Outsider Craft is the new podcast from the Leathersellers Company and Heritage Crafts member Yusuf Osman, which seeks to rediscover the purpose and meaning of craft, as we navigate our internal world as individuals and the complex issues that we are facing as a society today.
I left behind a legal career in search of a more fulfilling life. A chance weekend workshop introduced me to the world of traditional British leather craftsmanship. Now almost eight years later, I am an established leatherworker at a crossroads. Did I leave behind a conventional career only to follow another conventional path? Is this fulfilling and the life I wanted?
Inspired by the concept of outsider art, I approach the subject with the lens of being from the outside. In different ways and at various points in our lives we can all feel like outsiders. Ironically, feeling different is what unites us all.
What started as a quest for perfecting the art of leathercraft has become a journey where the craft process becomes a means of understanding what it means to be human and, in doing so, uncovering the threads that connect us all. Leather and craft have become vehicles to discuss the nuance of the relationships we have with ourselves, with each other, materials, and the natural world. With the help of my guests, I ask what it means to be a craftsperson in the modern day and how we can use craft to help us define and achieve the lives we want to live.
Anyone can end up feeling like they’re on the outside and my conversations position that as a space where we can grow and find the things that matter to us. I invite guests to join me in this process, those who to some extent feel like they’re approaching craft from the outside. Some of my guests are very established business owners, others are just starting out, but we all share the same philosophy – that craft isn’t something we do, it’s something we are.
The best and most worthwhile conversations are had during moments of adversity; those forks in the road when our emotions and feelings are rawest and authentic. This podcast should feel like you’ve just walked into a very personal and intimate conversation, and I hope it leaves you thinking a little bit deeper about your craft.
Following your passion and turning what you love into work is a constant balancing act. After many years of working alone I realised that craft is not something that exists in a vacuum – it’s the culmination of knowledge passed down making it intrinsically community focused. That’s why it has been fantastic to work with the Leathersellers on this project. It is not something I wanted to work on alone. It’s unusual to share personal parallels with an organisation, particularly their ambition to be open, engaged and responsive to the needs of leather craftspeople and other individuals and communities that they provide grant funding to across the UK.
Every time we begin work on a new edition of the Red List we find that we need to make small changes to how we approach it, in order for the research to better reflect the changing reality of the world around us. In the 2023 edition the major change has been in how we define a craft.
How we previously defined a craft
Like any other broad category of culture, traditional craftsmanship is neither a continuum (like a rainbow), nor is it a collection of completely separate entities (like the elements in the periodic table). It can be made to seem like one or the other, depending on which analogy fits best at the time.
The Red List is partly based on lists of endangered animals, so it has served us well until now to think of crafts just like animal species, clearly distinct from each other. Animal species are not parts of a continuum, but are separated by the very real fact that different species cannot usually produce offspring together.
The question we have used to separate crafts has been: ‘Can a skilled practitioner move from one skill to another without substantial re-training?’ If the = answer is ‘yes’ then we have treated the skills as belonging to a single craft. If ‘no’ then we have treated them as two separate crafts.
There is of course the subjective matter of what constitutes ‘substantial re-training’, but overall this is the best way we have found to apply a methodology of endangerment to the complexity of crafts we see in the real world.
What’s the problem?
The problem with this method has become more apparent has time has gone on. Some crafts may employ the same basic skills but be separated by their cultural context. They might have a broad uptake across the country, but also have culturally significant manifestations that are specific to a particular geographic, ethnic or religious community of practice.
This has been especially problematic when a craft has enough practitioners nationwide to be classed as viable, but a particular culturallysignificant version of it is on the verge of extinction.
One example of this is Shetland lace knitting, in which a great many people around the country have participated, thanks to the many published pattern books and websites on the subject. At the same time there is a very particular community of practice within Shetland, producing lace in an unbroken lineage of skill passed on from one maker to the next, using the traditional double-pointed wires and leather knitting belt. It is within this cultural context that the craft is dwindling.
