Apprentice sailmaker Matt. Photo copyright Ratsey & Lapthorne.
An apprentice sail maker, boot tree maker and folding knife maker are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), which last year published the second edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, has awarded a further eight grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in July 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.
This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from Allchurches Trust and The Radcliffe Trust. The eight successful recipients are:
- Ratsey & Lapthorne – to train an apprentice sail maker to craftsman level while making sails for a historic yacht (Isle of Wight).
- Horace Batten – to train an apprentice boot tree maker who will go on to work in-house at the boot making firm (Northamptonshire).
- Michael May – to equip his folding knife making apprentice with the tools he needs to learn all aspects of the trade (Sheffield).
- Justine Burgess – to train in Teifi and Tywi coracle making so that she can pass on the skills to others (Carmarthen).
- Eve Eunson – to record the skills of Fair Isle straw back chair making in a film that can be used to train others (Shetland).
- Coates Willow – to forge new tools for an apprentice working with one of the last practicing basketwork furniture makers (Somerset).
- Tom Boulton – to do a feasibility study into creating new wooden type for letterpress printing using CNC machining (West Sussex).
- Lorna Singleton – to buy a boiler and swiller’s mares (a special type of shave horse) to enable her to teach oak swill basket making to small groups (Cumbria).
Oak swill basket. Photo copyright Lorna Singleton.
These eight projects follow five awarded in the previous round, covering the endangered crafts of scissor making, damask weaving, cockle basket making, neon bending and fan making. Again the fund was massively oversubscribed and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.
HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis said:
“When we first published the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts the task of safeguarding so many at-risk skills seemed overwhelming. Thanks to the support of our donors and funders like Allchurches Trust and The Radcliffe Trust we now have thirteen projects underway, but there is still so much to do to ensure that future generations can continue to benefit from this important part of our culture.”
The Endangered Crafts Fund has been set up thanks to a number of generous donations from organisations including Allchurches Trust and The Radcliffe Trust, as well as individuals, who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds.
Paul Playford, who heads up the heritage grants programme at Allchurches Trust, said:
“It’s fascinating to see the wide range of endangered craftspeople and places that are represented in the latest Endangered Crafts Fund cohort, and we’re proud that our funding will help ensure that these at-risk crafts can be handed down, along with the tools and training needed to enable their protection in the longer term. We’re looking forward to hearing more from these skilled craftspeople as they develop their skills and hope to play our part in telling their story, raising awareness of ancient practices that are so important to preserve for future generations and hopefully inspiring others to follow their lead.”
The HCA has also announced that its President HRH The Prince of Wales has established a new award for endangered crafts. Each year the President’s Award for Endangered Crafts will present £3,000 to a heritage craftsperson who will use the funding to ensure that craft skills are passed on. The Award will be presented at a special reception at Dumfries House, home of The Prince’s Foundation, as well as at a prestigious winners’ reception at the Houses of Parliament. Applications are invited via www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/presidentsaward by Friday 1 May 2020.
The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time – for more information visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf. Applications for grants are accepted on a rolling basis, with the next deadline for consideration 28 August 2020.
Fair Isle straw back chair making
The making of Fair Isle chairs with a wooden base and a straw back, similar to the Orkney chair but with distinctly different frame construction and a unique technique of straw work created through knotting rather than stitching rows of straw (see also chair making, Orkney chair making, kishie making and straw working).
|Historic area of significance
|Fair Isle, Shetland
|Area currently practised
|Fair Isle; Lerwick, Shetland
|Origin in the UK
|Probably mid 19th century, although this is difficult to verify.
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|7 (working with Eve Eunson learning the knotted straw
technique as part of winter straw workshop held at Shetland
Museum and Archives)
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
There was a strong tradition of chair making (all types) in Fair Isle throughout the 1800s, continuing in to the early 20th century and probably extending from much earlier, though it is hard to date examples. For a period, chair making on the island was done for commercial as well as creative purposes and was potentially as important an industry for the men of the isle as knitting was for the women, although there is little proof of commercial production other than oral history.
The chair bases were made of a jointed and pinned timber frame of a variety of timber types. No locally-grown timber was available and all timber construction on the island was from wood salvaged from the sea – either as parts of ships or as cargoes lost overboard or during a wreck.
