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Five grants awarded to help save endangered crafts

Richard Wheater teaching the craft of neon bending.

Richard Wheater teaching the craft of neon bending. Photo © Richard Wheater.

A new mobile facility to teach neon bending and the restoration of one of the last surviving damask looms are among the projects that have recently received funds to help ensure a better future for some of the UK’s most endangered crafts.

The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), which earlier this year published the latest edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, has awarded the first five grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, launched in July 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.

The first five recipients of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund are:

  • Grace Horne, scissor maker – to create dies for the production of hot drop-forged scissor blanks that can be used by Grace and other makers to produce bespoke scissors.
  • Deborah White, damask weaver – to restore and use a loom to teach damask weaving to a new generation of weavers.
  • Clare Revera, basket maker – to develop and teach a Level 3 City & Guilds course on rare and endangered basket making skills at Westhope College.
  • Richard Wheater, neon bender – to build a mobile neon bombarding and vacuum facility to teach neon bending to beginners and intermediate trainees.
  • Kate Colin, fan maker – to develop the technical skills of fan making with a view to teaching the craft in future.

The fund was hugely 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:

“We have been overwhelmed by so many wonderful applications and while we wish we had the funds to support them all, we are delighted to have been able to choose projects that we hope will provide future generations with an array of craft skills to which they might not otherwise have access.”

The Endangered Crafts Fund has been set up thanks to a number of generous donations from individuals, from as little as £5 right up to several thousands of pounds. The HCA is now seeking further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion.

Donations to the Endangered Crafts Fund 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 29 February 2020. For more information about the fund, email HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis at mary@heritagecrafts.org.uk.

Neon making

The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Neon making

 

The manipulation of glass tubes with flame and breath, which, when filled with gases through which an electric current is passed, create lighting for signage, advertising and art works.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance West Yorkshire, London
Area currently practised UK
Origin in the UK 1920s
Current no. of professionals (main income) Around 40-50 in 11-20 businesses
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees 1 trainee at Neon Workshop
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
There are dozens of people who have been introduced to the craft in short courses etc but few carry it on.

 

History

Every neon sign you have ever seen has been hand bent by a skilled artisan. Neon lighting was discovered in 1898 at University College London by British scientists William Ramsay and Morris W Travers. Georges Claude, a French engineer and inventor, introduced neon lighting to France in 1910, and it became increasingly popular by the 1920s, by which time it was also gaining popularity in the United States.

The main centre for neon production in the UK has been West Yorkshire, where at one time there were around two dozen workshops – but now about six or seven. Oldham Signs in Leeds was the largest neon fabricator in Europe at one point. Its neon department closed in 1994 and its makers were displaced to either set up their own workshops or leave the industry, though the company continued to supply general signage till 2003. Another large national maker was Pearce signs, whose last neon workshop closed in the 1990s.

 

Techniques

Glass tubes are bent using heat and skilled manipulation. A metal electrode is fitted at each end filled with one of a number of inert noble gases at low pressure. An electric charge ionizes the gas in the tube, causing it to emit coloured light.

 

Local forms

 

 

Sub-crafts

Allied crafts:

  • Glass gift making, such as glass animals and figures etc often seen in gift shops

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

 

  • Over the last 2 to 3 years there has been a rapid rise in the number of companies selling LED alternatives to neon, which are generally cheaper than neon signs (but also look cheaper as they are plastic). A lot of these companies are marketing their products in a mis-leading way, by actually referring to them as neon signs or LED neon signs.
  • Unlike in the USA and the rest of Europe, neon has suffered a negative reputation as being associated with disreputable establishments. However, has now changed with a new fashion for the vintage, analogue and handmade.
  • The three or four polytechnic courses that used to run neon related courses were all shut down in the 1990s and the courses have not been replaced. Training is now much more sporadic and depends on the availability and inclination of individual makers to pass on their skills.
  • Many practitioners have been reluctant to pass on their skills due to the fear that they are setting up competitors and losing their own competitive advantage, though there are notable exceptions who are happy to pass on their skills openly.
  • Trainees require a lot of investment of both time and money, and some end up leaving the craft to do other things.
  • There are more designer-makers in the US, who have the idea and are able to realise it in neon themselves. In the UK, those who wish to use neon creatively are not often as willing to learn the craft and would rather commission someone else to do it for them. As a result, the craft is devalued by artists and their public in favour of the concept that lies behind the work. Some UK makers are also artists in their own right, however, so can champion both the art and craft of neon at the same time. Whilst the art industry has increased the level of appreciation of the neon industry’s craft of glass bending, the general sign industry has shrunk by probably 70 or 80 to 90 per cent.
  • As the market reduces it becomes harder for suppliers to continue to stock the full range of glass diameters and phospher colours.
  • Neon is challenging, complicated and costly to produce, and processing is potentially dangerous. Despite this, it is more energy efficient than any other form of lighting, including LEDs, and neon lights are totally recyclable.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

Neon Circus do not fabricate neon but provide neon lighting for a range of applications. Rebecca Mason in Folkestone is still in training and is glass bending for her own artwork only.

 

Other information

It takes around 5 years in total of working on the job to learn all aspects of neon sign making to a good level. Whilst there are a lot of ‘hobbyist’ neon sign makers, they don’t possess the in-depth knowledge that can only be gained from experience.

Neon Workshops provides a range of services, from artists commissioning work that is made totally by in-house craftspeople, to enabling the artist to come and learn the skills and have a more hands-on approach. They also provide workshops for the general public to try the craft. They are about to set up a month long course. However, they are careful not to set up too many people as practitioners without the market to support their continued practice.

 

References