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Issues affecting the viability of heritage crafts

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts


Issues affecting the viability of heritage crafts


Participants were invited to identify any issues they saw affecting the future viability and sustainability of their craft. The following examples were given in the questionnaire sent to participants (with more detailed examples given on the wiki): market issues, training and recruitment issues, shortages of raw materials, and lack of demand for products/skills. However, this was essentially an open question rather than one where participants were asked to select issues from a defined list.

While the responses were wide-ranging, and in some cases contradicted each other, several key themes emerged, as described below. Many of the issues affected crafts across the spectrum, and not just those that have been identified as ‘critically endangered’. Please note that the responses do not necessarily correspond to the views of Heritage Crafts.





Many crafts discussed issues around training and the general lack of training opportunities, be it formal or informal training. This included the quality of training and lack of standards, qualifications and accreditation in training. The prohibitive cost of training for the trainer was also raised, along with other barriers for those looking to take on trainees.

Particular issues mentioned included:

  • The loss of traditional methods of skills transmission, such as apprenticeships and intra-family transmission.
  • The closure of further and higher education courses, and a loss of focus on the practical skills of making within the surviving courses – be it a shift from making to learning about design and theory, a shift from traditional techniques and materials to modern alternatives, or a shift from making from scratch to restoration. Even when courses do exist, they are often felt by the craft to provide insufficient training.
  • The prevalence of short courses as the only training opportunity, often only lasting one or two days. This can lead to the loss of the most high-level craft skills due to trainees only learning the basic skills or only learning one particular aspect of the craft that can be taught in such a short space of time.
  • The quality of training opportunities, particularly short courses, which may be taught by craftspeople who have had very little training themselves. This is compounded by the fact that there is no standard for many crafts, meaning it is hard for potential trainees to rate the quality of the teaching.
  • The lack of certificates and formal qualifications for many crafts, which are indicative of high quality training and of standards of practise within the craft. In some cases, this is due to the number of potential students not being high enough for an awarding body to deem a qualification financially viable.
  • The cost of training for the trainer in taking on a trainee – in terms of both money and time – and the lack of funding to support this, which prohibits craftspeople from taking on trainees. This is exacerbated by the fact that many craftspeople operate in microbusinesses or as sole traders.
  • The cost of training for the trainee, both for formal qualifications and short courses, can restrict the type of person who is able to undertake the training and reduce the total number of trainees.
  • Some crafts are very difficult to teach and require a long time to gain competency, making the transference of skills particularly problematic.



Issues relating to recruitment focused mainly on the recruitment of trainees and new entrants to the craft, and are therefore strongly connected to the training issues identified in Section 5.1.

Particular issues mentioned included:

  • A lack of awareness that the craft exists as a career option, or a lack of awareness of career opportunities within the sector. This is compounded by a shortage or complete lack of craft-oriented career advice in schools.Difficulties in recruiting younger trainees, either through not being able to attract younger people or not being able to find young people considered to be ‘suitable’ for the role. For some crafts, the majority of those interested in taking up the craft are in middle-age or retirement.
  • Difficulties in finding trainees with the appropriate skills and experience, such as basic woodworking and metalworking skills. This is partly due to a lack of making in schools, particularly the closure of woodworking and metalworking departments, exacerbated by what was described as ‘the drive for academic outcomes and a loss of focus on the vocational in mainstream education.’ In other cases it is due to the inadequacy of existing training, or the fact that the skills required are very niche.
  • An unwillingness for people to enter into a career where it is very difficult to make a living. Similarly, some craftspeople felt it was unfair to encourage newcomers into a craft where they would be unable to make a living.
  • Retention issues of trainees and of those who have completed their training, including a lack of employment opportunities for those who have completed their training.
  • For some crafts, while short courses are very popular, very few people go on to take the craft further.


Ageing workforce

Many crafts raised the issue of an ageing skilled workforce, with few or no younger people entering the craft. In some cases, the youngest known craftsperson may be in their 50s or 60s. See Section 5.2 for some of the possible reasons behind this.


Loss of craft skills

Concerns were raised over the loss of high-level skills within crafts and allied crafts. This may be due to a changing focus within the way the craft is practised, teaching methods, or the introduction of new technologies within the wider craft.

Particular issues mentioned included:

  • In some crafts, there are very few professional practitioners working to a high standard and the craft is dominated by non-professional practitioners. This is not to say that the skill level is low, but it can have an impact on how frequently the craft is practised or the way in which is practised.
  • A loss of skills due to a shift in focus from making from scratch to repair, restoration or conservation.
  • A loss of skills due to the focus on a particular set of skills or way of making.
  • A loss of skills due to teaching being undertaken by people who do not have much experience themselves, and who therefore pass on lower-level skills.
  • A loss or change of skills due to a shift in teaching from traditional techniques and materials to modern alternatives. This can then be self-perpetuating, when the teaching is done by people who have only ever learned these alternative methods.
  • The lack of a standard within the craft, making it hard for potential trainees to rate the quality of the teaching.
  • A general loss of skills within the craft, perhaps resulting from a fall in demand leading to the craft being practised less regularly, or from the mechanisation of production and the increased use of technology, such as CNC machines and digital printing.
  • A shortage of skills within allied crafts, such as a shortage of people who can make moulds for papermaking, or who can make the keys for woodwind instruments.


