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Encounters of their last kind

Lifestyle Posted on 07 July 2014, By April

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To mark its 25th anniversary and ongoing support for traditional British manufacturers, the UK’s largest independent furniture retailer, Furniture Village, has teamed-up with The Heritage Crafts Association to identify – and celebrate – the last surviving practitioners of trades that were once thriving British industries.

The Heritage Crafts Association , the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts, is concerned with preserving trades important to supporting individuals, communities and the wider economy. Robin Wood, Chairman of The Heritage Crafts Association and owner of ‘Robin Wood’ (a handmade wooden bowl manufacturer included within the list) comments,

"These old crafts are recognised worldwide as being part of a nation’s living heritage; they are as much a part of our culture as singing Jerusalem at the Proms - they are the art of the people. Each old trade or craft that we let die-out diminishes us culturally as much as if we allowed our cathedrals or nature reserves to deteriorate. As a traditional craftsperson, my skills are recognised by many foreign governments. I have been invited to work and show my craft in China, the USA, Japan, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, France, and Ireland, yet despite all these other countries recognising my work, in the UK there is no central body to preserve and promote traditional crafts. We want people to support the cause in which we try to promote, not only by being made aware of The Heritage Crafts Association and the endangered crafts, but also by encouraging them to get involved in these rare crafts, by means of funded apprenticeships. If something could be done to aid the training of these skills, we would be able to keep them going for years and hopefully generations to come.”

Robin is concerned that modern Britain is not doing enough to save skills and knowledge that exist only in the minds of the diminishing number of craftspeople who specialise in particular fields. Charlie Harrison, Director of Marketing at Furniture Village said:

“Traditional British heritage is valued all over the world, and that is only one of the reasons it is imperative to draw attention to the unique products offered by these endangered businesses. Furniture Village recognises that signature British crafts are valuable to our own business, and I believe that we can all do our bit to support British specialist trades.”

Owen Jones

Heritage Crafts Association have compiled a list which showcases the last known British practitioners of trades most at risk of disappearing forever…

Oak Swills – Oak Swill baskets (Lake District)

– Last craftsperson of his trade left in the UK

Owen Jones was taught to make swills in 1988 by a retired ‘swiller’ from Broughton-in-Furness called John Barker. John worked in a 1930’s swill shop, and when Owen met him was one of the last swillers from his generation still working. John left his legacy with Owen, now the only full time oak swill basket maker in Britain. Oak Swill baskets are traditional to the southern Lake District and have been made for centuries. Their origins are unclear, but it is likely that they evolved as a cottage industry which then expanded after the industrial revolution into a trade in its own right. Swills were used on coal steamships, in mines, mills, ironworks and many other industries. They also had farm and domestic uses, but declined rapidly in the post-war years with the rise in mechanisation and plastics. Owen now holds workshops and sells oak swill baskets at fairs throughout the year.

Robin Wood – Handmade wooden bowls (Edale, Derbyshire)

– Last fulltime pole lathe bowl turner

When George Lailey died in 1958, a craft going back more than 2000 years died with him. Fortunately, Robin Wood revived the trade 30 years ago. He now makes a living by turning wooden bowls and plates on a foot powered pole lathe and runs his own company in Edale, Derbyshire. This skill dates back to medieval times, when almost everybody ate from wooden bowls. Now Robin creates these beautiful and functional bowls, which fell out of favour at the time of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of pottery. Robin’s interest in the craft began while working in woodland conservation, and started with learning the blacksmithing skills needed to forge the specialist turning tools. Robin studied medieval and Viking bowls and has made authentic bowls for the Tower of London and for Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. The bowls, plates and tools are available to buy on his website. Robin also runs a carving course.

Master Clogmaker, Jeremy Atkinson – Traditional English clogs and clog-making (Herefordshire)

– Only practitioner in the UK not using machine cut soles, offering full bespoke service

Jeremy Atkinson specialises in making traditional nineteenth-century styled clogs in his workshop in Kingston. Jeremy is the last of the traditional cloggers making bespoke clogs in England. Whilst others may lay claim to making handmade clogs, the clog soles are actually machine cut, limiting customisation. He has travelled in Spain and France researching European clog-making traditions and demonstrates his skill at County and Craft Fairs across Britain during the summer.

Traditional clogs were often worn in heavy labour, but today the variants are considered for everyday wear. The interest in clogs ranges from the fashion industry to the general public and they are often still worn by factory workers due to their durability and comfort. The traditional English clogs are fashioned like smart shoes but with a wooden sole. Some clogs are even still used for certain dances.

