know that making things isn’t optional for me, I need it to keep my brain healthy.
Was there ever a time when you felt heritage crafts were uncool and you actually wanted to run away and do something different?
Well, there was that time when my dad turned up at school carrying a coracle…
Honestly, I don’t think being cool was ever much of a priority for me and anyway, the coolest people I knew were craftspeople and artists. My art teachers Warb and Meabh (a tapestry weaver) were my benchmark of cool and I used to hang out with them in the art department drinking black coffee and feeling like a grown up. I still visit them in the South of France.
I did well at school and so it was expected that I would take an academic route. I don’t regret this as such, but I do think that I should have done the Art and Design A-levels that I was talked out of in favour of academic subjects. Having said that, I very much value the critical thinking skills that I learned at University. I wish that I had found knitting while I was studying, I think I would have been more content.
Gansey in progress
What prompted you to attempt a Gansey?
My professional answer would be that it gives me greater insight into the craftspeople I work with, but in reality it is more that I can’t pass up on a challenge! I have been involved in the Knitting The Herring project with the Scottish Fisheries Museum and, following one meeting, my colleague Daniel threw down the gauntlet with “so, are you going to make one?” I made mine for my dad, who is a sailor and has built two wooden boats in his retirement. He is not a fisherman but he has always wanted a real gansey.
Can you tell us a bit about the history of Ganseys. Where were they made? By who and for whom?
It’s complicated, and there are differences of opinion, but it is essentially a working class tradition of fishing communities around the British coastline. The more I have learned about Ganseys, the more I can see that they are telling the story of fishing communities and connections across the North Sea. This is not a tradition of a single place but of travelling and exchange. Ganseys can also be found in the Netherlands and across Northern Europe as well as within fishing communities across the UK. They tell a story of hard graft, whether you were a fisherman or a herring lassie. Knitting would have often happened in down time, after a gruelling day of gutting herring. They were knitted by men and women, but mostly by women.
Ganseys were made as the high performance work wear of their day and had a number of features that made them suitable for the job: warm and windproof, high necked, shorter sleeves so they didn’t get soggy and using construction methods that made them easily mended. They would have been grubby, heavily darned items of clothing. Many old surviving ganseys were probably ‘Sunday best’ ganseys, the others would have been worn until they were unwearable.
Patterns were handed down by word of mouth, hand and eye. As a knitter myself, I can see that they also tell a story of female skill and creativity. They are not just practical, they were made with care, love and with beauty in mind. These women must have taken huge pride in their work and used it as a means of self-expression. They probably also knitted together, which is an age old way in which women have socialised together, just as we do today in knitting groups and clubs.
Is there truth in the stories about the patterns being for identifying drowned sailors? Why not just sew in a name tag like at school? Is this a myth made up late in the day?
I am fascinated by the stories and mythology that surround Ganseys; whether or not you believe that ganseys were knitted so that sailors could be identified if they were washed overboard, this is part of the mythology of ganseys. It is likely that these were just ‘yarns’ or tall tales, perhaps they were made up by sailors to add to the mystery. They did sometimes have initials knitted into them, so there may be some truth in it somewhere in the mists of time.
They do have locally distinctive patterns and there are variations between ganseys knitted in different communities. However, it seem obvious to me that, whilst there are patterns associated with different areas, women also would have knitted what they liked and took inspiration from others. In this sense, nothing changes.
What material are they made from?
They are made using a hardwearing ‘worsted’ spun wool which is different to ‘woollen’ spun wool. Worsted wool is smooth, hardwearing and slightly shiny compared with woollen spun wool that has more air and ‘loft’. The resulting fabric has really good stitch definition and is dense and warm.
The big question… it’s clearly a very fine yarn I imagine it took forever to knit. Did you time it? Or could you estimate?
Yes, it’s 5 ply and knitted on 2.25mm needles, which is very fine. Traditionally they are knitted on long steel pins but – confession time – I did mine on modern circular needles. I knitted mine over five months, but I probably do less than an hour a day. I reckon it took me about 150 hours in total.
Gerwyn Lewis in his Gansey
I think I’ve heard you talking about knitting in the round as against knitting flat panels and sewing them together. Is that the way this is made? What are the advantages of one vs the other and when was each technique most popular?
