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Impact of the financial crisis and rising energy costs on makers

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.

Craft Britain: Why Making Matters

by Helen Chislett

Craft Britain: Why Making MattersThis 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)

Crefftwr – celebrating heritage craftsmanship in Wales


Crefftwr – celebrating heritage craftsmanship in Wales

This piece was written by Heritage Crafts Ambassador Dr Alex Langlands to accompany the Crefftwr: heritage Crafst in Wales exhibition running until 12 June 2022 at the Turner Gallery in Penarth, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and featuring the work of Heritage Crafts members throughout Wales alongside the photography of Dewi Tannatt Lloyd.
See more about the exhibition.

We will all be beguiled by the dependent beauty, the technical detail and the patterns, textures, and forms of the crafted objects on display in the Turner House. But in many ways, it is what’s not on display and what can’t be seen that makes them so powerful. The intangibility of craft resides in a myriad of movements, observations, and reflections that come with the experience of working by hand. These, and the ability to conceive, improvise and express underscore in the crafter a confidence and self-awareness that sees ideal become reality in physical form. In this way, these objects are their makers, a physical embodiment of their knowledge, wisdom, passion, and power. It is at times impossible to put into words the qualities that reside behind the compelling aesthetics of the crafted object.

What it is appropriate to render into text is the debt of gratitude we owe for the remarkable achievement of the curators, venue, organisers, and funders in bringing together some of the very best of contemporary heritage craftspeople in Wales today. Together their vision and insight occupy the forefront of a movement that is growing momentum in a craft revival of new and exciting possibilities. For the craft-writers of the predominantly rural 1970s British revival, the motivation was one of loss, an ode to the ‘last of the such-and-such maker’ and to by-gone days. Genuinely, the skills and crafts that had served communities so well up to the inter-war years were dying, a generation of skills that saw its value eclipsed by the accelerated mechanisation brought about by a war footing. Having been intoxicated with images of a Britain worth fighting for, what else should we expect from a society grappling with a world changing more rapidly than ever before? Nostalgia is not to be dismissed, it is an important element in how we manage change.

A new multi-faceted motivation drives the craft revival of today as we are again confronted with fast-paced change and global challenges. Yet, it is to the future and not the past to which we must now turn our craft. One of the mistakes that we often make is in believing that heritage is about what went before. It’s not. It’s about the times that lie ahead and what we actively choose to carry forward with us. It’s the conversations we have with each other – and the surrounding material world – concerning which of the stories of today we want to preserve for the telling of tomorrow. As in any post-industrialised British landscape, for Wales, a conflict runs deep in the narrative as a nation seeks to reconcile the pride and heroism in its one-time ‘workshop of the world’ status with residual toxicity, dereliction, deprivation, and the need to confront the dark histories that came with industrial supremacy. As the painful wounds of de-industrialisation slowly heal, our gaze looks beyond the chimneys, the winding gear, and the tips, once more to the ideational ‘green valley’, to a world in seasonal harmony and a stoic resilience crafted by the generations that have thrived in the hills, valleys, and coastlines of this beautiful place.

There is no need for the crafts of this imagined lost rural world to be resurrected though, because industry didn’t kill them off in the first place – far from it. Industrialisation spawned a multitude of materials and techniques that saw hand-making flourish. It spawned new needs as well. The greater appetites of the people and machines that accompanied a population, transportation and manufacturing boom provided the perfect conditions within which basketmaking, for example, was to find both new and bigger markets. Crafts are at their very best when they match the skills of the ancients to the needs of the day, and it is reassuring to see the intelligent and elegant simplicity of the basket once more at the vanguard of change.

Wales is an inspirational land of natural resources, and a nation with impressive ambitions for habitat restoration and improved public access. It is well placed to engage with the existential threats of the climate crisis and the need for social change whilst at the same time drawing on its rich cultural heritage to foster a sense of purpose and pride. The craftspeople and artists assembled here are on the frontline of the critical enquiry into how our future can be sustainably shaped. A strong element of craftivism exudes from their work as they explore the infinite potentialities of natural materials and consider the impacts of their fashioning, presenting us as they do with useful, durable, and lovable objects.

