These awards were presented by HCA President HRH The Prince of Wales on 10 September 2021 at a special presentation at Dumfries House, to 2021 President’s Award for Endangered Crafts winner Rebecca Struthers and 2020 winner Ernest Wright Scissors.
The awards were generously commissioned and sponsored by HCA Vice President Richard Hefford Hobbs and approved by HRH The Prince of Wales. Sculptor Sean Hedges Quinn was commissioned to design and make the exemplar/mould from which the award was cast in bronze. Each part of the award was cast separately and then put together, in such a way that the award can be viewed from all angles, even the back.
The base supporting the feathers is made of oak from the Sandringham estate beautifully crafted by Ipswich woodworker Brendan Worsley, and stone from Balmoral. Hand engraver Ruth Anthony was commissioned to hand-engrave the plaques, working at some speed for the 2021 award as we knew the winner only in the last few weeks.
The workmanship is stunning and it has all been done using skilled heritage craftspeople.
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.
by Lucy Hockley
“Celebrating 50 years since the first opening of the Weald & Downland Living Museum was not as originally planned, as 2020 changed for everyone. The Museum team had to adjust arrangements for this anniversary weekend last September, yet we were very grateful to be open and mark this milestone. Central to the Museum’s mission from its earliest days to today has been the objective ‘to stimulate public interest in ancient crafts, trades and manufactures’. This happens in a huge variety of ways, and is also the reason from first hearing about the formation of the HCA, over a decade ago, the Museum team has been keen to collaborate and support this likeminded organisation.
“The simple point of raising awareness can be powerful in so many ways. It may be a child seeing a skilled craftsperson at work with the chance to ask their question directly and, when possible, have a go. It is always exciting to hear from adult whose craft work choices were sparked by a Museum visit. When we had low-level thatching frames for school groups alongside thatchers working on two roofs at the Museum, young people clearly did see the skill in a different light due to their hands-on experience. One lad even offering to go up to help the thatchers out! Around the same time, the Museum hosted an ‘alternative careers forum’ focussed on the heritage sector and craft skills, which was quickly fully subscribed by adults, with a strand for secondary age pupils woven into the day. In a normal year the Museum has well over 120,000 visitors each year, with many opportunities for connection on-site as well as in outreach work.
“Our artefact collection is an inspiration as well as a reference point for tools, particularly those of our region and rural occupations. Of course the historic buildings themselves tell of so many crafts skills in the past and today, both from the activity of workshops and also in the construction of the buildings themselves. Throughout the year, and particularly in a series of Historic Life Weekends, we also have demonstrators at the Museum who share their own craft skills.
We understand the value of informal conversations with depth of knowledge sharing that comes from them, for the demonstrators amongst themselves also. Topics in the Historic Life Weekend series vary each year, with our Heritage Crafts and Skills at Risk weekend planned (again) this August. This is in collaboration with the HCA and will also have a linked exhibition.
“Beyond sparking interest and conversations, the Museum has offered, for over 25 years, the next steps – workshops in a vast variety of skills. These range from 1 day to 5 day courses, including many skills on the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, to University masters programmes in Timber Building Conservation or Building Conservation. Perhaps therefore also no surprise that when the producers of The Repair Shop were looking for a venue, the Museum was on their shortlist and filming continues in Court Barn today.
“The Museum experience is not static; experiences will change daily and we try to ensure that essential maintenance and building conservation work happens in visitor view and with discussion whenever possible. This season work is underway on the House from North Cray, a 15th century hall house, which stands in the market square. As with each exhibit building, this house is only at the Museum as there was no future for it where it originally stood and was faced with demolition. In fact, in this case it has already been dismantled by the local council and lay in storage for some years, before it was offered to the Museum in its very early years.
“Over the years the Museum has been open, there has both been a growth in interest in heritage craft skills and an awareness number of craft skills at risk.HCA members will be only too aware of this also. The many benefits of traditional skills are being recognised rightly for their contribution to an urgently needed sustainable future, as well as their wellbeing aspect. That inspiration needs to continue with many individuals and organisations coming together to raise awareness of heritage crafts skills, their uses today and for the future.”