Traditionally sweaters would have been made in the round in one piece, this is still common in Scandinavian knitting and has become very popular with contemporary pattern designers. Some styles are ‘steeked’ which involves knitting in the round and then cutting to insert arm holes, button bands etc. Not for the faint hearted! Until recently Gansey patterns were not written down, so knitters had to understand the mathematics and skill of being able to size and adapt patterns. I love knitting like this as I find it much intuitive than flat patterns, you can judge sizing and adjust as you go along.
I don’t know the detailed history but as I understand it, flat patterns, in which panels are knitted separately and then sewn together like a sewing pattern, was popularised when patterns started to be written down and distributed widely as paper patterns and in magazines. This enabled amateur knitters to access a much wider range of ideas and designs, but they can also quite prescriptive.
It could be argued that by writing down and recording patterns, some of the innate creativity and skill of the traditional knitter is lost. However, it is also probably the only way that gansey patterns will continue in a contemporary context as we no longer have that critical mass of knitters to pass skills on directly. As modern knitters, we tend follow patterns. I am proud of myself that I didn’t use a pattern for my gansey, instead it was more of a ‘recipe’ and I had to figure out the sizing and designs for myself by making swatches. Deb Gillanders of Propagansey is passionate about teaching without a pattern. I called her when I was thinking of making one and she said “I can’t sit and follow a pattern, it makes my arse go frilly. Know your tension. Knit a swatch. Just get on with it.” She says on her website “This approach works best for jazz or folk – classically trained knitters may get nervous. On the other hand if this is what you’ve grown up with, having to follow a pattern feels like climbing rigging wearing a safety harness.”
What is the future of hand-knitting as a heritage craft?
The future is looking great, there are a huge number of knitters in the UK and many talented designers. However, it is a particular bug-bear of mine that ‘women’s crafts’ are often not give the same artisan status as crafts that were typically associated with men. They are considered the realm of the domestic rather than the artistic, and the preserve of ‘old ladies and knitting nanas’. This is changing though, and the new narrative around knitting includes extraordinary male knitters, trans knitters, black knitters, young knitters and knitting as activism, as well as women claiming and owning knitting as a way in which we define and express ourselves. Knitting is political.
Mary has been the Endangered Crafts Manager with the Heritage Crafts Association since 2018. She works on a range of tasks with the common aim of safeguarding endangered heritage crafts skills including the Red List of Endangered Crafts, the Endangered Craft Fund and other projects.
Plaster worker Geoffrey Preston, basket maker Hilary Burns, and coppice worker Rebecca Oaks have been awarded MBEs in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021, in recognition of their unparalleled craftsmanship and tireless work in ensuring their skills are passed on to current and future generations.
The three were nominated by the Heritage Crafts Association for this year’s Birthday Honours, following 20 previously successful nominations since 2013. Last month, the charitable organisation – which was set up in 2009 to support and champion traditional craft skills – published the latest edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, the first report of its kind to rank craft skills by the likelihood they will survive into the next generation.
Geoffrey Preston MBE spearheaded the reintroduction of the endangered craft of stucco to the UK, a style of pargeting whereby designs are moulded directly onto a wall or ceiling, and is categorised as endangered on the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts.
He has been a sculptor and decorative plaster worker for fifty years, after being apprenticed as a stonemason in London, working as a carver on the West Front of Exeter Cathedral in the 1980s, and being trained in modelling under Professor Robert Baker. Francis Terry, one of the UK’s leading classical architects, called him: “England’s best modeller of architectural detail in stucco and moulded plaster”.
HCA Maker of the Year 2018 and Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, Hilary Burns MBE is a craftswoman, teacher, writer, researcher and advocate with a passion for passing on her skills. Working with humble materials, she produces stunning functional and sculptural pieces inspired by her study of traditional basketry techniques.
An instigator of the largest international basketmaking conference held in the UK in 2013, Hilary has continued to promote the craft globally, with her own work exhibited in New York and Japan, as well as organising skills exchanges to countries such as the Azores and Cyprus.
Rebecca Oaks MBE is the founder and driving force behind the Bill Hogarth Memorial Apprenticeship Trust, set up in 2001 in honour of her mentor, to provide training in sustainable woodland management that benefits biodiversity and wider society. She developed a structured three-year apprenticeship that has awarded diplomas to 18 apprentices, most of whom now run their own coppice craft businesses.
Rebecca went on to develop a partnership with the Small Woods Association to run the National Coppice Apprenticeship Scheme, and was a founder director of the National Coppice Federation, which gives a national, unified voice to regional coppice groups.
