Updated: Oct 13, 2020
In our fast-paced world of information overload, allowing ourselves time to play is crucially important - it provides respite from our busy lives and enables us to connect with our surroundings and just be in the moment. We have begun to discover the delights of foraging along the hedgerows and coastlines, as well as growing our own veg to put good homegrown food on the table. We have embraced music, painting, crafting and there has been a huge resurgence of interest in textiles and the art of slow stitching. Is this, I wonder, because textiles are so comforting and tactile? Or does the solace come from revisiting crafts from gentler times? The simple pleasure of making an item with our hands is a sensory process that is fundamental to human nature and crucial for our mental health and well-being.
We were once a nation of makers and artisans producing a wealth of goods, many of which are now virtually obsolete due to limited training opportunities and fewer craftspeople able to pass on precious skills and knowledge. The Heritage Crafts Association’s ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’ provides a fascinating insight into the crafts that were practised in the UK and I spent a happy hour or two tumbling down a rabbit hole of exploration into historic artisanal crafts that are the keystone of our cultural heritage. The list of those that are ‘critically endangered’ is long, ranging from bell founding and clay pipe making through to hat plaiting, metal thread making, kishie basket making, orrery making, sieve and riddle making to withy pot making. Who’d have thought a list could be so thrilling? Some of these beautiful old words are sensory in themselves and sent shivers down my spine.
This exploration into the past got me thinking - when did it become acceptable to mass produce cheap goods, using cheap labour, to fuel our relentless quest for growth and consumerism? The Industrial Revolution, of course, radically changed the way we lived with the manufacturing of goods shifting from individual workshops to large-scale, ultra-efficient factories, forcing people to move from the country to the city for work. Manufacturing on such a scale was hugely damaging to small industries and local artisans, who simply couldn’t compete.
The late 19th Century Arts and Crafts Movement was a response to the damaging effects of an increasingly industrialised world. The importance of making was recognised and valued with followers seeking to revive the practice of making objects that had provenance and integrity. William Morris was a huge influence during this period, advocating the importance of making beautiful objects that were also functional – his golden rule was to ‘have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. By coincidence, the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, writing in the Woodland Trust’s Broadleaf magazine this month, touches on this topic. He claims that English landscape painter, John Constable RA, painted in response to the ‘destruction of the English countryside by industry…’. Graham-Dixon points out that in Constable’s day the barge-towing horses that he depicted so bucolically were ‘the equivalent of a lorry ploughing through a wilderness.’ Food for thought. Constable certainly felt passionately about the importance of creativity, asserting that ‘painting is but another word for feeling’.
I believe that the tide may be turning now, fuelled by the anti-plastic revolution and increased awareness of the devastation being wreaked on our delicately balanced eco-system through mass manufacturing and dependence on fossil fuels. Society is demanding locally made, high quality goods and there is increasing evidence of small businesses reviving heritage crafts using traditional materials and techniques, such as hand-turned wooden plates and bowls and also, basket-making, which before the arrival of plastic in the 1950s, was widely practiced in the UK.
We can all do our bit to help these small businesses survive and flourish and, following William Morris’ example, I have my eye on a beautiful Birch spurtle – the wood has been collected locally by the maker and is hand-turned on a lathe powered by a watermill that was built by his grandfather. That will add a touch of magic to my porridge making ritual!
Here are a few of our favourite, incredibly skilled, local artisans;
Foot powered lathe turned bowls https://www.andrewbyhamwoodcraft.co.uk/#
Woven Shawl https://www.sarahtyssen.co.uk/
Foragers basket www.weavingwillow.co.uk