As a result of these two hitherto undifferentiated aspects, the inclusion of Shetland lace knitting in the previous edition of the Red List was quite naturally the matter of much debate and disagreement.
What’s the solution?
We believe that the Red List should absolutely be the place to champion the cultural distinctiveness of traditional craft practices, in the spirit of the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) upon which our work is based.
Therefore, with this edition we have begun to list crafts not just by virtue of their skill but also by their cultural specificity, especially when the crafts are more endangered than their more widespread equivalents. We have added six of these crafts in this edition and plan to add more in 2025.
A happy side-effect of this is to highlight where our work overlaps with the other four domains of ICH, including folk practices, festivals, religious beliefs and ways of seeing the work.
It will allow us to incorporate more crafts from diaspora and migrant communities that may resemble crafts previously practiced here, but with a significance intrinsically tied to the cultural groupings with whom they reside.
2023 crafts listed by virtue of their cultural context:
by Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager
When Heritage Crafts published the first edition of the Red List of Endangered Crafts back in 2017, the hope was that by repeating the research on a two-yearly basis, over time the changes would become less about improving the accuracy of the data, and more about reflecting real-world change… for good or for bad. It is only with this fourth edition (the second to be carried out with the generous support of the Pilgrim Trust), that we begin to see this hope come to fruition.
Six years in, we are able to point much more accurately to concrete examples of crafts that have fared better or worse since the research started, and even attribute some of the positive changes to the influence of the Red List itself. For example, with the publication of the last edition it became apparent that tinsmithing was a clear contender for the most endangered craft in the UK, with just one or two skilled craftspeople working irregularly, if at all.
We were able to award one of our Endangered Crafts Fund grants, with match funding from the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers Alias Wire Workers, to run two week-long masterclasses at The Museum of Making in Derby. As a result, we now have several metalworking practitioners incorporating these skills into their businesses and continuing their own development within the craft; not enough to remove it from the critically endangered category altogether, but enough to prevent the extinction we feared.
Sadly the changes are by no means all positive. The cumulative effect of COVID-19, Brexit, the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, and the ensuing financial troubles have all had a brutal impact on many crafts businesses already struggling to make ends meet. I have spoken to so many craftspeople who are having to make heartbreaking decisions between buying in materials, keeping their workshops powered, and paying themselves even a minimum wage. This is all on top of the pre-existing structural issues such as the lack of training routes and government financial support for training.
We have always talked about the cultural loss that is borne every time a craft is lost, but over the last few years we have begun to notice another phenomenon. We increasingly see how crafts operate with a degree of inter-dependence. They form a complex ecosystem, with associated skills, supply chains and economies of scale that come with the level of specialisation you used to see in cities like Sheffield, Birmingham and Stoke. When one business closes, or one craft becomes extinct, it can have a knock-on effect on other allied crafts. The fear is that if we continue to witness this haemorrhaging of skills we may soon get to a tipping point, beyond which the collapse of heritage crafts in the UK accelerates exponentially.
The updated methodology we have developed for this edition has given me immense pleasure in allowing us to include a new cohort of culturally-significant crafts that would previously have been excluded (such as vardo art and living waggon crafts) and to better serve previous entries such as Shetland lace knitting. This will provide a robust basis upon which to consider a greater number of migrant and diaspora crafts for 2025.
As always, the Red List is an evolving process and we rely on craftspeople and experts to let us know of any omissions and changes that need to be addressed. Once again, a huge thank you to the hundreds of people who assisted with the research collation for this edition of the Red List, without whom this project would not be possible.
In December 2022 I embarked on a tour of Northumberland first schools, in which I delivered workshops on behalf of Queen’s Hall Arts which celebrated the Lindisfarne Gospels and the type of Anglo Saxon scriptorium in which they were created. 5 days, 10 schools, 20 workshops, 300 children, 348 miles driven.
We handled replica artefacts which I’d made, prepared parchment and spoke Old English. We discussed animal welfare, environmental issues, the nature of death and of God. And whether the monks had to run when they carried St Cuthbert in his coffin from Holy Island to Durham to escape the Vikings (I reckon so, coffin on their shoulders). And this saw me performing most enthusiastically in an early medieval monk’s outfit.