HCA Operations Director Daniel Carpenter said:
“We are extremely delighted that Geoffrey, Hilary and Rebecca have been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Having traditional craftspeople up there with other great luminaries of public life in this way is vitally important, as unlike countries such as Japan and Korea we have no Living National Treasures scheme to celebrate master craftspeople, and the UK is one of only 13 of the 193 UNESCO member states yet to ratify the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage.”
The Heritage Crafts Association encourages anyone who supports the continuation of traditional craft skills, whether or not they are makers themselves, to become members. The charity has set up an Endangered Crafts Fund to provide small grants to projects that increase the likelihood of endangered craft skills surviving into the next generation, and is currently seeking donations to save more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion – visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf to find out more and to donate.
Barometer making at O Comitti & Son Ltd, a critically endangered craft
New research by the Heritage Crafts Association has unearthed more traditional craft skills on the verge of extinction in the UK, in the latest major update of its pioneering project, the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts.
The research, which has been funded by The Pilgrim Trust, has found that COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issues faced by our most at-risk skills, after a year that has seen many craftspeople pushed to the brink.
20 new crafts have been added to the ‘critically endangered’ category of the HCA Red List, meaning that they are at serious risk of dying out in the next generation, including diamond cutting, mouth-blown sheet glass making, pointe shoe making and glass eye making. They join the list of 130 endangered crafts, including eight that have been reclassified as being at a higher level of risk than when the research was last updated in 2019.
Kiltmaking at The Kiltmakery, an endangered craft
Critically endangered crafts include those with very few practitioners, few (if any) trainees and a lack of viable training routes by which the skills can be passed on. Often they serve very niche markets, and craftspeople cannot afford to step away from production to train their successors for fear those markets will disappear.
It’s not all bad news, however, as no new crafts have become extinct in the past two years, and some, such as gilding and pole-lathe bowl turning, have seen an upturn in their fortunes. In many cases this has been as a result of a new-found appreciation of the handmade and the need to support small businesses during the pandemic. In others it has been due to direct support from the Heritage Crafts Association, which since the publication of the last edition of the HCA Red List has distributed 27 grants of up to £2,000 each as part of its Endangered Crafts Fund.
Mary Lewis, who led the research on behalf of the Heritage Crafts Association, said:
“COVID-19 has been tough on everyone, not least the craftspeople who possess our most fundamental craft skills. Society is rapidly changing around us, and it is more important than ever that we are aware of the cultural assets still available to us, so that we can have an informed debate about what we want to safeguard as a resource for the future. If we allow endangered crafts to disappear then we seriously diminish the opportunities for future generations to create their own sustainable and fulfilling livelihoods, based on these skills.”
Whilst the UK has been a world-leader in the preservation of tangible heritage (museum collections, buildings and monuments), it has fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to the safeguarding of intangible heritage (knowledge, skills and practices). Of 193 UNESCO members, the UK is one of just 13 that have not yet ratified the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage, and government responsibility for heritage crafts falls in the gap between agencies set up to support arts and heritage.
Sue Bowers, Director of The Pilgrim Trust, said:
“We are delighted to support the continuing development of the Red List which is so important in tracking the state of heritage crafts in the UK and creating the platform for discussions about how we can bring about positive change in the future.”
The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts 2021 edition is available to view online at http://redlist.heritagecrafts.org.uk.
About the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts
The 2021 edition of the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts was led by Mary Lewis, HCA Endangered Crafts Manager, supported by The Pilgrim Trust. The project runs alongside Mary’s work in identifying and developing interventions to improve the prospects of such crafts, funded by The Swire Charitable Trust, The Garfield Weston Foundation and The Dulverton Trust.
For the 2021 edition, 244 crafts have been assessed to identify those which are at greatest risk of disappearing. Of the 134 crafts featured on the Red List, four have been classified as extinct, 56 as critically endangered and 74 as endangered. The remaining 110 are classed as currently viable.
Drawing on information such as the current number of craftspeople and trainees, the average age of practitioners, opportunities to learn, and other issues affecting the future of the crafts, including the impact of COVID-19, the research assesses how likely it is that the craft skills will be passed on to the next generation. From armour making and arrowsmithing to wig making and woodturning, each has been assigned to one of four categories: extinct, critically endangered, endangered or currently viable.
Four crafts are known to have become extinct in the UK in the last fifteen years (cricket ball making, gold beating, lacrosse stick making, and paper mould and deckle making) with one more (sieve and riddle making) brought back from extinction.
