In 2020 Matt Robinson was awarded funding through the Endangered Craft Fund to train as a traditional sail maker with Ratsey & Lapthorn.
Matt had originally trained as a watersports instructor and grew up around boats – as he puts it, “you don’t really have much of a choice about that if you live on the Isle of Wight” – but felt that his passion was becoming a chore. He wanted to stay around boats and when the opportunity to be a sail maker came up, he realised that this could be the career for him; “the classic boats are amazing and so it ticked every box for me in what I wanted from a job. Working with my hands, being practical and keeping my brain busy”.
Matt started with some basic knowledge of leatherwork and hand sewn rings but, with the help of the Endangered Craft Fund, he was able to spend time shadowing master sail maker Gary and honing his skills. They have worked together on the classic yacht, Cynara and on a local boat Boojum, both with full classic sails. He is now working independently and feels confident enough to tackle classic sails.
Ratsey & Lapthorn owner Jim Hartley said that the financial assistance was invaluable, in that it enabled the business the time to train Matt properly. It allowed him to have some unproductive time where he wasn’t earning money and could focus on learning the skills. Matt says: “It has been very successful. There is always something that I am learning. That’s what I like about it. Every day is interesting, every sail is different”.
Jim is very positive about the future of traditional sail making at Ratsey & Lapthorn but he is also keen to stress how important it is that businesses invest in skills and the next generation of craftspeople. Their main competitor has recently retired and, with no succession plan or anyone to pass the skills on to, the business has simply closed. The loss of those skills are a loss to the craft.
Matt and Jim are already looking to the future and they hope to take on more trainees who will benefit from Matt’s expertise, thus ensuring the continuity of these otherwise disappearing skills and help in future proofing a business that is part of our maritime history. Matt says:
“I can’t think of any better way to learn than the way that I have done it. Lots of people like practical work. For the next people coming through it’s going to be even better because they will have both me and Gary to learn from. We all have our own ways of doing things and that makes our skills even better as a team.”
- Project funding: £2,000 from the Heritage Crafts Endangered Craft Fund
- Project aim: To create a project that will enable apprentice Matt to develop the hand skills required to move from a basic sailmaker to being a classic craftsman in sail making, thus ensuring the continuity of these otherwise disappearing skills and help in future proofing a business that is part of our maritime history.
In 2020 Ben Bosence of Local Works Studio was awarded funding through the Endangered Craft Fund for his ‘Winning the Clay’ Project, a historic term for finding clay materials suitable for making bricks and tiles.
The Endangered Craft Fund Grant was used to purchase a Roller Pan Mixer to enable the processing of materials sourced from site. These materials could include waste clay excavated from foundations, utilities and site works, crushed waste brick, concrete and other aggregates, waste glass, local chalk and other materials.
Ben speaks of how he used to work for a Sussex based brick making company, and has witnessed the craft decline in this area and also (very dramatically) in Stoke on Trent in the early 2000’s.
“We are keen to tell the story of the craft – how buildings and landscapes were built using local materials, often very local, as brick making and the firing ‘clamps’ were located at the construction site. Rather than mine for raw materials, there is a huge opportunity to tell the story of collecting local raw clay and sand materials that are being excavated and removed from the area, whilst new bricks and tiles – often transported from other countries – are being used for buildings and landscape projects in Sussex.”
The first of many projects to benefit from this was the Exchange Erith. This is a community owned project that seeks to engage the local community in wide range of activities and workshops around making and developing crafts skills. As part of this they are creating a garden space designed by Sarah Price with handmade brick paving by Local Works Studio. These bricks were made using waste materials from site and Crayford Brickearth clay. Erith was once at the centre of the brick making trade that used Crayford Brickearth, a rare, locally occurring sedimentary deposit containing a blend of clay, chalk and sand particles. It was the material used to make the majority of Victorian London’s famous yellow stock bricks. By the 1960s a diminishing supply of clay, led all local brickyards to close.
The bricks themselves were made by local people in a series of community engagement events.
