New research by the Heritage Crafts Association has unearthed dozens more traditional craft skills on the verge of extinction in the UK, in the first major update of its pioneering project, the Red List of Endangered Crafts.
Zoe Collis, apprentice paper maker at Two Rivers Paper (photo by Alison Jane Hoare)
Sixteen new crafts have been added to the ‘critically endangered’ category of the Red List, meaning that they are at serious risk of dying out in the next generation, including withy crab pot making, millwrighting and commercial handmade paper making. They join 20 other critically endangered crafts, including five (bell founding, flute making, scissor making, tinsmithing and watch making) that have been reclassified as being at a higher level of risk than when the research was first published in 2017.
Critically endangered crafts include those with very few practitioners, few (if any) trainees and a lack of viable training routes by which the skills can be passed on. Often they serve very niche markets, and craftspeople cannot afford to step away from production to train their successors for fear those markets will disappear.
It’s not all bad news, however, as the craft of sieve and riddle making, which was listed as extinct in 2017, has now been revived by two new makers devoted to bringing it back, both of whom are now beginning commercial production. In addition, the organisation behind the research, the Heritage Crafts Association, has, with funding from The Dulverton Trust, employed an Endangered Crafts Officer to look for practical ways to safeguard these crafts skills, and has set up an Endangered Crafts Fund to provide the means to do so.
Daniel Carpenter, who led the research on behalf of the Heritage Crafts Association, said:
“The Red List of Endangered Crafts is vital in drawing our attention to parts of our shared cultural heritage we are at greatest risk of losing. What we as a society decide to do with that knowledge is up to us, but at the Heritage Crafts Association we believe that the country’s skills and practices can be just as valuable as its historic artefacts and monuments… perhaps even more so as they may offer opportunities for future generations to create their own sustainable and fulfilling livelihoods in ways we cannot yet imagine. If we allow these crafts to disappear then we seriously diminish these opportunities.”
Whilst the UK has been a world-leader in the preservation of tangible heritage (museum collections, buildings and monuments), it has fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to the safeguarding of intangible heritage (knowledge, skills and practices). It is among only 15 of 193 UNESCO members that has not yet ratified the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage, and government responsibility for heritage crafts falls in the gap between agencies set up to support arts and heritage.
Julie Crawshaw, Director of the Heritage Crafts Association, said:
“In an age of hyper-digitisation these skills can offer a viable alternative workplace and a lifestyle that can bring a sense of accomplishment and increased wellbeing. As examples of tacit knowledge that cannot easily be passed on in written form; they survive only through practice and the transmission of skill from one person to another. The Heritage Crafts Association, which is celebrating its tenth year in 2019, is dedicated to safeguarding heritage crafts skills for the benefit of everyone.”
All 212 entries featured in the Red List of Endangered Crafts 2019 edition are available to view online at http://redlist.heritagecrafts.org.uk.
About the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts
Steve Overthrow, sieve and riddle maker (photo by Daniel Carpenter)
The 2019 edition of the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts was led by Daniel Carpenter, on secondment from his doctoral research on craft heritage at the University of Exeter, and supported by the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. The project runs alongside the work of the Heritage Crafts Association’s Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis, whose post, funded by The Dulverton Trust, has been created to identify and develop interventions to improve the prospects of such crafts.
For the 2019 edition, 212 crafts have been assessed to identify those which are at greatest risk of disappearing. Of the 212 crafts featured in the research, four have been classified as extinct, 36 as critically endangered, 70 as endangered and 102 as currently viable.
Drawing on information such as the current number of craftspeople and trainees, the average age of practitioners, opportunities to learn, and other issues affecting the future of the crafts considered, the research assesses how likely it is that the craft skills will be passed on to the next generation. From armour making and arrowsmithing to wig making and woodturning, each has been assigned to one of four categories: extinct, critically endangered, endangered or currently viable.
Four crafts are known to have become extinct in the UK in the last ten years (cricket ball making, gold beating, lacrosse stick making, and paper mould and deckle making) with one more (sieve and riddle making) brought back from extinction. At the other end of the spectrum, viable crafts are defined as those for which there are sufficient craftspeople to pass on the craft skills to the next generation, though crafts in the currently viable category face real challenges and require continued monitoring.
