A Stitch in Time – Scotland’s craft heritage

By Gill Colhart

Weaver at work, Dovecot StudiosColinton resident and art and craft expert Gill Colthart has been inspired by the historical drama television series Outlander to delve into the subject of Scottish indigenous crafts and here she gives us a bit of background to some of our craft heritage.

When I read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, I was fascinated by the depth of her research. Considering she had never actually visited Scotland, Diana’s narrative was both interesting and accurate.  Apart from the elements of romance, mystery, adventure and time travel there was for me that something extra – and that was the references to indigenous Scottish crafts in the 18th century.

The main female character in the book, Claire, became involved with the local ladies in the village of Lallybroch, and sometimes joined them to learn new skills. In one memorable scene she came across a group of women sitting thumping and pulling wool over and back across a table whilst merrily singing together and tapping in time to the music.

What they were doing was known as ‘waulking’ which is the Gaelic name for the process used to soften and thicken fabric, and also make it water resistant. Singing together helped keep the rhythm and made the work more enjoyable  – and I would imagine that a fair amount of gossip was exchanged too! One person would start a song and the others would join in the chorus and as time progressed the tempo of the song would increase. The cloth was moved around the table clockwise as it was perceived to bring bad luck if passed the other way. There must have been hundreds of songs as it was also perceived to bring bad luck if any song was repeated during a waulking session.

Any feature on traditional Scottish crafts has to include reference to Harris Tweed®, now a world famous product. Originally much of the tweed came from cottage industries with crofters making rough cloth for their own use, with some of the surplus used as currency. It must have been exhausting work as everything from carding, spinning and weaving was done by hand by women working in very hard conditions, often outdoors in bad weather, with cloth that had been soaked in ‘household ammonia’, i.e. stale urine, in a process used to set the dye.

The appeal of Harris Tweed® is timeless. The spinning is done by machine, but the weaving is still done by hand. Classic garments made from it are of top quality and cutting edge garments are regularly seen on the catwalk and in glossy magazines. A genuine Harris Tweed® garment would be expected to last for many years, probably even a lifetime, and so the name came to be protected by The Harris Tweed Act in 1993 which dictated that Harris Tweed cloth must be: “Handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.”

In the 18th century, the production of linen was a significant part of Scotland’s economy with a high standard of workmanship expected from the workforce. Each batch of linen was examined and inspected by stampmasters of the Board of Trade; one reason being to ensure that the middle of the bale was not inferior to the outside part which was visible to the buyer. Yes there were scams even way back then! Youngsters were apprenticed to a master weaver and an apprenticeship lasted six to seven years.

As with many other industries, linen workers also had their own terminology. There was a dirty muddy fermentation process called a ‘retting pit’ and ‘heckling’ was the word for the last step when dressing flax prior to spinning. The story goes that the linen workers in Dundee were politically active and given to voicing their opinions at political meetings – giving rise to the modern usage of the word ‘heckling’.

Tweed and linen are simple and practical fabrics so it may come as a surprise to know that a more luxurious fabric – silk – was made in Scotland. There were three factories in the Dunfermline area and one of them, the Winterthur Silk Factory, provided the duchesse silk satin used by Sir Norman Hartnell to make the Queen’s wedding dress. Princess Elizabeth was granted 200 extra ration coupons, but had to return others that had been gifted by members of the public, as they were not transferable. Apparently, a back-up piece was woven just in case the original did not arrive in London and a local girl who was married in 1964 was given it to have made into her wedding dress.

During WW2 silk was produced for the war effort, and synthetic silk was used to make parachutes. My Mother packed parachutes when she was based in Orkney with the WRNS, and it would not be surprising to find they came from the a Dunfermline mill.  I wish I still had some if it and would love to know its provenance.

There are far too many highly respected Scottish indigenous crafts to cover in one article –  Paisley shawls, Mauchline Ware, Darvel lace, shinty sticks, Orkney chairs, drystane dykes and Fair Isle knitting are just some examples but there are many more.

What is good to know is that with the current resurgence of interest in traditional crafts, many people and organisations are keeping the old skills alive.  A good example is the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh which can be found in the premises of the old Infirmary Street baths. Originally established in 1912 by the 4th Marquess of Bute who recruited weavers to produce large tapestries for Mount Stuart House, his home on the Isle of Bute, it is now a world renowned centre of excellence. Dovecot not only continues a century long heritage of collaboration with international artists to make handwoven tapestries and rugs, but they also employ master weavers. They have a wonderful viewing gallery from where you can watch a master weaver at work and they also curate fascinating exhibitions and workshops. I definitely prefer perusing beautiful craftsmanship to the memories I have of standing shivering in a cold changing room. Maybe that is why I went on to be an art and crafts teacher but never did learn to swim!