“Many people came to the brick making session because they had relatives who worked in the local brick trade. They were full of stories of their parents or grandparents who had made bricks.”
Local Works Studio is now using the Roller Pan Mixer on a range of other projects including grinding chalk plaster for a listed building in Plumpton and a chalk-clay plaster for a new build in the South Downs.
- Project funding: £2,000 from the Heritage Crafts Endangered Craft Fund
- Project aim: To develop and make bricks and tiles from waste clay and other materials that have been excavated locally.
- Top photo: Ben Bosence, brick and tile maker
- Middle photo: community brick making, The Exchange (photo by Ben Bosence)
- Bottom photo: community brick, The Exchange (photo by Ben Bosence)
In 2019 the highly skilled scissor maker Grace Horne received funding from the Endangered Craft Fund to develop an experimental approach to scissor making that combines the modern technology of water jet cutting with the older technology of drop forging. The aim was to create cheaper but high-quality scissor blanks that could be used to teach scissor making to a wider range of people and to make small runs of blanks for manufacture.
The initial stages of the project went to plan. A die was made by Footprint Tools Ltd and tested by Josh Burrell with his Massey drop hammer. The unusual requirements of a piece of machinery that is no longer industry standard (and hasn’t been for a generation) required a learning process and the first blanks were nearly, but not quite, good enough for production. More tweaks were required… but then Covid 19 hit and work ground to a halt.
The impact on Grace’s business was dramatic. She was forced to put her professional practice on hold for a year and took on unrelated work to pay the bills. She describes the frustration of trying to run a craft business during lockdown:
“I don’t get the feedback, support and the feeling of community that I used to. It is much harder to engage with people, such as engineers, in order to make refinements to the design. This is worse when they are people that you haven’t worked with before. The process of innovation and developing ideas is much slower because it is difficult to maintain a dialogue and to communicate the subtleties. Ultimately, sharing online and through images just doesn’t replace handling the objects and communicating directly.”
Despite attempts to refine the process using images and videos, Josh and Grace found it impossible to deal with the issues without getting together to test it and resolve the problems.
It isn’t all bad news though! Grace is confident that the issues will be easy to overcome when restrictions are lifted and the die will work. She is looking forward to being able to teach regular scissor making courses in partnership with Owen Bush at Bushfire Forge and she has also been approached by Hereford College to run blacksmithing masterclasses in scissor making, which will mean that many more people will have access to the exacting and skilled craft of scissor making.
When asked if the Endangered Craft Fund had helped Grace with her craft business, Grace replied: “the project has happened, and it wouldn’t have happened otherwise”. More people will be able to make scissors and more scissors will be manufactured.
“The fact that I received the money and committed to the project was a stimulus to get it done. But it’s not just the injection of cash that is important, it is the fact that someone else is interested that validates the idea. It has given me the space to do something that could have failed.”
Grace also commented that the support and verbal reporting process of the project gave her an opportunity for reflection and evaluation that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.
“This is something that many craftspeople won’t take the time to do, and would probably resent taking the time to do. It is great that the HCA take the written evaluation part out of the process, whilst still offering an opportunity for reflection. I am not a paper person. The reflective process is so valuable but we (craftspeople) wouldn’t usually do it because we wouldn’t want to write it. This is a barrier to many creative people.”
- Project funding: £2,000 from the HCA Endangered Craft Fund
- Project aim: To develop a process for scissor making that will reduce costs and make it more accessible to trainees.
- Top photo: Grace Horne
- Middle photo: One of Grace’s scissor designs
- Bottom photo: Massey drop hammer with test scissor blank
In 2019, Deborah was awarded £2,000 from the Endangered Craft Fund to help restore the Royal Loom. She aims to be designing and weaving her own linen damask on the loom when the restoration project is complete.
This project was generously supported by Allchurches Trust.