Market issues

Market issues related to demand for the product, the (un)willingness of customers to pay higher prices for hand-made British-made products, competition from overseas, and the difficulties of earning a living from the craft alone. However, diversification of products and income streams was cited as a way of overcoming some of these challenges.

Particular issues mentioned included:

  • Falling demand or a decreasing market for the product. In some cases, this is due to a lack of awareness from potential customers that the craft exists.
  • Fluctuating demand for the product, as some crafts are affected by changing tastes and fashions, such as wallpaper making or wood turning.
  • Limited demand for the product, either because it is has only ever had a limited demand/market, or has been very niche for a long time, such as armour and helmet making.
  • Some crafts felt that the demand for the product was there and that the market does exist, but that time was needed to develop the market (which was time taken away from making) or that alternative products and new markets have already been found. The rise in popularity of re-enactment and living history was cited in several crafts.
  • Low demand for a hand-made, British-made version of the product, the cost of which is seen by many to be off-putting to potential customers. This is compounded by a lack of understanding of the time, effort and skill which go into craft work and account for the perceived high-cost of an item.
  • A lack of awareness by potential customers of the differences between ‘hand-made’ and ‘mass-manufactured’, between ‘assembled’ and ‘manufactured’, between ‘made’ and ‘finished’, and between ‘brand’ and ‘manufacturer’.
  • A lack of awareness by potential customers of the difference between high quality and poor quality craft products. The internet was cited as exacerbating this issue by enabling practitioners to make a business look very professional, even if the crafts skills are not very high.
  • Competition from overseas, mostly, but not exclusively, from the Far East and Eastern Europe, and the inability to compete with cheap imports from abroad – both with hand-made and mass-manufactured products. It appears that many UK businesses accept that they cannot compete on price, and therefore focus on offering a higher quality product – although the improving quality of imports was also raised.
  • The difficulty of earning a living from the craft alone – perhaps due to the price the product can be sold for, the time taken to make the product, or the lack of demand for the product. Craftspeople may circumvent this by diversifying their income streams, either through other activities such as teaching or writing, by making other products (for example, besom makers may also make hurdles and charcoal), by selling both hand-made and machine-made products, or by selling both British-made and foreign-made products.
  • The rise of internet shopping was cited as both a problem and a benefit to crafts. Internet shopping is believed to have made customers impatient, meaning that they are not prepared to wait for a hand-made and sometimes custom-made item, and has driven customers to focus on price rather than quality. However, the internet has enabled craftspeople to market themselves much widely, including internationally.


Supply of raw materials, allied materials and tool

Some crafts are affected by the availability and cost of raw materials, allied materials and tools. Certain crafts, such as brick making, chair caning, cricket bat making, split cane rod making and tile making, rely on very specific materials, so if anything happens to that supply then the future of the craft may be severely affected.

Particular issues mentioned included:

  • A shortage of raw materials due to diseases affecting timber (ash die-back, Dutch elm disease, sudden oak death syndrome etc.) or legislation affecting the import of certain plant and animal products.
  • The (rising) cost of raw materials, particularly for small businesses which cannot buy in bulk. This was considered likely to become more of an issue post-Brexit.
  • A shortage of allied materials, such as coke for blacksmithing, and coal for firing bricks and tiles.
  • A shortage of tools and equipment, which limit the number of people who can practise a craft. In some cases, alternative equipment has been found – although this may result in a change in the way the craft is practised.


Small business issues

The small business issues identified in this research hold true for many crafts, although were only specifically stated in a few cases – the impression being that they were true for all small businesses and not specific to craft businesses. This is hardly surprising given the make-up of the sector – research conducted in 2012 showed that 78% of those working in heritage crafts in England are self-employed.

Particular issues mentioned included:

  • An increasing bureaucratic burden for small businesses such as insurance, health and safety legislation, pensions requirements etc. This was viewed as time taken away from making, and therefore earning an income, and also as time taken away from developing the business and developing new markets.
  • The need for business skills as well as craft skills.
  • Challenges of passing on a craft business, which often requires finding someone with business acumen and capital as well as the necessary craft skills.
  • Business rates and the cost of affordable workshops, especially for London-based craftspeople or those whose crafts require a large space.


Miscellaneous issues

Other issues include:

  • Legislation which affects specific crafts – perhaps due to certain plants and animals being listed in the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), legislation relating to finished products such as knives and guns, or legislation relating to materials and their components.
  • A lack of awareness from architects, conservation officers and surveyors etc. of the need and reason to specify the use of particular building skills to preserve the authenticity of the historic built environment.
  • Changing methods of working, such as from trade/workshop production to individual designer-makers, has affected the way a craft is practised and the skills involved.
  • Funding cuts to allied industries, such as cuts to arts funding and the loss of orchestras which affect musical instrument making.
  • Some crafts identified the lack of data about their craft as being a problem.