A coppersmith, a Highland thatcher and a trainee sailmaker are among the recipients of a new round of grants to help safeguard some of UK’s most endangered craft skills.
Heritage Crafts has awarded the grants through its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of at-risk craft skills surviving into the next generation. Five of this round’s grants are funded by The Radcliffe Trust and were selected with special consideration of the impact of the energy crisis on our most vulnerable crafts.
In 2021 Heritage Crafts published the third edition of its groundbreaking Red List of Endangered Crafts, the first research of its kind to rank the UK’s traditional crafts by the likelihood that they will survive into the next generation. The report assessed 244 crafts to ascertain those which are at greatest risk of disappearing, of which four were classified as extinct, 74 as ‘endangered’ and a further 56 as ‘critically endangered’. A new edition will be published on 11 May 2023.
The seven successful recipients are:
- Scot AnSgeulaiche from Perthshire, to train an apprentice in the craft of Highlands and Islands thatching and encourage the use of locally-grown thatching materials.
- Birgit Frietman and Robyn Smith from London, to set up a hub for horn working in London and reduce their carbon footprint by completing more processes in-house.
- James Slaven from Glasgow, to train in sailmaking with Mark Shiner and set up a workshop at the GalGael Trust making and repairing sails and repurposing old sailcloth.
- Steve Hogarth from Derbyshire, to add the skills of leadworking and flint masonry to his steeplejack business, maintaining the usefulness of traditional buildings without the impact of scaffolding.
- Samantha Dennis from Shetland, to catalogue and replicate historical coiled baskets of Shetland and create a market for small crofters to sell locally-grown oat straw.
- John Wills from Northamptonshire, to set up a tinsmithing and coppersmithing workshop that will also provide teaching, using renewable charcoal to heat the traditional soldering coppers.
- Nicholas Konradsen from Lincolnshire, to research and make Lincolnshire bagpipes in a new workshop with more energy-efficient equipment.
These seven projects follow 50 others awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as clockmaking, tinsmithing, kiltmaking and many more. Along with The Radcliffe Trust, which has been the major funder in this round, other funders have included The Sussex Heritage Trust, The Pilgrim Trust, The Dulverton Trust, The Swire Charitable Trust and others, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds.
As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and Heritage Crafts hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.
Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager, said:
“The current energy crisis means that our craft skills are at more risk than ever before. We are delighted to be working in partnership with the Radcliffe Trust and other funders to address the specific challenges being faced by endangered crafts practitioners at this time.”
View the full list of the 57 grants awarded to date
Coiled straw basket making
The making of coiled straw baskets from wheat or oat straw, bound together with split bramble, string or other cordage, also known as lipwork. See also bee skep making, Orkney chair making, Fair Isle chair making and kishie making.
|Historic area of significance
|Orkney, Shetland, Scotland, Wales
|Area currently practised
|Orkney & Shetland
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Coiled straw baskets emerged from a need to provide a wide variety of containers for domestic and agricultural purposes. Straw was a readily available and low-cost raw material that was used to make robust baskets. They would have been made all over the UK but they are particularly associated with Scotland and Wales.
Lip work baskets, as they are known in England, are now virtually extinct outside Orkney and Shetland but a similar technique is used for making traditional skeps for beekeeping.
In Orkney and Shetland, straw is widely used as a basketry material because other traditional basketry crops, such as willow or coppice wood, are not readily available. Oat straw is a commonly used material but baskets would also have been made from marram grass, docken stalks (dock) and other local materials.
Orkney coiled straw work – the making of coiled baskets and chair backs are often done by the same craftspeople. They are now mostly made as a hobby and to create family heirlooms such as Moses’ baskets and chairs for new homes. Straw work is enjoying a modest revival with more young people getting involved in evening classes.
Shetland coiled straw work – Jimmy Work was a well-known coiled straw basket maker in Shetland who recently passed away in his 90s. In his retirement he made a great number of high-quality straw baskets that can still be found in many homes in Shetland. Although he is often considered to be the last maker of these baskets, he did pass the skills on to Mark Maudsley and Samantha Dennis who both continue to make baskets in their spare time. Mark recalls that Jimmy treated basket making as a full-time occupation until his final illness prevented him from continuing, which meant that he made and sold a considerable number of baskets in his later years.
Coiled straw work is a basketry technique where wheat, rye or oat straw is made into coils and then bound into shape with strips of bramble, cane, string or other cordage.
Coiled straw was used for a wide range of baskets and bee skeps but also for chairs and chair backs.
There are variations on the forms and the materials used. Shetland and Orkney baskets were made from oat straw, rush, marram grass and bent grass. Welsh lip work was usually wheat straw.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Access to raw materials – black oats and other heritage straw varieties are no longer widely grown in the UK. It can be difficult to source the right materials.
Lack of demand – the traditional uses for these baskets have disappeared. They are now mostly made as family heirlooms and gifts.
Labour intensive to make and so it is difficult to make a profit selling straw baskets.
The Basketmakers Association
Scottish Basketmakers Circle
Stromness Museum, Orkney
Shetland Museum & Archives
Craftspeople currently known
- Keith Colsell, Orkney
- Billy Fotheringham, Orkney – has baskets stocked in The New Craftsman
- Elsie Wishart – Dounby Straw Working Group, Orkney
- Joan Whitelaw – Dounby Straw Working Group, Orkney
- Alistair Harcus – Dounby Straw Working Group, Orkney
- Felicity Truscott – made some baskets for The New Craftsman from a design by Annemarie O’Sullivan
- Mark Maudsley, Shetland (learned from Jimmy Work)
- Samantha Dennis, Shetland (learned from Jimmy Work)
Jimmy Work was a Shetland basket maker who died recently.
The Dounby Straw Working group is an evening group who get together to make baskets and straw work for Orkney Chairs. There is also an evening class in Kirkwall.
- Woven Communities, How to make a coiled basket
- Between Islands, Makers’ Stories
- Ceredigion County Council, museum collection
- Jenkins, J Geraint, (1965), ‘A Cardiganshire Lip-worker’, Folk Life, 3, pp. 88-89
- Park, Janette (2017) Simmans and Sookans and Straw Backed Chairs (Orkney Arts, Museums and Heritage), pp 21-26