For the purposes of this research, a heritage craft is defined as “a practice which employs manual dexterity and skill and an understanding of traditional materials, design and techniques, and which has been practised for two or more successive generations.” The research focuses on craft practices which are taking place in the UK today, including crafts which have originated elsewhere.
The 2017 Red List of Endangered Crafts, funded by The Radcliffe Trust and led by Greta Bertram, was the first to rank traditional crafts by the likelihood they would survive the next generation. It brought the plight of these skills to national attention, with coverage across national newspapers and broadcast media including Countryfile, The One Show and Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.
About the Endangered Crafts Fund
The Heritage Crafts Association’s Endangered Crafts Fund has been set up to ensure that the most at-risk heritage crafts within the UK are given the support they need to thrive. The Fund will be used to support makers and trainees who wish to develop or share their skills in the crafts that have been identified as being most at risk.
Anyone wishing to donate to the fund may do so securely online via the web link below. Alternatively, please send a cheque made payable to ‘Heritage Crafts Association’ with an accompanying note specifying ‘Endangered Crafts Fund’ to: Heritage Crafts Association, 27 South Road, Oundle, Peterborough PE8 4BU.
Delivered by Greta Bertram, HCA Secretary, at the launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts, 3 May 2017 at the House of Lords:
Photo by Lesley Butterworth
In Cambridge, where I’m lucky enough to live, we are surrounded by beautiful and historic buildings, many of which are unique. If just one of them was threatened with demolition or was allowed to fall into disrepair, people would be up in arms. There would be protests, demonstrations and it would no doubt make the national news.
Within the last ten years, we have lost four of our heritage crafts in the UK. These didn’t hit the headlines, yet these crafts are just as much a part of our rich heritage as our historical buildings. These extinct crafts include gold beating and sieve and riddle making. Only last month the Heritage Crafts Association was asked where British hand-made sieves could be bought, and the answer was, sadly, nowhere.
Historic England has a listing system for historic buildings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has a red list for endangered species. But this is the first time that anyone has looked at traditional crafts in the UK and identified those most at risk. Generously funded by The Radcliffe Trust, the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts looks at every single heritage craft taking place in the UK today, focusing on those where there is a significant reliance on hand-work and with high levels of hand skill.
We have looked at 169 crafts in total (although we’re bound to have missed some) and, after careful consideration, have assigned each craft to one of four categories: extinct, critically endangered, endangered and currently viable. Where we didn’t have enough information to make a classification, we put them into a data deficient category.
Seventeen crafts have been identified as critically endangered – this means that they’re at serious risk of becoming extinct. These crafts have very few practitioners, generally spread across just one or two businesses, and usually with no trainees learning the skills. We sincerely hope that none of these seventeen join the four that have already gone.
There is one skilled master vellum and parchment maker in the whole of the UK. There are two skilled clog makers (and there’s currently a revival in clog dancing), and four skilled horse collar makers. There are two businesses making coaches and wagons, one person making fans, and two businesses making hat blocks. There are three people marbling paper (indeed, we heard only heard about the third one last week), and only one piano manufacturer. And there are just a handful of trainees across these seventeen crafts! (All of this information is in your booklets).
So, what are the problems and challenges? Well, they are, typically, many and varied, and often connected. For some crafts it’s an ageing workforce, a shortage of training opportunities or difficulties in recruiting trainees. For others it’s a fluctuating market, competition from overseas or the unwillingness of customers to pay that little bit more for handmade British items. Some crafts have problems with the supply of raw materials and tools (think of all the timber diseases we keep hearing about) and others point out that people just don’t know they still exist. For yet more it’s the myriad obstacles that have to be overcome if you are self-employed (which nearly 80% of craftspeople are) or running a microbusiness.
Sadly there isn’t a magic bullet cure-all solution, but the research has highlighted how precarious the future of all heritage crafts are when they are in the hands of only a few skilled craftspeople.
So, now that we have identified the most critically endangered crafts, and understand more about the challenges they, along with all crafts, are facing, what next?
We feel it’s crucial for the government to clarify the role of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in supporting heritage crafts, as they do for contemporary crafts, and to make the necessary changes. For too long we have been bounced between heritage – which means historic buildings and museums – and arts – things that you can put on a shelf and admire.