The Highland Folk Museum is the UK’s first open air museum. Situated in Cairngorm National Park at Newtonmore, it has an extensive collection of traditional artefacts including pieces of tartan and traditional hand woven blankets. It is an ideal venue for a family day out as there is something for all age groups to enjoy.

If you are interested in learning a new skill there are a number of organisations who offer traditional craft workshops, including many private workshops run by extremely experienced creators.

Online events

Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown we have been running a series of free online events on Zoom. Here you can find out what event we have coming up and re-watch the recordings for some of the previous events.

 

Coming up

 

Lida Kindersley in ConversationLida Cardozo Kindersley in Conversation – 10 November 2020, 7pm

Join us in conversation with lettercutter, typeface designer and author Lida Cardozo Kindersley MBE, in her own workshop where we’ll be able to see some of the pieces she is working on. Lida is considered the foremost lettercutter currently working in the UK and her work in slate, stone and other media includes carved memorials, plaques, inscriptions and sundials can be seen at many public locations across the country and beyond. Among her works are the main gates for the British Library, designed with her first husband David Kindersley.

 

Previous events

 

Ewan Clayton in Conversation – 14 October 2020

 

Celia Pym in Conversation – 16 September 2020

 

Jeanette Sloan in Conversation – 26 August 2020

 

Keith Brymer Jones in Conversation – 1 July 2020

 

Jay Blades in Conversation – 15 June 2020

Learning in lockdown – passing on the ancient art of woodblock printing

By Sarah Edmunds

In recent months there has been a meteoric surge in the pursuit of arts and crafts as we spend more time than ever at home. Global crisis aside, the creative and curious amongst us have used this time as a force for good, taking up lapsed hobbies or learning new skills. In response to a chaotic world which we cannot control, there has been a heightened need to return to slower activities with tangible outcomes – away from our screens.

In the world of printmaking, there are many different genres, with block printing being one of the oldest, dating as far back as the 2nd century CE, originating in China. Many will associate this form of printing with world famous ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ a Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai. With a few simple materials the myriad of possible woodcut effects are endless and the results can vary from delicate to dynamic.

Shore break by Rod Nelson

‘Shore break’ by Rod Nelson

Two expert printmakers, Merlyn Chesterman RE and Rod Nelson, have championed the ancient art of printmaking for the past thirty years. They became friends through a common enthusiasm for the work of Japanese printmaker Shiko Manukata. Much of their work draws on the vibrant living traditions of China and Japan using techniques and tools that are still in use in modern printmaking – the bamboo leaf covered baren and pink painted woodblocks both originate from China.

Merlyn Chesterman at Art in Action woodblock printmaker

Merlyn Chesterman

Each has exhibited widely, published books, taught and have become experts in their field, and most recently they have produced a two hour masterclass DVD published by and available from Artisan Media called
Making Woodblock Prints. The nine topics include essential tools, cutting a block, developing your own marks, introducing colour, layer blocks with colour, cutting an underblock, inking the block, proofing and editioning, and advanced printing techniques.

“Let us consider for a moment Hokusai’s woodcut ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ – probably the most famous woodcut print of all time – there is hardly anyone who is not excited by this masterpiece when seeing it for the first time (or even for the hundredth). It is visually as accessible to a six year old as to a Professor of Art. He knew that he was good.” Rod Nelson.

Rod Nelson Woodblock Printmaker in his studio

Rod Nelson

It was these 17th century printmakers that so enamoured the post impressionists; Monet, Degas and Van Gogh. Japonism was closely associated with the group and Monet in particular amassed a collection of around fifty prints by Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Monet examined these prints intensely and their influence is felt in his art and gardens at Giverny, in the flower covered lake and Japanese footbridge. He welcomed Japanese visitors, buyers and admirers with whom he forged lifelong friendships. Van Gogh’s Iris paintings were directly influenced by ukiyo-e prints seen in the dark contours and expressive brushstrokes.

