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Five new grants awarded to help save endangered crafts from extinction

Gillian Stewart

Gillian Stewart, bookbinder and fore-edge painter

A coppersmith, a withy pot maker and a disappearing fore-edge painter 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 has begun work on the third edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, has awarded a further five grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 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 Swire Charitable Trust. The five successful recipients are:

  • Lizzy Hughes, from London, to develop her coppersmithing skills to include joinery, so that she’s able to make objects constructed from multiple parts such as buckets, watering cans and funnels, and to teach the craft.
  • Sarah Ready, from Devon, to develop her practice as a withy pot maker, producing pots for her son to fish with off the Devon coast, and to document the craft.
  • Gillian Stewart, from Glasgow, to expand her bookbinding practice by training as a disappearing fore-edge painter, and to teach the craft.
  • Alex Ward, from Shetland, to develop his furniture making business to incorporate the production of moulding planes for fine furniture making, and to teach the craft of plane making.
  • Lois Walpole, from Shetland, to publish a book on the critically endangered craft of kishie basket making.
Alex Ward's moulding plane

Alex Ward’s moulding plane

These five projects follow 13 awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as scissor making, sail making, damask weaving, boot tree making, cockle basket making, folding knife making, neon bending, coracle making, fan making and swill basket making.

As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and this was only compounded by the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sole traders and micro-businesses that make up the heritage crafts sector. 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:

“No-one could have anticipated the impact of COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, not only on craft businesses, whose selling, teaching and supply chains have been curtailed, but on the craft skills themselves, many of which were on the brink even before the pandemic hit. We passionately believe that these skills have lots to offer a post-COVID future, as productive and fulfilling tools with which to rebuild a sustainable economy.”

The Endangered Crafts Fund has been funded through generous donations from organisations including Allchurches Trust, The Swire Charitable 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:

“We hope that our funding will help enable these talented craftspeople to further develop their skills, as well as to hand them down to future generations and share their craft with new audiences; potentially opening doors to new funding opportunities in these challenging times. We feel privileged 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 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.

Read the full press release

Northern Isles basket making

The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Northern Isles basket making (kishies and caisies)

 

The making of various items from straw and other plants in the twined technique, especially the back-baskets kishie (Shetland) and caisie (Orkney), traditionally used to fetch peats.

 

Status Critically endangered
Craft category Straw
Historic area of significance Shetland, Orkney and Caithness.
Area currently practised Shetland
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income) 0
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
1-5
Current no. of trainees 2
Current total no. serious amateur makers
2-3
Current total no. of leisure makers
11-20
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

The kessi (phonetically, kishie) of Shetland and the caisie of Orkney is a twined back basket usually made of straw and common rush (Juncus effusus).  Other plants were used, especially marram (Ammophila arenaria) and dock (Rumex longifolius).  The tradition, unique in the British Isles, was a consequence of the local ecology, where there were few durable materials for basketmaking, as well as a dearth of timber.   Baskets were used to carry a multitude of things – especially peat – and they were used on the backs of packhorses, or borne by humans.  The name kessi is a reflection of the Norse heritage of the Northern Isles and comes from the Norwegian kjessa and Icelandic kassi.

Techniques

Kishie making requires preparing the materials: harvesting, thrashing and cleaning the straw; cutting and drying the rush or marram.  Making involves hand-twisting a rope of (approximately 27 metres if making a kishie); weaving the basket by twining the rope round bunches of straw or dock; stitching a border with a home-made needle; trimming and singeing the basket.

 

Local forms

The form was quite similar across the region, and the appearance differed little across makers.  The baskets and other items were never made commercially, but by the farmers themselves, so quality could range from quite rough to superb craftsmanship.   The standard shape of basket was vee-profile, but some makers preferred a conical form, and in some contexts a flat profile was desired.  Being functional on a farm, but made from relatively impermanent materials, meant baskets were not expected to survive beyond a few years’ use (twined productions in other contexts, like items in seasonal use or for indoor architecture, could survive much longer).

 

Sub-crafts

Specialist baskets were made for such tasks as gathering eggs from sea-cliffs, storing salt, or keeping fishing bait.  The same twined technique was used to make other items such as fish traps, winnowing mats, building partitions, masquerade costumes.  All these constructions used the twining method, with variation seen through the choice of plant and the shape of the finished object.

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

Many of the activities these basketry crafts were used for are no longer done.  Where tasks are still carried out that formerly used basketry constructions, mass-produced products are employed instead.  There is little demand for such objects, because they were functional, not decorative.  Availability of material is an issue concerning the straw; grain cultivation has declined (especially in Shetland), and black oats have virtually disappeared.   Farmers aren’t inclined to grow this crop, and prospective basketmakers cannot buy material: as in the past, a maker must be a grower.   The last generation that made twined basketry through unbroken ethnographic tradition is now gone; the only people with knowledge have learned it through a tuition setting.  The skills are readily transferable, but this Medieval tradition is virtually extinct.

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Ewen Balfour
  • Lois Walpole
  • Ian Tait – Shetland Museum and Archive
  • Helen Balfour – trainee

There are a lot of people who have done a course with Ewen and maybe they make them on an occasional basis.

 

Other information

Shetland Museum and Archives (Dr Ian Tait) is actively encouraging growth of black oats (Avena strigosa) for use in thatching.  Aets have been supplied to them this year. This will help to preserve growing raw materials which could also be used in basketmaking.

Lois Walpole is currently writing a book about Shetland straw craft that will include kishie making.

 

References