My background is in archaeology and medieval languages, and I’ve been a craftsman working predominantly in leather for almost forty years. I make leathergoods, props for theatre and TV and facsimile artefacts in leather and other materials for museums and universities. I also teach leatherwork, sometimes in its archaeological and historical contexts. And I have a theatre company; that’s another story…
The final activity of the workshop was the joyfully exuberant stamping of a leather bracelet which the children took home as a reminder of their experience. This is an activity which I developed with Heritage Crafts and what is now LEAF Education whereby I hold the stamp on the leather and the children strike it with a rawhide mallet. It is intended to develop assuredness with tools and self confidence and to enhance the child’s sense of self worth by demonstrating trust on the part of the adult. I have remained injury free since I began doing this.
I was humbled and impressed by the qualities of the children I worked with; by their curiosity, their knowledge and their skill. By their receptivity and their openness, their creativity, their energy and their deductive reasoning, which flies so much faster than that of most adults (we solved a couple of problems of experimental archaeology that I had struggled with).
And by their willingness to speak from their hearts. At one point a young lad, who has apparently always been a bit more ‘boisterous’ than the others in his class, came over after the session and very quietly told me something about how he’d not really liked things like this previously but that this had really touched him and had allowed him to say what he really thought and to be acknowledged. Then we spoke briefly about matters of the spirit (my phrases to describe what he said).
After he’d left, his teacher found me wiping a tear. Maybe two. She said she’d never known him as considered and thoughtful and sensitive.
And this is the value of craft, of work like this. And it’s not me, not from me. I feel that I just create a space, a safe one, within which vulnerabilities and uncertainties and curiosities can unfold into confidence and assuredness and finally into a willingness in the children to be who they might be at their best and can be and are.
And that’s a great gift given to me. There is none of more value.
(And I’m also officially a Jedi, Obi Wan Kenobi to be specific, and that’s a title I will gratefully accept from 9 year olds, who perceive the truth.)
The current economic recession and spiralling energy costs are severely impacting many craftspeople in the UK. We asked our members for their thoughts and feelings on the current situation, to support our funding bids to help alleviate pressure on the heritage crafts sector, as well as provide specific points we can raise with government departments and agencies on behalf of the sector.
Taking into account the current situation facing the country, 88.9% predicted that the profitability of their heritage crafts businesses will worsen over the next six months. 11.1% said they thought that their profitability would say the same and no-one said that they thought that their profitability would improve.
22.3% thought that the likelihood of their businesses surviving the next six months as a result of the crisis was less than 50:50.
The reasons for this included:
Rising production costs, including materials and labour
Cost of electricity, heating and travel
Rising workshop rents
Drop in orders and sales, including because of the reduction in customers’ disposal income
Unwillingness of the market to bear necessary price increases
Impact of the media on people’s willingness to spend
“The majority of people prefer, understandably, to put food on the table and heat their home.”
61.1% of respondents were equally worried about rising costs and reduced income.
“At present our landlord has not increased the charge for electricity as he is trying to negotiate a deal with his supplier, but we expect to be hit hard. Some suppliers have already increased prices, and more will do so.”
“Craft is a luxury commodity and so people tend to stop, or reduce, spending on art and crafts during recessions or times of financial stress.”
“Our income will be greatly reduced as people won’t have money to spend on bespoke, handmade items. Instead they will choose mass produced items that come from abroad and are made by people in factories who are paid peanuts.”
43.8% of respondents have changed their business model to help deal with the crisis, including becoming more reliant on online sales
37.5% have been eating into cash reserves within the business in order to survive.
12.5% have already had to reduce their workforce.
“[I am] trying to minimise all costs that I can in my personal life and business, and looking into the feasibility of teaching courses… The high capital investment… makes this daunting but hopefully a potential way of diversifying income.”
Suggestions of how the Government might alleviate the situation included:
“Small cottage businesses should be given more grants/financial help to survive.”
“Reduce our bills if we work from home…, garden workshops and small rented spaces.”