Placemaking is fast becoming a potent framework for community regeneration and re-imagining local worlds. But how do we go about ‘making’ a place? What physical and creative actions does it require beyond the drawing board of the planning officer? The crafts here are inspired by place as much as anything else, be it the varied colours from the varied landscapes, or the sounds and songs of myth and legend. Is there a better way to place-make than to make-in-place, to reconnect us to the world immediately around us so that we recognise its value?

The good news is that this is already happening. Makerspaces are on the rise and the horizon looks clear for future crafters. Where once the quiet and thoughtful solitude of the creative space was isolated from the noisy dynamism of the commercial world, now digital technologies allow us to share ideas, find fellow minds, access wider markets, and collectively change the world for the better – on a global scale. What encourages me most from these artists is how they were drawn into their crafts, seduced by the materials and techniques, and fated by their childhood passions. Training, apprenticeships, and taught courses played an important role in harnessing these raw enthusiasms and it is our duty now to retain and grow more opportunities to stimulate in young people a critical enquiry of materials and making. When we all know more about the resourcing, preparation, making, use and discard of crafted objects, we will all be better placed to reflect on matters of consumption and waste. The world has changed almost beyond recognition in the past few years and there can be no doubt that we can’t go back to normal. On the strength of the crefftwrs, whose glorious work is on display here in the Turner House, the new-normal is set to be a better-normal for being handmade.

Dr Alex Langlands
Swansea, May 2022

Byddwn oll yn cael ein swyno gan yr harddwch dibynnol, y manylder technegol a phatrymau, gweadau a ffurfiau’r gwrthrychau crefft sydd i’w gweld yn Nhŷ Turner. Ond mewn sawl ffordd, yr hyn nad yw’n cael ei arddangos a’r hyn na ellir ei weld sy’n eu gwneud mor rymus. Mae anniriaethedd crefft yn deillio o lu o symudiadau, arsylwadau ac adlewyrchiadau sy’n rhan o’r profiad o weithio â llaw. Mae’r rhain, a’r gallu i greu, byrfyfyrio a mynegi yn atgyfnerthu yn y crefftwr ymdeimlad o hyder a hunanymwybyddiaeth sy’n gweld delfryd yn troi’n realiti ar ffurf ffisegol. Trwy hyn, y gwrthrychau hyn yw eu gwneuthurwyr, ymgorfforiad ffisegol o’u gwybodaeth, doethineb, angerdd a grym. Ar adegau mae’n amhosib cyfleu mewn geiriau y nodweddion sydd ar waith y tu ô i estheteg afaelgar y gwrthrych crefft.

Yr hyn y dylid ei droi’n eiriau yw ein diolch am waith rhyfeddol y curadiaid, lleoliad, trefnwyr a chyllidwyr yn crynhoi at ei gilydd rai o’r crefftwyr treftadaeth gyfoes gorau yng Nghymru heddiw. Rhyngddynt mae eu gweledigaeth a’u mewnwelediad yn arwain mudiad sy’n ennill momentwm mewn adfywiad crefft ag iddo bosibiliadau newydd a chyffrous. I’r sawl a ysgrifennodd am yr adfywiad Prydeinig yn yr 1970au oedd yn bennaf yn un gwledig ei naws, y cymhelliad oedd ymdeimlad o golled, teyrnged i’r ‘olaf o’r gwneuthurwyr o ba fath bynnag yr oeddent’ ac i ddyddiau a fu. A bod yn deg, roedd y sgiliau a’r crefftau a roddodd gystal wasanaeth i fyny at y blynyddoedd rhwng y rhyfeloedd byd yn marw, cenhedlaeth o sgiliau a welodd ei gwerth yn cael ei bylu gan y mecaneiddio carlamus a ddaeth yn sgil cyfnod rhyfel. A hithau wedi meddwi ar ddelweddau o Brydain oedd werth ymladd drosti, beth arall ddylem ni ei ddisgwyl gan gymdeithas oedd yn ceisio ymdopi â byd oedd yn newid yn gyflymach nac erioed o’r blaen? Ni ddylid diystyru hiraeth, mae’n elfen bwysig yn y ffordd yr ydym yn dygymod â newid.