The Weald & Downland Living Museum is an independent museum and educational charity located in West Sussex, just north of Chichester. More details about the Museum can be found on the website www.wealddown.co.uk or via social media.
A resource that might be of interest are articles in the Museum magazines, which can all be found online here, with a few recent examples mentioned below:
by HCA member Katherine Dimancescu (www.theforgottenchapters.com)
“As travel is currently restricted and as I am an author, when asked to share why I joined The HCA as an overseas member I decided to share my thoughts in a written testimonial. Being a new HCA member has been a tremendously rewarding experience thus far. The HCA newsletter, emails, and Instagram updates have made it delightful and easy to learn about HCA members and their crafts. Outside of HCA communications, I noted as 2020 progressed that via both print publications and media outlets in southern New England where I live and, in the UK too, there was increasing coverage of heritage crafts and their makers.
“My interest, engagement with, and exposure to heritage crafts is likely somewhat different than the majority of current HCA members as I am an author and not a practicing craftsman. As I consider now why I joined the HCA last summer (2020) I can identify some early cultural, social, and educational influences which in hindsight helped later inspire me to become an overseas HCA member.
“Growing up in a small historic town outside of Boston, Massachusetts was an enriching experience as the town’s fellow citizens included physicists, astronomers, writers, musicians, and historians who taught at colleges in the Boston area. Our circle of family friends and acquaintances included print makers, basket weavers, a friend who was born and raised on the Isle of Man who shared stories of island traditions, friends who were closely involved with the formation and organization of The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife which is ‘a continuing series of conferences, exhibitions, and publications whose purpose is to explore everyday life, work, and culture in New England’s past. Founded on the premise that traditional lore and material folk culture are rapidly disappearing in New England, the series focuses attention on emerging areas of folk studies, regional and local history, cultural geography, historical archaeology, and vernacular and antiquarian studies’ (https://www.historic-deerfield.org/the-dublin-seminar-for-new-england-folklife), and several friends who in 1977 established The Trust for Native American Cultures and Crafts. One of these friends is Henri Vaillancourt, who has been, as visitors to his website (http://www.birchbarkcanoe.net) will learn, ‘Since 1965. . .involved in the building and research of traditional Indian birchbark canoes and other aspects of Native material culture. His handmade canoes are built along the lines of the birchbark canoes once used by the Malecite, Abnaki, and Algonquin tribes, as well as those developed by the French during the Fur Trade period. They are sought after by museums and collectors throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan and are known for their elegance of line and fineness of construction. He also makes scale model birch bark canoes, as well as traditional hand carved paddles with incised line decoration in the Malecite tradition.’ Spending time immersed in this community setting where ideas about crafts past and present were shared and pieces were made following traditional patterns and methods fostered an ongoing interest in and appreciation for heritage crafts.
“Outside of Massachusetts additional opportunities presented themselves to learn about heritage craftsmanship in a larger New England context (not yet a UK setting) during summers spent with my maternal grandparents in a small coastal Maine town. The town had initially been settled in the mid-18th Century when what is now the state of Maine was still part of Massachusetts (Maine became a separate state in 1820). Descendants of the town’s founding families still resided in and around the town; some made and took great pride in the items they created and sold such as hooked rugs and warm sweaters (some of which were incredibly soft due to the use of angora rabbit wool). Summer excursions included visits to The Blue Hill Fair which was the inspiration for the fair in author E B White’s beloved children’s book Charlotte’s Web and where, as I recall, some handmade crafts were displayed including angora sweaters with their makers and their angora rabbits beside them. There were tours of The Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine where the work of resident craftsmen could be seen and also the grounds of an artistic haven we knew as Haystack (its official name is The Haystack Mountain School of Crafts) on Mount Desert Island, Maine. These outings were complimented by time spent exploring Hancock County’s back roads and small towns. My grandmother would stop to converse with local artisans and farmers before on occasion purchasing a handmade sweater one of them had made. Each outing involved stops to buy delectable edible delights freshly pulled from the soil or plucked from the trees or blueberry bushes somewhere nearby on the farm whose stand we were visiting. My grandmother’s approach to selecting food and items to purchase differed vastly from that of some friends back home in the Boston area whose parents primarily shopped in fluorescently lit grocery stores and in sprawling shopping malls. Meeting the artisans who made the items one was purchasing and learning about the process of that item’s creation and the history of the skills and knowledge behind its creation was eye-opening and wonderful.
