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Posthumous BEM for Brian Alcock leads six heritage crafts Honours

Broian Alcock BEMThe family of the late master hand grinder Brian Alcock have received a posthumous British Empire Medal in the King’s Birthday Honours in recognition of his service to the Sheffield cutlery trade and heritage crafts.

Brian, who passed away less than three weeks ago, was one of six makers nominated by Heritage Crafts to receive national honours, alongside clockmaker David Poole MBE, boatbuilder Ronald John Maclean MBE, blacksmithing trainer Delyth Done MBE, marbler and woodgrainer Robert Woodland MBE, and knitwear designer Jeanette Sloan BEM, in recognition of their unparalleled craftsmanship and tireless work in ensuring their skills are passed on to current and future generations.

The six were nominated for this year’s Birthday Honours, following 24 previously successful nominations from Heritage Crafts since 2013. In May, the charitable organisation – which was set up in 2009 to support and champion traditional craft skills – published the fourth edition of its groundbreaking Red List of Endangered Crafts, the only report of its kind to rank UK craft skills by the likelihood they will survive into the next generation.

Heritage Crafts was deeply saddened to learn of Brian Alcock BEM’s passing on 30 May. As a jobbing grinder working up to a week before his death, Brian was an unparalleled repository of knowledge and skill in the craft of hand grinding. He exemplified the honest work ethic of a skilled master craftsman, and even at the age of 81 he would work 40 hours a week, starting at 6.30am each morning through all four seasons. No job was too small for him; even putting an edge on a simple pocket knife was handled with the care and concentration of a man who relished the craft he had learnt so well.

What set Brian apart was how freely he shared his knowledge and skill. Five years ago founding Heritage Crafts Chair Robin Wood MBE was concerned that once Brian stopped he would have nobody to grind axes for his growing business, and that this important part of Sheffield’s cultural heritage could be lost. At this point Brian offered to train Robin’s apprentice Zak Wolstenholme. He had been passing his knowledge of how to grind tools and maintain the machinery to Zak, free of charge, right up until his passing. Zak admired him greatly and he had become a very significant life mentor.

Thankfully, Brian learned of his forthcoming honour before he died, knowing the esteem in which he was held. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

David Poole MBE has been clock maker of the highest standard for over forty years. He has made critical contributions to horological education, establishing remote learning, support and examinations through the British Horological Institute and organising apprenticeships through the George Daniels Educational Trust. Between 2016 and 2019 David set up the Watchmakers Trailblazer Apprenticeship Scheme, one of the first of its kind under the government-backed initiative to promote craft apprenticeships, overcoming many obstacles with devotion and total service.

Ronald John MacLean MBE represents an unbroken line of boat builders who, over 150 years, have provided as many as one thousand workboats to the island communities of the Hebrides. He has preserved an entire style of vernacular boat building (the Grimsay workboat of Scotland) through his craft skills, teaching and interpretation of the tradition. He has designed accredited courses in Traditional Boatbuilding Skills, and with his gifts as a teacher devised a curriculum to transmit the Grimsay boat tradition through Gaelic boatbuilding terminology.

Delyth Done MBE has been unparalleled throughout the past decade in ensuring that the next generation of blacksmiths have the high-level skills they need. As head of the blacksmithing degree programme at Hereford College of Arts for over ten years, she has been directly responsible for improving the training standards so that graduates are recognised and sought after as employees by master blacksmiths around the world.

Robert Woodland MBE is one of the most highly-skilled ornamental artists, woodgrainers and marblers in the UK today. His work can be seen in a variety of buildings across the country, including the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Tower of London, Grand Lodge, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Kensington Palace, Bagshot Park and the Mandarin Hotel. Robert has a passion to keep his trade alive and shares his knowledge openly with students from around the world, enthusiastically demonstrating his craft whenever he has a chance.

Jeanette Sloan BEM is one of the most prominent and successful Black knitwear designers in the UK today, and has done a huge amount to promote and celebrate the contribution of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to British textile crafts. Among a career of achievements, she devoted her time and expertise, unpaid, to found the ‘BIPOC in Fibre’ project, to celebrate and raise awareness of the contribution of BIPOC to British textile design.