Mae cymhelliad newydd aml-weddog yn tanio adfywiad crefft heddiw wrth inni wynebu newid carlamus a heriau byd-eang unwaith eto. Ac eto, ar gyfer y dyfodol ac nid y gorffennol y mae’n rhaid inni lunio ein crefft yn awr. Un o’r camgymeriadau a wnawn yn aml yw credu fod treftadaeth yn ymwneud â’r hyn a fu. Nid felly. Mae’n ymwneud â’r hyn sydd o’n blaenau a’r hyn y dewiswn fynd ag ef gyda ni. Y sgyrsiau a gawn gyda’n gilydd – a’r byd materol o’n cwmpas – ynghylch pa rai o storïau heddiw yr ydym am eu cadw i’w hadrodd yfory. Fel mewn unrhyw dirlun Prydeinig ôl-ddiwydiannol, mae Cymru’n wynebu gwrthdaro sylfaenol yn ei stori wrth i’r genedl geisio cysoni balchder a dewrder yn ei statws ‘gweithdy’r byd’ y dyddiau a fu a’r gwenwyndra, y diffeithdra a’r amddifadedd a ddaeth yn eu sgil, gyda’r angen i wynebu’r hanesion tywyll oedd yn rhan o oruchafiaeth ddiwydiannol. Wrth i friwiau poenus diwydiannu wella’n araf, edrychwn y tu hwnt i’r simneiau, yr offer weindio a’r tomenni, a draw unwaith eto at y ‘dyffryn gwyrdd’ syniadol, at fyd mewn cytgord tymhorol ac at wytnwch stoig a saernïwyd gan y cenedlaethau a ffynnodd ym mryniau, dyffrynnoedd ac arfordiroedd y lle prydferth hwn.

Ond nid oes unrhyw angen atgyfodi crefftau’r byd gwledig dychmygus colledig hwn, gan nad diwydiant a’u lladdodd yn y lle cyntaf – dim byd o’r fath. Rhoddodd diwydiannu fod i amryfal ddeunyddiau a thechnegau a roddodd wynt yn hwyliau gwaith â llaw. Sbardunodd hefyd anghenion newydd. Rhoddodd archwaethau mwy y bobl a’r peiriannau ddaeth yn sgil cynnydd mewn poblogaeth, trafnidiaeth a gweithgynhyrchu fod i’r amgylchiadau perffaith ar gyfer creu, i fasgedwaith er enghraifft, farchnadoedd newydd a mwy o faint. Mae crefftau ar eu gorau oll pan maen nhw’n cysylltu sgiliau’r hynafgwyr gydag anghenion y dydd, ac mae’n dda gweld unwaith eto symlrwydd deallus a gosgeiddig y fasged yn arwain proses newid.

Mae Cymru yn wlad ysbrydoledig o adnoddau naturiol, ac yn genedl a chanddi uchelgeisiau cymeradwy i adfer cynefinoedd a gwella mynediad cyhoeddus. Mae mewn sefyllfa dda i ddelio â bygythiadau dirfodol yr argyfwng hinsawdd a’r angen am newid cymdeithasol tra ar yr un pryd yn manteisio ar ei threftadaeth ddiwylliannol gyfoethog i feithrin ymdeimlad o bwrpas a balchder. Mae’r crefftwyr a’r artistiaid sydd wedi ymgynnull yma ar reng flaen yr ymholi beirniadol i sut allwn lunio ein dyfodol mewn ffordd gynaliadwy. Mae eu gwaith yn cyfleu elfen gref o grefftiaeth wrth iddynt archwilio posibiliadau dihysbydd defnyddiau naturiol ac ystyried effeithiau eu saernïo, gan gyflwyno inni wrthrychau defnyddiol, gwydn a chariadus wrth wneud.