“I became a history major at university and after graduation I moved to London to attend graduate school. While living and studying in London I enjoyed visiting museums and historic houses both in the city and also in various parts of England as much as I could. To be able to see places and artefacts I had previously studied gave them new relevance and placed them in a broader context. One summer I visited The National Museum Wales for the first time. I was delighted to learn about Welsh Love Spoons and to see modern day renditions of Love Spoons too. I began to wonder what other crafts in the United Kingdom might also have heritage stories like the Love Spoons did. It would be some time before I began to more deeply explore this line of thought.
“What further moved me along on the path towards HCA membership was research for my third non-fiction historical narrative which I am in process of writing. I began to research the professions of my maternal ancestors before they came to New England in the 1620s and 1630s. When research for this book began there were already plans in the works to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage of The Mayflower. This meant I suddenly had access to new stories surrounding the lives, professions, and backgrounds of The Mayflower’s passengers and this included stories about my Mayflower ancestors Priscilla Mullins, her father William Mullins, who had been a cordwainer in Dorking before the voyage, and Priscilla’s future husband John Alden who was a cooper. Soon I was also learning more about other 17th Century maternal English forebears and how some of their professions connected them to Livery Companies in the City of London of which they became members. As 2020 dawned and a new 21st Century decade began, my focus was starting to shift from solely researching what my ancestors created centuries ago to also learning about present-day heritage crafts and their makers.
“The penultimate moment of inspiration to join The HCA came late last spring (2020) when I read an article about a 1,000-year-old English mill, which was once again providing flour to communities around it. I found myself eager to learn if there were other heritage buildings unexpectedly being used for their original purposes and how 2020 was shaping and impacting the work of current heritage crafts makers in the United Kingdom. It was through the subsequent research I did after reading about the mill that I discovered The Heritage Craft Association and decided to become a member.”
Like many other organisations, the Heritage Crafts Association has made a commitment to increase diversity and representation within the charity – in our staff team, our Trustee Board and our critical friends (Vice-Presidents, Ambassadors, Advisors) – to be able to better serve and represent our members, those engaging with us and those who do not yet engage with us.
We want the HCA to be the best charity it can be for everyone who practices, values and loves crafts as we do. We know this includes a huge range of ages, ethnicities, sexualities, backgrounds, religions and economic statuses all across the country and the world; we want to be better at representing as many of these as possible within our teams.
Our recent advert for new Trustees has been a chance to reflect on this. For some years we have included the line ‘The Heritage Crafts Association is an equal opportunities organisation and welcomes applications from people of all backgrounds’ on all communications about recruitment. We felt it was long overdue that we are more proactive and do more to encourage the representation that we currently lack in the organisation to apply.
We have done a short, easy audit of all of our existing Trustees and below you can see some stats on who currently sits on our Board:
- 82% of our Trustees identify as female and 19% identify as male.
- There is fairly equal representation of ages between 26 and 65. 19% are aged 26-35 but there are no Trustees under the age of 26.
- There is a fairly equal geographical spread across England alone, with the small majority of our Trustees living in London (36%). We do not currently have any Trustees who live in other parts of the UK – Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
- 82% of Trustees identify as white, and 19% as Asian / Asian British.
- 82% of our Trustees identify as heterosexual.
- 82% do not identify as having a disability, with 28% identifying as having a long term health problem.