“Woodcuts are images that simply can’t be made in any other way. They sit on the boundary between art and craft – and anyone making woodcuts will quickly experience the delights and terrors of both.” – Rod Nelson

 

Jay Blades in Conversation

On 15 June 2020 we ran an online event with Jay Blades (BBC Repair Shop, Jay Blades’ Home Fix) where Jay and host Robin Wood MBE were joined by 98 HCA members and fans on Zoom to listen to Jay talk about his inspirations and experiences and to ask him questions.

We have created a number of short videos from the event which you can watch on our YouTube channel:

Or you can watch the whole live stream on our Facebook live:

Accessing financial support during COVID-19

Gerald Monaghan, blacksmith (photo by Philip Utton)

Gerald Monaghan, blacksmith (photo by Philip Utton)

The heritage crafts sector, which is predominantly made up of self-employed craftspeople and micro-businesses, is going to be particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, as retailers experience a drop in footfall and selling events are cancelled all around the country.

Our survey in April/May 2020 showed that:

  • 73% of respondents were at reduced capacity or were unable to work as an indirect result of COVID-19;
  • 71% believed their turnover would reduce by more than half; and
  • 56% believed there’s less than a 50:50 chance of their business surviving the next six months.

The guidance below is provided to let heritage crafts businesses know what help is available, and will be updated as things change. Please let us know if there is any support you are aware of not listed here and we will share the details.

We need to know what you would like us to focus on in our support and advocacy in the coming weeks. Please let us know.

 

Self-employed craftspeople

  • Self-employed income support scheme – the Government will provide a taxable grant of 80% of a self-employed person’s earnings up to a maximum of £2,500 month, eligible for those with trading profits of up to £50,000 who make the majority of their income from self-employment. You do not need to prove coronavirus impact and you can keep working and still benefit from the scheme. Earnings are calculated as an average over the past three years and based on net profits, i.e. the amount you declared for tax after you’d taken off expenses but before you were taxed. People can apply directly to HMRC for the grant when the scheme is operational, using an online form, and the grant will be paid directly into their bank account. The scheme will run for three months in the first instance and be available ‘no later than June’, though it will be backdated to March.
  • Universal Credit for the self-employed – the minimum income floor for Universal Credit has been suspended. This means self-employed people out of work as a result of the COVID-19 can now access, in full, Universal Credit at a rate equivalent to Statutory Sick Pay for employees (£94.25 per week for up to 28 weeks). The money will be payable from day one instead of day four. In addition, the Universal Credit standard allowance and the Working Tax Credit basic element will both increase by £1,000 a year for the next 12 months.
  • Support for self-employed people paying tax – the next round of self-assessment payments on account (originally scheduled for 31 July 2020) have been deferred to January 2021. Additionally, all businesses and self-employed people in financial distress with outstanding tax liabilities may be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through HMRC’s Time To Pay service. These arrangements are agreed on a case-by-case basis and are tailored to individual circumstances and liabilities. If you are concerned about being able to pay your tax due to COVID-19, call HMRC’s dedicated helpline on 0800 0159 559.

 

Small craft businesses

The Chancellor has introduced a package of measures to support businesses including:

  • Coronavirus job retention scheme – companies and organisations will be able to apply for a grant from HMRC to cover 80 per cent of the wages of people, up to £2,500 a month, who are not working due to the coronavirus. The grant will be backdated to 1 March and available from April. 12 May update: The job retention scheme has been extended until until the end of October. From August to October the scheme will allow part time working to gradually re-introduce employees back into the workplace. Full details of changes to the scheme will follow by the end of May.
  • Statutory sick pay relief package for small and medium sized enterprises – this means that, from the day after new regulations come into force, businesses will be refunded up to two weeks Statutory Sick Pay per eligible employee who has been off work because of COVID-19. Employers should maintain records of staff absences and payments of SSP, but employees will not need to provide a note from their GP.
  • VAT deferral – the next quarter of VAT payments due from businesses have been deferred, meaning that no business will pay VAT from now to June, and they’ll have until the end of the financial year to repay those bills.
  • Business rates holiday – for small businesses in England that have retail premises, there will be a 12-month business rates holiday for the 2020 to 2021 tax year.
  • Grants for rate-paying businesses – Small businesses that have retail premises with a rateable value between £15,000 and £51,000 should receive grant funding of £25,000 to help meet their ongoing business costs. Small businesses that already receive Small Business Rate Relief (SBBR) or rural rate relief will be eligible for grant funding of £10,000. Enquiries about these grants should be directed to your local authority.
  • Business Interruption Loan Schemethis new scheme, delivered by the British Business Bank, will launch in late March to support small businesses to access bank lending and overdrafts. The government will provide lenders with a guarantee of 80 per cent on loans of up to £5 million in value. The first 12 months will be interest free, with payments covered by the government.
  • Support for businesses paying tax – all businesses and self-employed people in financial distress with outstanding tax liabilities may be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through HMRC’s Time To Pay service. These arrangements are agreed on a case-by-case basis and are tailored to individual circumstances and liabilities. If you are concerned about being able to pay your tax due to COVID-19, call HMRC’s dedicated helpline on 0800 0159 559.

