The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Umbrella making

 

The making of umbrellas and parasols.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category
Historic area of significance London, Sheffield and Manchester
Area currently practised London, Croydon, Manchester, South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire
Origin in the UK 17th century
Current no. of professionals (main income) 6-10 companies in the UK
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
1 company
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

Tradition has it that the Normans brought the umbrella to England with them (presumably some sort of canopy regalia) in 1066, but there is nothing very tangible to support this.

It is often claimed that umbrellas were introduced to England by Jonas Hanway about 1750, but this is definitely not correct. They are mentioned in Gays Trivia, The Art of Walking the Streets of London, published in 1712 and also in the Female Tattler for December 12 1709. But Jonas Hanway was the first Englishman to carry an umbrella regularly. He was pelted by coachmen and chairmen for his persistence, since they saw this craze could endanger there own means of livelihood.

At this time, umbrellas were very heavy, ungainly things made with whalebone or cane ribs, mounted on a long, stout stick of about one inch in diameter and covered with a heavy cotton fabric, waterproofed by oiling or waxing.

By 1787 the umbrella had achieved some considerable measure of popularity within a short period of time and the French ladies umbrellas had achieved remarkable elegance, and on the continent they were used as much as a sunshade as protection from rain. And it is from this period and via the sunshade that umbrellas began to develop into something lighter and more graceful.

Between 1816 and 1820 men’s umbrellas had again reached a weight of over four pounds, but ladies umbrellas continued to be much lighter, weighing less than one pound. This was partly due to the use of finer fabric of silk and by the substitution of light iron stretchers, but, in general, umbrellas in this country, until the middle of the last century, were made with ribs of whalebone for the best quality and of split cane for the cheaper quality. In the late 1800s came the development of steel ribs and frames, and so the modern umbrella was born.

Samuel Fox patented the first viable steel rib in 1847 around the same time that Singer started making sewing machines so the industry was revolutionised by the mid 1800s; no more hand sewing the canopies or heavy whalebone.

 

Techniques

  • Cutting
  • Machining (sewing)
  • Hand sewing
  • Mounting
  • Wood working

 

Local forms

  • Carriage/doorman’s umbrellas
  • Bookmakers umbrellas
  • Umbrellas for engineering industries
  • Theatre and film prop umbrellas
  • Solid stick umbrellas
  • City slim umbrellas (all metal frame)

 

Sub-crafts

  • Walking stick makers and handle makers (the people to source and bend the raw woods). There is possibly only one umbrella solid stick maker left now in the UK based in Norfolk.

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Difficulty in sourcing raw materials
  • Overseas competition and a shrinking skill base due to the majority of umbrellas making being outsourced to the Far East
  • Difficulty in finding staff with knowledge and skills of umbrella making
  • There are no external training opportunities for umbrella making with the exception of sewing machining and fabric cutting.
  • High barriers to entry – i.e. industry specific machinery no longer available, high minimum order quantities requiring significant stock/working capital investment and no trained staff available outside the traditional umbrella making companies.
  • The dependency on allied industries for components and raw materials.

 

Support organisations

  • UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT) – supports the fashion industry, not specifically umbrella manufacturing.

There used to be The Umbrella Federation, which disbanded in the early 70s after members started offshoring. The organisation had been lobbying for additional tariffs on cheap imports but to no avail and as such trust between members was lost and it closed.

 

Craftspeople currently known

Makers that use traditional techniques that would have been recognised 50+ years ago. i.e. using lockstitch by skilled sewing machinists:

Makers that use assembly techniques designed for mass production. i.e. using overlocking by semi-skilled machinists:

  • The Umbrella Company
  • Booth Brothers
  • Contraldo
  • Manchester Umbrella Company (sources canopies from other makers)
  • Mane Umbrellas Ltd (sources canopies from other makers)

Individual makers:

 

Other information

Fox Umbrellas lost a member of staff this year who worked for them for 57 years. Whilst he trained their apprentices some of the knowledge on handle making/mounting has been lost and they were the last company to be able to make certain types of handles.

James Ince & Sons lost a member of staff, Terry Coleman, who retired aged 82 after over 67 years in the trade. He did pass on his skills of frame making to the business.

 

References

  • Fox Umbrellas, History of the Umbrella
  • Quilter Cheviot Presents Fox Umbrellas
  • Umbrella Frames 1848 – 1948, a centenary celebration by Samuel Fox Ltd
  • Crawford (1970) The History of the Umbrella
  • The Bag, Portmanteau and Umbrella Trader, trade journal published 1907-21.
  • Sangster (1871) Umbrellas and their History