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The Heritage Crafts Association’s first forum for traditional craftspeople took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Tuesday 23 March 2010.

The over-subscribed forum was the first chance for those involved with heritage crafts – practitioners and associations alike – to be able to come together and consider the current situation, share problems, and suggest solutions and ways forward.

Craftspeople as diverse as blacksmiths, hand engravers, straw workers, watch and clock makers, stained glass artists, calligraphers, thatchers, wood turners and many more heard first why it is crucial to stand up and be counted for heritage crafts.

Chair of HCA, Robin Wood, explained that heritage artifacts are usually preserved well for people to see in museums and galleries. Innovative and contemporary crafts are looked after and promoted by the Crafts Council. And the heritage building crafts are supported by English Heritage and the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. But the crafts that go into the buildings, the skills required to make those craft items, which include furniture making, upholstery, picture framing, basket making, bowl turning, book binding – and so many more – have no overall organisation to support, promote and speak up for them.

Professor Ewan Clayton gave the keynote speech. His wide-ranging and inspirational talk gave delegates much food for thought, and with his interest and connections with Japan, he was able to explain how in some ways things are far better there for craft, but in other ways, mechanisation has caused craft skills to be lost. Click here to read a transcript of Professor Clayton’s talk.

The group discussions all agreed that heritage crafts were not only important but crucial to our understanding of who we are and where we came from. As Patricia Lovett, HCA Vice-Chair, quoted in her welcome during the afternoon launch session: “Crafts make us feel rooted, they give us a sense of belonging, and they connect us to our history” (Phyllis George).

The recent HCA survey showed that a majority of those working in the heritage crafts sector were concerned that their craft was in decline, and that there were fewer coming in to learn the skills and techniques to produce craftworks.

The suggestions of what could be done to remedy this were, like the craftspeople themselves, many, varied and innovative (the full report can be viewed here).

Press launch event

There were demonstrations of crafts at the beginning of the afternoon HCA Launch. Owen Jones showed his swill basket making, Samantha Marsden was hand engraving a beautiful silver bowl, Cliff Denton and Eric Stones brought their work bench and equipment from Sheffield and showed how hand-made scissors were put together, Janet Mehigan demonstrated her marvellous calligraphy, and Andrea and Phebe Virgo were quilt making (linking up with the Quilts exhibition at the V&A), showing in a clear way how craft skills are passed down through the generations, and they also had on display the St George’s quilt, made by the children themselves at a school in a deprived area of Peckham.

The HCA was delighted by an attendance of over fifty, including a number of peers, MPs, heads of various organisations and institutions such as the Crafts Council, NADFAS, CCS, SPAB, English Heritage, craft guilds and societies, as well as journalists from the press and from different craft and design magazines.

Robin explained to them how crucial it is to act now. Owen Jones, one of our demonstrators, is the last swill basket maker, Trevor Ablett is one of the few remaining folding knife makers. When they retire, their skills will be lost forever.