Stopping in on his way home from school at his father’s workplace was an everyday occurrence for the young Vincent Green. What was not quite so everyday was the factory itself, nor indeed the work that his father James undertook. More than sixty years on he still vividly recalls the dimly-lit factory, the single bare lightbulb dangled above his father’s head, the cumbrous, almost primeval wooden loom with its mysterious complex of cords and lead weights, and the race of the shuttle and the rhythmic beat of the sley. On occasion his father would stop off from his work, dismount the seat board and sit himself on a concrete block to have a quick cup of tea and a chat with his son. Any curiosity the young Vincent displayed for the craft was, however, promptly dampened by his father. Though a third generation hand-loom weaver, James remained adamant that none of his seven children would continue the tradition. And in spite of his evident pride in weaving for the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II he remained firm in his conviction that weaving was ‘a dead-end street.’ The 1950s held the promise of better education and jobs, and that was the future he wished for his children.
None of his children ever did follow him into hand-loom linen damask weaving. Indeed, the industry came to a complete end soon after in 1968, closing a tradition that had spanned nearly three centuries in the Lurgan region of Ulster. The factory was abandoned and the loom itself dismantled, many of the point-paper designs and the Jacquard punch-cards heaped into piles and burnt, or left to rot in the open. The craft had indeed reached a dead-end. Fifty years later, however, a remarkable turn of events has shone a beam of hope for the craft. “Would I like to have a look at an old loom that has been lying in a barn” was a question that did not have to be asked twice. It proved to be a ten-quarter broad loom, and the owner was anxious that as a hand- loom linen damask weaver I take it into my care. Countless hours trawling through archival records, interviewing those involved in the last days of hand-loom weaving, opening up a past that had been mostly forgotten led to the realisation that the loom was in fact the ‘Royal loom’ that James Green wove on all those years ago, his name lightly scratched into the frame.
The Heritage Crafts Association was quick to recognise its significance and its Endangered Crafts Fund grant has sparked a remarkable journey. Once supported by a network of ancillary crafts, hand-loom linen damask weaving now stands alone, the restoration of the loom necessarily drawing on a range of local artisans to make bespoke components, from Mark Hanvey, an exceptionally gifted cabinet maker to James Adair, a saddler with commissions from the Queen. Another, Andrew Hilary, a tool maker, works from the very factory in which the loom last stood! The scale of works and its complexity means it will be a long journey but one that will lead to the first broad-loom linen damask weaving in Ulster for over sixty years. It also affords a platform for my AHRC/NBC funded doctoral study of Irish hand-woven linen damask, and without the encouragement and support of the HCA none of this may have happened. So, it is thanks to them that a new pathway is being forged, an escape from the ‘dead-end’ that James Green had predicted all those years ago. How apt that it is his loom that has given us the chance.
- Project funding: £2,000 from the HCA Endangered Craft Fund
- Project aim: To bring a historic linen damask handloom back into working order so that Lecale Looms can start production of damask linen in Northern Ireland.
This project was supported by Allchurches Trust.
- Main photo: Examining the Royal Arms centrepiece of a tablecloth woven by James Green on the loom for Buckingham Palace in 1956.
- Second photo: The main frame in the course of being re-built in the workshop.
Heritage Craft Training Case Study – Lawrence Neal, Richard Platt and Sam Cooper
Bringing a craft back from the brink
The Gimson ladderback chair is a classic of the Arts & Crafts Movement, made by an unbroken line of craftsmen. Gimson was inspired and taught by the village chairmaker Phillip Clissett, born in 1817, and the skills were handed down through Edward Gardiner, Neville Neal and then to his son Lawrence Neal. In 2018, master craftsman Lawrence was approaching retirement age and, as the last in the line of chair makers, his skills and this important lineage were in danger of being lost. Hugo Burge of Marchmont Ventures became aware of this and commissioned a film, The Chairmaker, to tell his story. From this, and the attention that the film attracted, the idea of recruiting an apprentice was formed.
The apprenticeship opportunity was promoted through the HCA’s social media and other green woodwork networks. Two talented young makers, Sam Cooper and Richard Platt, were selected and began their eighteen months of training with a focus on equipping them with the practical skills to make rush seated ladderback chairs to a very high standard. They were supported financially by Marchmont Ventures during their training which covered their living and accommodation costs.