Heritage Crafts Executive Director Daniel Carpenter said:

“We are thrilled that six of our nominations have been recognised in this the first Birthday Honours of King Charles III’s reign. Having traditional craftspeople up there with other great luminaries of public life in this way is vitally important, as UK is still one of only 12 of the 193 UNESCO member states yet to ratify the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage.”

Heritage Crafts encourages anyone who supports the continuation of traditional craft skills, whether or not they are makers themselves, to become Heritage Crafts members via its website

The charity has set up an Endangered Crafts Fund to provide small grants to projects that increase the likelihood of endangered craft skills surviving into the next generation, and is currently seeking donations to save more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion – visit to find out more and to donate


Currently viable crafts




The making of textiles and garments by manipulating yarn into loops using needles. (See also crochet)


Status Currently viable
Historic area of significance UK
Area currently practised UK
Origin in the UK



Knitting has gone into and out of fashion many times in the last two centuries, and in the twenty-first century has enjoyed a revival. The latest reincarnation is more about making a statement about individuality, as well as developing an innate sense of community, and less about the make-do-and-mend of the 1940s and 50s. Many contemporary knitters have an interest in blogging about their knitting, patterns and techniques. There are now numerous groups that are not only growing individually, but also forming wider communities. Communities also exist online, with blogs being very popular, alongside online groups and social networking, where people can share tips and techniques, run competitions, and share their patterns.



Knitting is a method by which thread or yarn may be turned into cloth by pulling loops (called stitches) through each other. The active stitches are held on a needle until another loop can be passed through them.

There are numerous styles and methods of knitting. In knitting certain articles of clothing, especially larger ones like sweaters, the final knitted garment will be made of several knitted pieces, with individual sections of the garment knitted separately and then sewn together. Seamless knitting, where a whole garment is knitted as a single piece, is also possible. Different yarns and knitting needles may be used to achieve different end products, by giving the final piece different colour, texture or weight.


Local forms




Shetland lace hand knitting: Shetland lace is an extremely delicate knitted fabric made with soft Shetland wool spun into very fine yarn and knitted into intricate patterns. Shetland lace is traditionally made with wool taken from the throats of native sheep as this is considered to be the finest. The wool is hand carded or brushed between a pair of wooden paddles covered on one side with small metal teeth or tines, and then spun into a gossamer thread. For really fine Shetland lace, the spinner will spin only one strand. For two-ply lace, two strands are twisted together. There are many classic Shetland lace stitches such as old shell, razor shell, bead, feather and fan, fern, trailing leaf, spider diamond and rose diamond.Shetland lace was the mainstay of the Shetland knitwear industry during the nineteenth century. Arthur Anderson, one of the founders of P&O Shipping Company, introduced Shetland shawls to Queen Victoria and from there it became fashionable for ladies to wear Shetland shawls and stockings.

Fair Isle hand knitting: A knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colours, traditional to Fair Isle and the Shetland Islands in Scotland. Traditional Fair Isle patterns have a limited palette of five or so colours, use only two colours per row, are worked in the round, and limit the length of a run of any particular colour. A highly successful crowd-funded project launched in 2015, Shetland Peerie Makkers, is working to safeguard Shetland hand-knitting.

Traditional glove knitting: The craft of knitting gloves by hand to traditional patterns, particularly the Sanquhar glove from Dumfriesshire, which has a distinctive two colour pattern. The Sanquhar glove is characterised by the use of fine wool, two colours (most commonly, black and white or yellow and brown), and small all-over patterns. Other features include the cuff, knitted in two colours, the initials of the wearer above the cuff, and the sharply-shaped thumb gusset. Today, Sanquhar gloves are not made on a commercial basis but knitting as a leisure activity is huge. They are knitted for sale by about six women in Sanquhar itself (including May McCormick, A’ the Airts, and the Upper Nithsdale Community), and by people all over the world but not usually for sale.

Machine knitting: Many knitwear makers and designers will use hand knitting machines to create all or part of garments. In Shetland, for example, sweaters are often part machine knitted and then have a hand-knitted colourwork cowl added.


Issues affecting the viability of the craft



Support organisations


Craftspeople currently known



Other information

Number of craftspeople: Knitting is a hugely popular craft, mostly undertaken on an amateur/hobby basis but often to an extremely high level. Very few people make their living through hand knitting.

Loraine McClean runs diploma courses in knitting.