“There need to be ‘level up’ grants for artisans, mid-career or entry-level, who can demonstrate passion, dedication and skill in a craft. It would be good to have some recognition for tutors of craft who also want to level-up but have to teach to survive.”
“A reduction in VAT.”
“The government should be decoupling the electricity price from gas, allowing renewable energy suppliers to supply cheaper clean energy. They should also be expanding the UK’s renewable energy production in the country. This would combat the problems more effectively than artist/craftsmen-targeted relief.”
“Give professional crafters a discount card, similar to those for students.”
The effects of Brexit on international sales and the ongoing effect of the pandemic were also cited as a common factor making the current situation worse.
“Brexit makes it impossible to trade with consumers within the European Union. This has resulted in the loss of around £20,000 of sales during the past year from mail order and attending shows within the EU. We need to rejoin the customs union as a start to getting back our membership of the European Union.”
Heritage Crafts is seeking funding to help alleviate the effects of the current situation.
This autumn, David Linley (the Earl of Snowdon) and I are delighted that our book, Craft Britain: Why Making Matters will be published. We began talking about this idea pre-COVID, but the pandemic and its consequences inspired us to bang the drum for making and makers across all aspects of craft from heritage to cutting edge.
Of course our past defines us as a nation, as we stress in the chapter dedicated to History & Heritage, “Our cities, towns and villages are crammed with portals to the past in the shape of cathedrals, castles, palaces and monuments. We are blessed to live in a place where we are never more than a few miles from a piece of our human history, from the stateliest of country houses to the humblest of country churches. We have around twenty thousand scheduled monuments; upwards of sixteen hundred registered parks and gardens; over thirty World Heritage sites, and almost half a million listed buildings. These add up to a built heritage of cultural, religious, archaeological and industrial significance, dating from circa 4000BC to the twentieth century. The fact is we are awash with history to the point we barely register it.”
Researching and writing such a wide-ranging book meant reaching across all the different organisations that represent makers and making in Britain, some concentrated on traditional and heritage – others on collectible and contemporary – plus everything in between. Naturally, Heritage Crafts was an important body for us to talk to, most particularly because we wished to highlight the importance of the Red List of Endangered Crafts. The Red List may have begun as a grim recording of declining craft professions, but it has now ignited a conversation nationally about what can be done to support a sector that we are in danger of losing skill by skill.
In 2021, the Red List included 244 crafts. Of these four are now officially extinct: cricket ball making, lacrosse stick making, paper mould and deckle making (a deckle being the wooden frame used in manual papermaking) and gold beating. The critically endangered list – those with a shrinking base of makers, little financial liability, limited training opportunities or no mechanism to pass on skills and knowledge – include twenty newcomers. These range from barometer makers and sporran makers to horsehair weavers and pointe shoe makers (as worn by ballerinas). The endangered category – those with sufficient craft skills to transmit to the next generation of makers, but with an ageing demographic and shrinking market share – also included some ‘new to 2021’ categories. For the first time hat makers and kilt makers are listed, as are type founders and lithographers.
Throughout the book, we have tried to highlight the status of the crafts mentioned where applicable. Craft Britain is themed across twelve subjects, including a chapter dedicated to Rare & Endangered. Within this, we have spotlighted the work of two makers: oak swill maker Owen Jones and diamond cutter Ilana Belsky – two crafts on the critically endangered list. However, there are many others we have included in other sections of the book from neon bending, professional paper marbling and parchment making to wheelwrighting, shoe last making and bell founding.
However, it is important to stress that our book is not a directory and we have been anxious not to imply that it is in any sense definitive. As we say in our acknowledgements, “We would like to thank the many craftspeople who have helped us put together the content of this book. We would also like to acknowledge those who may have been disappointed not to be included. We hope by raising the subject of craft so widely, everyone involved will ultimately benefit.”
Our heartfelt thanks to Heritage Crafts and everything this unique organisation does to highlight the plight of imperilled crafts.
Craft Britain: Why Making Matters by Helen Chislett and David Linley (OH Editions)