New crafts for 2021
New critically endangered crafts (crafts classified as ‘critically endangered’ are those at serious risk of no longer being practised in the UK. They may include crafts with a shrinking base of craftspeople, crafts with limited training opportunities, crafts with low financial viability, or crafts where there is no mechanism to pass on the skills and knowledge.)
- Barometer making
- Bowed-felt hat making
- Brilliant cutting
- Coiled straw basket making
- Compass making
- Copper wheel engraving
- Currach making
- Diamond cutting
- Fabric pleating
- Frame knitting
- Glass eye making
- Hazel basket making
- Highlands and Islands thatching
- Horsehair weaving
- Mouth-blown sheet glass making
- Pointe shoe making
- Shetland lace knitting
- Silver spinning
- Sporran making
- Wooden fishing net making
New endangered crafts (Crafts classified as ‘endangered’ are those which currently have sufficient craftspeople to transmit the craft skills to the next generation, but for which there are serious concerns about their ongoing viability. This may include crafts with a shrinking market share, an ageing demographic or crafts with a declining number of practitioners.)
- Hat making
- Kilt making
- Skeined willow working
- Sofrut calligraphy
- Spectacle making
- Type founding and manufacture
About the Endangered Crafts Fund
The Heritage Crafts Association’s Endangered Crafts Fund was set up in 2019 to ensure that the most at-risk heritage crafts within the UK are given the support they need to thrive. The Fund is used to support makers and trainees who wish to develop or share their skills in the crafts that have been identified as being most at risk.
To date, 27 projects have been funded with support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Radcliffe Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust.
Anyone wishing to donate to the fund may do so securely online. Alternatively, please send a cheque made payable to ‘Heritage Crafts Association’ with an accompanying note specifying ‘Endangered Crafts Fund’ to: Heritage Crafts Association, 27 South Road, Oundle, Peterborough PE8 4BU.
About the Pilgrim Trust
The Pilgrim Trust is an independent grantmaking trust that supports the urgent and future needs of the UK. It gives approximately £3 million in grants per year to charities and other public bodies that either focus on preserving the UK’s heritage or catalysing social change. Its preservation and scholarship fund aims to preserve the fabric of historically important buildings and to conserve significant collections and artefacts. It wants present and future generations to enjoy the rich and diverse heritage found throughout the UK.
Following a strong year full of high-quality nominations, the finalists for this year’s Heritage Crafts Awards, supported by the Marsh Christian Trust, have been announced.
The finalists are (in alphabetical order):
HCA/Marsh Maker of the Year
- Fabian Bush, boat builder
- Rachel Frost, bowed-felt hat maker
- Tracey Sheppard, glass engraver
HCA/Marsh Trainer of the Year
- Deborah Carre, cordwainer
- Delyth Done, blacksmith
- Kevin Millward, potter
- Greg Rowland, wheelwright
HCA/Marsh Trainee of the Year
- Kieran Berry, paper maker
- Niam Chauhan, luthier
- Francis Lloyd-Jones, potter
- Anna Olafsson, hand engraver
HCA/Marsh Volunteer of the Year
- Colin Garrett, British Violin Making Association and Rowan Armour-Brown Memorial Trust Fund
- Jane Kerr, Wooden Boatbuilders Trade Association
- Debbie Richardson, Braid Society
The winners will be announced at a prestigious winner’s reception later in the year.
The three finalists for the second President’s Award for Endangered Crafts, established by Heritage Crafts Association President HRH The Prince of Wales, have been announced.
Each year the President’s Award presents £3,000 to a heritage craftsperson who will use the funding to ensure that craft skills are passed on to the future. The winner will be presented at a special reception at Dumfries House, home of The Prince’s Foundation, in September, as well as at a prestigious winners’ reception at the Houses of Parliament.
The three finalists are (in alphabetical order):
These three have now been put forward to HRH The Prince of Wales to select the eventual winner.
They were selected from a ten-name shortlist by the Awards judges on 17 June 2021. The other seven shortlisted craftspeople were (in alphabetical order):
The Award judges are renowned advocates of craft skills:
- Jay Blades MBE, BBC The Repair Shop, Jay & Co;
- Kate Hobhouse, Chair of Fortnum and Mason;
- Paul Jacobs, Co-Owner of Ernest Wight scissor makers
- Patricia Lovett MBE, Chair of the Heritage Crafts Association; and
- Simon Sadinsky, Deputy Director of The Prince’s Foundation.