Mae creu lleoedd yn prysur ddod yn fframwaith cynhyrchiol ar gyfer adfywio cymunedol ac ail-ddychmygu bydoedd lleol. Ond sut mae mynd ati i ‘greu’ lle? Pa weithredoedd corfforol a chreadigol sydd eu hangen y tu hwnt i fwrdd lluniadu’r swyddog cynllunio? Ysbrydolwyd y crefftau yma gan le yn gymaint â chan unrhyw beth arall, boed hynny’n lliwiau amrywiol o’r tirluniau amrywiol, neu seiniau a chaneuon myth a chwedl. A oes ffordd well o greu lle na chreu mewn lle, ein hail-gysylltu â’r byd yn union o’n cwmpas fel ein bod yn gwerthfawrogi ei werth?

Y newyddion da yw bod hyn yn digwydd yn barod. Mae gofodau gwneud yn cynyddu ac mae’r argoelion yn dda i grefftwyr y dyfodol. Lle ar un adeg yr oedd unigedd tawel a meddylgar y gofod creadigol yn cael ei wahanu o fywiogrwydd swnllyd y byd masnachol, erbyn hyn mae technolegau digidol yn ein galluogi i rannu syniadau, darganfod anianau cytûn, dod o hyd i farchnadoedd ehangach, a gyda’i gilydd newid y byd er gwell – ar raddfa fyd-eang. Yr hyn sy’n fy symbylu fwyaf gan waith yr artistiaid hyn yw sut y cawsant eu denu at eu crefftau, eu swyno gan y deunyddiau a’r technegau, a’u tynghedau gan eu diddordebau bore oes, Chwaraeodd prentisiaethau a chyrsiau wedi’u dysgu rôl bwysig yn harneisio’r brwdfrydeddau amrwd hyn, a’n dyletswydd yn awr yw cadw a thyfu mwy o gyfleoedd i symbylu mewn pobl ifanc agwedd feirniadol at ddefnyddiau a gwneud. Pan fyddwn oll yn gwybod mwy am adnoddi, paratoi, gwneud, defnyddio a gwaredu gwrthrychau crefft, byddwn oll mewn gwell lle i fyfyrio ar faterion defnyddio a gwastraffu. Mae’r byd wedi newid bron y tu hwnt i’n hadnabyddiaeth yn yr ychydig flynyddoedd diwethaf, ac nid oes unrhyw amheuaeth na allwn fynd yn ôl i normal. Yn ôl yr hyn a welwn gan y crefftwyr, y mae eu gwaith godidog i’w weld yma yn Nhŷ Turner, mae’r normal newydd yn addo bod yn well normal i waith llaw.

Dr Alex Langlands
Abertawe, Mai 2022

Coventry Craft Stories

Weavers in Coventry, by George Lilly Anderson (1895)

Weavers in Coventry, by George Lilly Anderson (1895)

As part of our The Making of Coventry project in partnership with Creative Lives (part of Coventry City of Culture), we are putting out a call for people of Coventry and the surrounding area to tell us about stories of making in their families, whether that was in the city’s past, or from other places in the world their families might originate from.

Did your ancestor or family member work in one of Coventry’s iconic industries such as ribbon weaving or car manufacture? Or perhaps they worked from home in a ‘cottage industry’ or as an independent artisan working in a workshop? Perhaps you are involved in making of some sort and this activity you share with your family member or ancestor gives you an insight into their life, or makes you feel closer to them in a way that just hearing or reading about them might not?

We are hoping that some of the best stories might feature on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio as well as being showcased at a special event at Draper’s Hall in Coventry on Saturday 26 March 2022.

If you have a story to tell, please let Daniel know at

President’s Award trophies

President's Award for Endangered CraftsThese 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.

Knitting my first Gansey – Mary Lewis

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

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

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.

Finished Gansey

Finished Gansey

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

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 “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.