 

Small craft businesses in Wales

The Welsh Government has published details of its £1.4 billion business support package to help businesses across Wales.  In addition, the Development Bank of Wales will be offering all its business customers a three-month capital repayment holiday.

 

Facebook Small Business Grants Program

Facebook will be offering $100 million in cash grants and ad credits to help up to 30,000 eligible small businesses. The company will begin taking applications in the coming weeks and you can sign up to receive more information when it becomes available.

COVID-19 crafts business survey results

In April 2020 we carried out a survey among heritage craftspeople on their businesses outlook during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey showed that:

  • 73% of respondents were at reduced capacity or were unable to work as an indirect result of COVID-19;
  • 71% believed their turnover would reduce by more than half; and
  • 56% believed there’s less than a 50:50 chance of their business surviving the next six months.

 

Summary of findings – 4 May 2020

Respondents:

  • 84% sole traders or freelance contractors.
  • 6% small business owners.
  • This is broadly reflective of the overall makeup of the heritage crafts sector as shown in Mapping Heritage Crafts (2012).

Current situation as a result of COVID-19:

  • 19% still working at normal levels.
  • 38% at reduced capacity.
  • 35% unable to work as a result of business (as opposed to health) factors.
  • This means that 73% are at reduced capacity or are unable to work as an indirect result of COVID-19.

Turnover forecast:

  • Only 4% of people believe their turnover will remain stable.
  • 71% of people believe their turnover will reduce by more than half.
  • 41% of people believe their turnover will reduce by more than three quarters.

Prognosis:

  • Only 24% of people believe there’s more than a 75% chance of their business surviving the next six months.
  • 56% of people believe there’s less than a 50% chance of their business surviving the next six months.

Sales/commissions issues:

  • 92% of people are currently experiencing problems selling their work or getting commissions.
    The most cited reasons for this was the cancellation of selling events, exhibitions and festivals and restrictions on one-to-one teaching.
  • Some respondents were unsure about whether they are supposed to us the postal system for sales.

Supply chain issues:

  • 38% of people are currently experiencing supply chain problems impacting on their business.
  • Clay, wool, animal hair, timber, metal, metal thread, tools, and packaging materials have all been reported as being in short supply.
  • Some respondents harvest their own materials, but are unsure whether this constitutes essential travel if their businesses are reliant upon it? One respondent is uncertain about using a chainsaw for fear of increasing the load on the NHS in the event of a work accident.

Government support:

  • Only 4% of respondents are currently in receipt of the Government support on offer, either being furloughed or claiming Universal credit.
  • 30% are not yet in receipt of Government support but intend to make use of it, though more than one respondent said that this will not provide enough income to live on.
  • 28% are unsure of whether or not they qualify for Government support. Reasons for the uncertainty include not having high enough turnover, having another part time job or a pension supplementing their income, and the fact that they have been told not to contact HMRC but to wait to be contacted. We have given advice and guidance for those who provided contact details.
  • 31% believe that they are ineligible for government support. The reasons include being a new company that is yet to file a tax return, having savings in the bank, having a partner earning over a certain amount, and working from non-rated premises.

Key needs:

  • Reassurance that the Government recognises and values this sector, and that crafts practitioners will be eligible for support.
  • Support needs to come quicker. Many businesses won’t survive until June.
  • In cases where support is deferred, an eligibility check now would help ease uncertainty and stress.
  • 12% of respondents requested a form of Universal Basic Income for all citizens rather than the current system which allows certain individuals and businesses to fall through the gaps. This was not prompted by any of the survey questions.
  • Extra money should be made available for critically endangered crafts where the fate of an at-risk craft relies on few individuals and/or businesses.
  • The Employee Retention Scheme should be based on tax returns rather than ePAYE for those companies that do not use the latter.
  • The Employee Retention Scheme should be extended to Company Directors of small companies, many of whom are in the same position as the self employed.
  • There should be more loan repayment and business rate holidays.