- 90% have no religion or faith, with 10% identifying as Jewish.
- 36% of Trustees have caring responsibilities.
- Trustees were asked to describe their current social class and the vast majority identify as middle class (82%).
We are happy to note that almost all of our Board are younger than the average age of a Trustee for UK charities (which is 61 years old), and that we buck the national trend of 64% of all Trustees being male. However, as you can see, other stats show a real lack of breadth in key areas such as ethnicity, social class, sexuality, disability, faith and geographical location. We recognise that this is sadly not surprising or uncommon for many Trustee Boards, but this is no excuse. As above, we are committed to changing this and moving towards better representation on the Board, and across the whole charity.
We make this statement knowing that we’ve got a long way to go, but in the hope it will be a small step to helping us get to where we want to be. We also hope it is open and clear signal to any would-be Trustees reading this that we really want to hear from diverse candidates – and will truly value and welcome them on the Board if appointed.
We are delighted to have recently welcomed our 1,000th member of the Heritage Crafts Association, wallpaper maker Louise Altman – www.outofbounds.org.uk/hand-printed-wallpapers. Here, Louise tells us a little bit about her work and why she chose to join the HCA. if you’re not already a member, click here to find out more about joining up.
“I studied a Print Media (Book Arts) degree at the LCP (London College of Printing). The course had a very creative element but was equally technically focused on bookbinding and printmaking skills. I was always trying to make more time to get in the print rooms! After uni, I was fortunate enough to work at Book Works Studio with Rob Hadrill. It was here that I learned much finer bookbinding and making techniques that have informed all of my creative practices. I spent a few years working as a resident artist in schools where we pioneered a unique creative initiative in education, working with students and staff to promote creative thinking. Alongside this more formal career, I maintained a studio and continued to create prints, limited edition artists’ books and patterns.
“I first heard of HCA whilst reading an article on The Guardian website and was really excited to know that there was an association championing heritage crafts… Then several friends and artists have pointed out to me that wallpaper printing was an endangered skill and that I ought to let you know that I’m out here working in this medium. I’m fairly new to wallpaper printing but my designs have already been enjoyed by many and I intend to continue and develop this wonderful skill. Luckily I have been printmaking for many years so it’s just an additional learning curve to the skills I have been practising for over 20 years.”
“I spent some years visiting India (and still do, pandemic aside) and was lucky enough to be invited to a traditional block printing studio. This ancient art of block printing patterns onto fabrics became a huge interest. I spent some time on several trips with the artisans learning the techniques, despite the huge language barrier. I altered my studio at home and adapted a large table into one similar to the one I’d been using in India. I began printing onto fabric with half a mind to eventually print wallpaper. I joined a weekend course with Hugh Dunford Wood and learned the basics of printing wallpapers. The passion was ignited!
“It’s more important than ever before to support heritage crafts. I am an early adopter when it comes to tech and innovation but I also know that if we lose these skills we will be unable to retrieve a very unique tradition of making by hand. I always think back to cave handprints and how we hold those early human marks in high regard. The mark of a human is impossible to replicate and we must protect it or future generations will lament our oversight.”
“Continuing to develop my wallpaper printing skills alongside my day job, suddenly the pandemic hit and we went into lockdown. It was being on furlough that gave me the time and space to develop a series of patterned papers which I am now producing for clients. My future plans are to develop several collections and to continue to promote this beautiful craft. It would be easier to develop these patterns for a digital wallpaper market but I want to remain a purist and hand print everything myself. I am in my element whilst printing and really enjoy interactions with clients who appreciate the work and mark of the artist’s hand.
“My process is to sketch from nature, I then turn these drawings into a repeat pattern design. This gets transferred onto a specially prepared block which I carve into to create the pattern. This block then gets handprinted onto prepared wallpapers using my adapted block printing table. Mostly I use my feet to print as you’ll see from the images. It’s a truly physical practice and I love listening to podcasts whilst I print.”
Photos by Anna Lukala – www.lukala.com