In 2003 UNESCO produced a Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This focuses not on the physical things like buildings, monuments, and artefacts, but on the non-physical aspects of our heritage like traditional performing arts, festivals, and, importantly for us, craft skills. The UK is one of only 22 countries out of 194 that haven’t ratified the convention, the government saying only that ‘it isn’t their priority’.
We would like to be pro-active in ensuring those seventeen critically endangered crafts don’t become extinct, and also in preventing any other crafts from entering that category. For that, the broader issues of the heritage crafts sector need to be addressed, particularly relating to training, recruitment, and market issues. And that requires proper funding and support.
Finally, this is a significant piece of research which should not be shelved and forgotten. Like Historic England’s listed buildings register, or the red list of endangered species, The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts needs to be regularly monitored and a thorough (and funded) review conducted every 3–5 years.
We are incredibly grateful to everyone who has supplied information about the crafts, and cannot thank the Radcliffe Trust enough for funding this research, which has enabled us to shine a light on this important part of our shared cultural fabric. We sincerely hope that the Red List will serve as a starting point to encourage future interest and research into heritage crafts, and to ensure that these rich and diverse craft skills carry on into the future.
The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts 2021
The 2021 edition of the Red List was
produced by the Heritage Crafts Association
with the support of the Pilgrim Trust. We are delighted that the Pilgrim Trust have also agreed to support the 2023 edition.
From blacksmithing to basketry, from weaving to woodturning, we have an incredible range of heritage craft skills in the UK and some of the best craftspeople in the world. But many of these skills are in the hands of individuals who have been unable to make provision to pass them on.
The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, first published in 2017, was the first report of its kind to rank traditional crafts by the likelihood they would survive to the next generation, based on intangible cultural heritage safeguarding principles, led by the Heritage Crafts Association, the only UK UNESCO-accredited NGO working primarily in the domain of traditional craftsmanship.
The list attracted extensive media coverage both in the UK and abroad, shining a light on heritage craft practices under threat from a number of identifiable issues. It is our hope that this research will act as a call to action to those who have it within their power to resolve or alleviate these issues, and that this project will mark the start of long-term monitoring of heritage craft viability and a shared will to avoid the cultural loss that is borne each time a craft dies.
The HCA committed to updating the list on a regular basis, and so between September 2020 and May 2021 over 900 organisations and individuals were contacted directly by email and telephone and invited to contribute to the research. Participants were asked to provide background information about each craft, such as its history, techniques and local forms, as well as current information relating to the number of skilled craftspeople and trainees, and the ongoing issues affecting the viability of the craft. In May 2021 the second major update was published, increasing the number of crafts examined to 244, with 20 new critically endangered crafts and 7 new endangered crafts added.
Make a donation that could help save an endangered craft
Each craft was then classified into one of four categories of endangerment using a combination of both objective criteria (such as numbers of crafts people and trainees) and subjective criteria (issues affecting the future viability of the craft including training opportunities and market trends). Issues affecting the viability of heritage crafts vary on a craft-by-craft basis, though many can be grouped, and possible solutions devised that will help many crafts practices become more viable.
For the purposes of this research, a heritage craft is defined as ‘a practice which employs manual dexterity and skill and an understanding of traditional materials, design and techniques, and which has been practised for two or more successive generations’. The research focuses on craft practices which are taking place in the UK at the present time, including those crafts which have originated elsewhere, and on those aspects of each craft with a high reliance on hand-work and which involve high levels of hand skill.
If you have any queries about the research, are aware of a heritage craft that is not listed, or have further information to add about any craft, please contact email@example.com.
Photo by Simon Trueman -‘Tyring a wheel at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, Shropshire’
Wednesday 3 May 2017, 3.30pm to 5pm
Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, Westminster, London SW1A 0PW
The Heritage Crafts Association and the Radcliffe Trust shone a spotlight on the UK’s most endangered crafts at the prestigious launch of their Red List project at the House of Lords. Hosted by HCA Patron Lord Cormack, attendees met and chatted with craftspeople and cultural sector leaders at the celebration of this groundbreaking project, which we hoped would trigger a significant turning point in the country’s support for heritage craft skills
Members will be aware that we recently started work on the Radcliffe Red List, an initiative to identify endangered crafts in the UK, supported by the Radcliffe Trust. We have just launched a simplified version of the wiki website as a survey. There are only 10 short questions to complete about your craft and your responses are vital for helping us build a picture. Do please take a look!