Jeremy Atkinson

White Rose Cooperage – Wooden beer barrels (Yorkshire)

– Last Master Cooper in the UK

After leaving his job with brewers Wadworth & Co, Alastair Simms moved back to his hometown in Yorkshire to set up his own company White Rose Cooperage. Today he is the last Master Cooper in the UK. His work is varied, and has even been commissioned by Warner Bros to create barrels for a recent film in production. He began working as an apprentice at the age of 16 in 1979 for Theakston’s Brewery in North Yorkshire. After completing his trial period, Alastair signed his indentures, compelling him to a four year apprenticeship under the watchful eye of Master Cooper Clive Hollis. It took Mr Simms 15 years to earn the title of ‘master.’ Alastair wants to pass on his skills but knows that time is of the essence where finding and training apprentices is concerned.

Stanley Clark – wooden ladder maker (Northampton)

– now retired, but last craftsperson of his trade left in the UK (Heritage Crafts Association undertaking scheme to preserve skills)

Until the 1960's wooden ladders were widely manufactured in the UK. One of the largest firms was John Ward and Son, where Stanley Clark learned his craft. With the introduction of aluminium ladders the wooden ladder trade declined and Stanley retired. There was still demand for the wooden type, but it was cheaper for customers to purchase on the second hand market – a supply that was plentiful with so many users converting to aluminium. The Heritage Crafts Association has launched a successful appeal to organise a documented workshop to help Stanley pass on his skills to professional woodworkers. The Heritage Crafts Association has bought the necessary timber, and it is currently being dried so it can be split and made into ladders for the workshop in summer 2014.

Ernest Wright

Ernest Wright & Son – Handmade fine quality scissors (Sheffield)

– One of two scissor-makers left in the UK

Nick Wright is the fifth generation Managing Director of the family-owned business, Ernest Wright & Son , which is the last, but one, traditional scissor manufacturer in the UK. The company was established in 1902 in Sheffield – the birthplace of stainless steel. Nick believes that to gain the crucial skills of the trade, it takes up to five years of training. Nick has worked tirelessly building up the business since taking over from his father. Their range is handmade and using age-old techniques and skills. Employing over eighty workers and exporting to forty five different countries by the mid 1970’s, Ernest Wright & Son was one of the largest scissors manufacturers in Great Britain. Globalisation of the cutlery and steel industries has since reduced the size of the company, but Ernest Wright & Son Limited still produces extremely high quality, traditionally hand-finished scissors and shears from its Endeavour Works factory – right in the heart of Sheffield.

The Hiut Denim Co. – British denim manufacturer (Cardigan, Wales)

– Only one of its kind left in the UK

Hiut Denim Co. was founded in 2011 by David and Clare Hieatt in their hometown of Cardigan, Wales. Cardigan is a small town of 4,000 people and 400 of them used to make jeans, 35,000 pairs a week for three decades for companies such as Marks & Spencer. The production company Dewhirst Group closed down in 2002 and set up in Morocco, but all the skills still remained in Cardigan. They started Hiut Denim with the hopes to re-establish a British high-quality denim manufacturer as there is very little British made denim left today. Each pair of jeans produced has a code sewn into them, and at each stage of production Hieatt's Grand Masters will photograph the jeans for the History Tag app. David Hieatt said: "A pair of jeans is a really complex item… It can take years and years to get good at one bit of it - to get good at all 75 is a long bit of learning."

The Truggery

The Truggery – Oldest trug shop in the world (Sussex)

– One of three left of its kind in the UK

The craft of trug-making has been centred in the village of Herstmonceux for at least 200 years. These light but strong willow and sweet chestnut garden baskets were originally used by farmers for harvesting crops and measuring grain. They were shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and became popular with the general public for household and garden use after Queen Victoria admired them and ordered trugs for the Royal family. The Sussex Trugs from The Truggery are still handmade in the traditional way, using the same tolls, materials and skills which have been passed down through the generations.

Chimo

Chimo Holdings – Fine quality cutlery (Sheffield)

– the last manufacturer of creamhandled cutlery in Britain, and one of around half a dozen companies of its kind in the UK

Based in Sheffield, Chimo Holdings is one of the last of its kind in the UK. Chimo Holdings provides a range of creamhandled cutlery mimicking bone handled cutlery which has graced British tables for generations. However Chimo have developed a man-made alternative, which is now dishwasher safe, but still retains the traditional appearance. Chimo Holdings is an amalgamation of several Sheffield companies, some dating back to 1750, brought together in the 1980s with the aim of re-establishing the manufacturing of superior quality products using traditional skills. Amongst these companies was William Yates, one of Sheffield's oldest cutlery manufacturers founded in 1750, owned and managed by seven generations of one family; Fashionware Products – now Chimo Corporate – one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of corporate gifts, and the Westplate Tray Company, which possibly produced the largest range of handcrafted gallery trays in the world, plus salvers and silverware products. They have provided cutlery to palaces and luxury retailers around the world. Chimo also have a department called Cutlery Hospital which restores old cutlery especially knives & replaces the old damaged cream-handles.

For media enquiries about the Endangered Crafts Initiative, please contact Benjamin Webb email or 0207 221 1540 / 07930 408 224

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