Spring 2020 saw them move to the newly equipped Marchmont Workshop, Berwickshire, where they will build their business. This exciting opportunity will enable them to develop a sustainable business using locally sourced materials from the estate and surrounding area. The workshop is one of seven units for makers and creators with an aim to create a community of highly skilled makers at Marchmont. Hugo’s aim, through Marchmont Ventures, is to invest in arts, crafts and early stage businesses that support sustainable creativity.
Sam and Richard are optimistic about their future making rush seated chairs and developing new complementary products. The apprenticeship has been hugely positive and constructive with both apprentices becoming highly skilled in a valuable heritage craft. As Lawrence says: “It’s a credit to Sam and Rich that they were able to grasp the craft in such a short period of time”, and it is evident that the commitment shown by Sam, Richard and Lawrence, combined with a realistic level of financial support through Marchmont, has been the key to the success of this project. The traditional skills and lineage of the Ernest Gimson and Phillip Clissett chair now have every chance of surviving and thriving in the stunning surroundings of the Scottish Borders.
“We’re very thankful to both Hugo and Lawrence for giving us the opportunity to learn the craft and the rich history it carries, as well as trusting us to continue such an important legacy. We can only hope that our story inspires other makers and their supporters to ensure endangered crafts are not lost.”
- Length – 18 months
- Qualifications gained – No formal qualifications were gained as it wasn’t considered necessary
- Financial support – Supported and funded by Marchmont Ventures
- Payments to apprentice – The apprentices were employed throughout their training period by Marchmont Ventures.
- Recruitment process – Advertised by the Heritage Crafts Association. Recruited through an application and interview process by the HCA, Hugo Burge and Lawrence Neal.
Photo © Hugo Burge
Heritage Craft Training Case Study – Felicity Irons and Demi Green
Do it… support young people!
Felicity Irons BEM is an award-winning rush merchant and weaver. Her company, Rush Matters, is a thriving enterprise supplying rush matting, baskets and other products as well as supplying sustainably harvested British rush to other makers. Rush matting is categorised as endangered on the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts and Felicity is one of the last remaining skilled makers.
Eight years ago, the sheer workload and a desire to ensure that her skills are passed on to the next generation led her to advertise locally for an apprentice. Demi had just finished school, was looking around for apprenticeship opportunities and came across the advert ‘by accident’. It turned out to be a happy accident and now Rush Matters is now a team of three full-time staff with Demi focusing on making rush tableware and shipping. However, she comments that, in a small team: “we all know how to do everything”. Felicity says that they did present a challenge to the apprenticeship recruitment system, which is usually based on interview and not on practical skills. Eventually it was agreed that Demi could participate in a week long paid trial to assess her practical aptitude, which is vital for a maker.
Demi was the first formal trainee in the business and, in the early days, it was sometimes challenging to manage the time-consuming training alongside managing the business. “There were a lot of products that were not good enough to go out” says Felicity, “but the investment was well worth it; it has massively paid back”.
After eight years of working alongside each other, the apprenticeship has been a great success. The business is getting busier every year and the orders keep rolling in as the public interest in rush products continues to grow. Demi says:
“It’s the only job I have ever done and I can’t imagine doing anything else…It is a really nice place to work and a nice thing to do with my time. We all get on really well and it is good working in a small team.”
Felicity says that Demi is “invaluable, and extremely well skilled”. Most importantly, she is confident that she can manage the workshop and her business when she is not there, which allows her to be on the river cutting rush in the summer and perhaps even to take a holiday one day!
Felicity is passionate about the importance of apprenticeships for young people and urges other craftspeople to do the same. She says:
“I don’t really feel that I am working until my hands are wet and dirty… it is a brilliant thing to do and more young people should have the opportunity to have jobs like this … Do it, support young people. We push too many people into university and it isn’t for everyone.”
- Length – 1 year
- Qualifications gained – NVQ Fashion & Textiles
- Payments to apprentice – Paid at above the apprenticeship minimum wage. Now in permanent full-time employment.
- Recruitment process – Interview and one week paid trial to assess practical aptitude.