The straw backs were then formed on the chair bases from lengths of cleaned straw or ‘gloy’. This was historically the bi-product of the oat crop and was used for all manner of day to day items including thatched roofs, ropes and baskets. The straw in Fair Isle straw backs is secured by tightly knotting (rather than stitching) cotton fishing line, which was more readily available than sisal or bent grass since the island’s primary income at that time was through fishing. This knotting technique is unusual in straw work of the Northern Isles and has not been identified in other straw backed chairs in the area.
There are some very clear features that can identify a Fair Isle made chair from those produced in neighbouring areas of Orkney and Shetland. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the straw backed chairs, which differ significantly from Orkney chairs; not only by a very different method of construction in their timber frame but also in a very different straw working technique – using a knotting system, rather than stitching.
There was a strong tradition of chair making (all types) in Fair Isle throughout the 1800s, continuing in to the early 20th century and probably extending from much earlier, though it is hard to date examples. The predecessors of the straw backed chairs were the simple side chairs and grander armchairs – both of which boast unique details which clearly differentiate them from their neighbours in Orkney and Shetland.
There are some amateur makers and one professional maker of Shetland chairs, but none whom make the Fair Isle styles. In Orkney, the chair makers are focused entirely on the popular straw backed style and do not recreate the other styles today.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- The most skilled practitioner is in his 70s and suffering from poor health.
- Falling population on Fair Isle means there are limited potential makers available to learn the craft in its native local. One person who had learned the skills has since moved on – a common issue on the island, where people immerse themselves in the island for a few years and then decide its not for them
- There is currently no one on Fair Isle who is taking up the craft as a business
- The physical isolation of Fair Isle and poor internet provision provide particular challenges to craft business in terms of sales, marketing and transport of raw materials and finished product.
- Shetland black oats for straw backs is becoming exceptionally hard to come by as so few people grow it due to the challenging growing climate.
FAIR ISLE CHAIRS IN SHETLAND
- Eve Eunson intended to start production of Fair Isle Chairs for sale, however, but the down- turn in tourism and cancellation of exhibitions due to COVID19 has meant limited sales opportunities
and difficulty in accessing workshop. This led Eve to return to her architectural career to subsidise furniture making. The challenge now is juggling time between the two lines of work. To address this, Eve has started teaching winter workshops in straw techniques to pass on the knotted straw skills for the chair backs. The hope is that some of the new straw workers will be interested in progressing from baskets to chair backs and using these skills to complete furniture commissions.
- Shetland Museum and Archive
Craftspeople currently known
- Stewart Thomson – In the early 1990s one craftsman, Stewart Thomson (junior), revived the straw backed chair making tradition on the Isle. Stewart initially set up his furniture workshop with a redundancy payment form the Norther Lighthouse Board. He saw the potential of the revival of the Fair Isle Strawback Chair as a significant contribution to Fair Isle’s economy. Until recent years, Stewart was the sole practitioner of the craft and has made around 90 straw backed chairs since he began. Stewart now only makes chairs as a hobby and for special commissions. Stewart based his chairs on an example made by his grandfather and later adapted the timber frame to his own design, while still using the traditional knotted straw technique in the backs. He also grows and hand harvests his own Shetland black oats for the straw backs. Now in his 70s, Stewart suffers from severe arthritis and other medical conditions, which have severely limited the number of chairs he is producing – he has made one in the past year.
- Eve Eunson – has been training with Stewart Thomson and is now setting up a workshop in Shetland. Eve also completed significant first-hand research by surveying all existing examples of the Fair Isle Strawback and recording them as part of her Fair Isle Chairs Project.
- Bob Worrall made Fair Isle chairs, as well as other wooden items such as spinning wheels, but has left Fair Isle and given up on the traditional crafts
- A Winter Straw Workshop is running this winter 2022/23 at Shetland Museum and Archives. Three groups will run simultaneously, covering knotted straw, stitched straw and kishie making. Over 60 people noted interest in the straw crafts, with an initial group of 7 focusing on the knotted technique.
Eve Eunson is currently researching and recording ALL existing examples of chairs made on Fair Isle, with some limited financial support through the Shetland Amenity Trust. This information is likely to be published in due course and her research notes will be made available at the Shetland Museum and Archives.