Machine-made, mass-produced products have a lot to answer for, their accessibility having sidelined the skills and artistry of handmade, traditional craftwork, once a rich source of industry. However there is a resurgent interest in all things hand-made and in restoring older items to their former glory. Here we talk to six specialists who all work with their hands and for whom every new project is a fresh hand-crafted journey.
Geoff Travers, basketmaker
What is the appeal of basketry? Willow baskets do not pollute the oceans, they are incredibly long-lasting and can be composted at the end of their life. A basket can be made with a few simple tools and some willow.
Explain your approach to basketry Baskets can be made from hedgerow materials for simple rustic baskets. However using locally sourced commercial willow from the Somerset Levels it is possible to create more complex and traditional English baskets as our ancestors did, with different willow varieties providing beautiful rustic colours.
What are the skills involved in basketry? Basketmaking pre-dates pottery and has assisted mankind in gathering food and materials for thousands of years. It has been said that humans have an intuitive ability to weave a basket, just as a spider weaves its web or a bird makes a nest.
Do you encounter any difficulties with your basketry business? Recently it has been challenging to obtain home-grown UK willow due to the increasing interest in basketmaking and the demand for willow coffins.
Why is it important that basketry products continue to be made? My goal was, and remains, to keep the traditional basketmaking techniques alive and to enable rural crafts to continue to provide an active place in the modern plastic age. There are some types of baskets that are on the heritage crafts endangered list and without a few basketmakers keeping the craft going, it could be lost forever.
What is the appeal of carving in stone? The main appeal is being able to create something beautiful with your hands. I get great satisfaction from walking through Bath and saying “I did that!” when we pass a building that I have worked on, much to my family’s annoyance!
What are the skills involved in stone carving? Being methodical is the most important skill. Most people imagine it’s a big, satisfying flurry of creativity, but the reality is it’s more like a dusty factory where you have to go through the correct process or things will go wrong. Good hand and eye coordination goes a long way, too.
What is the earliest history of stone carving? Stone masonry is one of the oldest crafts in history, dating back to the Stone Age. Many of the tools I use today have not changed for thousands of years. We still follow the architectural styles of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and we use the same basic principles.
Are there any issues in practising stone-masonry in the modern era? As with most old crafts, it’s the time and cost involved with stone masonry. With so many mass-produced materials around now, there are a lot of cheaper alternatives. They’re not as good though!
Why is it important that stone-carving continues as a craft? These days, with the advent of CNC machines, some of the bigger companies only have a couple of masons in the workshop to tidy up anything the machines have missed, but it would be a great shame to lose the skills. I think it means so much more to people to look at a wonderful building and know that the stone was shaped and laid by skilled hands, not by a machine.
What is the appeal of leatherwork? As a horse owner I wanted a career in leather. I subsequently qualified as a saddler, but found my real passion lay in creating and repairing a variety of pieces that have lasting appeal and function.
How far does leatherwork go back? The earliest leatherworking tools date back to the Stone Age. Looking specifically at saddlery, the Worshipful Company of Saddlers is one of the oldest livery companies in London with the earliest surviving record from 1160ad.
Are there challenges running your business in the modern era? Sadly there are only a few tanneries left in the UK, so sourcing some types of leather can be difficult, especially when trying to match up colours and substance.
Why is it important that the craft of leatherwork continues? I feel the sustainability of good leatherwork is very important. If an item is well made, it’s usually repairable, and so with care it can last for many years. I see this with many items that arrive at my workbench.
What are the processes involved in leatherwork? I start with whole hides of leather and I hand-cut, hand-stitch and hand-finish each item. I have a treasured head knife for most cutting work and most often work is double hand-stitched for strength.
What is the appeal of woodcarving? It’s about working with your hands with lovely tools in a natural material.
As a dyslexic boy, the only book in the school library that was of any interest to me was Tippings’ Grinling Gibbons and the Woodwork of his Age, a large book with great black-and-white photographs of fantastic woodcarvings.
What skills are important for woodcarving? You really have to think and work in three dimensions. You have to understand outline and shadow and you have to think ahead to find and process the wood to a state when you can start carving it. From that point it is a very immersive process, and with a good piece of wood and an interesting subject it can be a total joy.
How far back does the history of woodcarving go? In some cultures, such as Maori, Haida, or Yoruba, the craft of woodcarving goes back in an unbroken tradition to prehistoric times, and it remains central to those cultures. There are also the medieval wooden Stave churches in Norway, where the construction techniques are known to have been used for buildings from the Viking Age.
Are there challenges specialising in this craft today? In England the woodcarving trade as it once existed has shrunk to critical levels because much cheaper carving has been imported from factories in Indonesia, China and India. On top of that modern technology means that with 3D scanning and CNC work some aspects can be made without the use of traditional carvers. Woodcarving is also associated with the folk tradition. As an individual woodcarver working in architectural woodcarving and in restoration, I have never regarded it as a reliable engine of wealth. Running carving classes, working on individual commissions as well as carving my own art works means I am busy, but not wealthy!
Why is it important to maintain woodcarving as a craft? Because it is so versatile. In what other craft can you produce lasting sculpture out of a living material with such a range of a scale, from Japanese netsuke to Haida nation totem poles? In an environment that is moving so far away from nature, woodcarving can seem a bit folksy, but imagine if you were living in a plastic box on Mars how it would feel to be carving a piece of wood into the shape of a bird.
What first drew you to the craft of bookbinding? I originally studied Mandarin, but chance led me to a job running an antiquarian bookshop in Bloomsbury next to the old British Library, where I enrolled on a part-time bookbinding course and I was immediately hooked. Over 25 years later I am still as passionate about it.
What are the processes involved? Bookbinders are said to need to be more accurate than brain surgeons. It is imperative that the book looks beautiful and that it functions perfectly. The skills range from leatherwork to gilding, dyeing to painting, sewing to boxmaking. I oversee the whole process from proofreading, typesetting and layout, to printing and binding, from one-offs to runs of up to 500 or more.
What is the history of bookbinding? The book structure, or codex, that we are familiar with has been around since Roman times and in the UK the monasteries were producing similar bindings around 700ad. The bone folder is one of the earliest tools used by humans, and the materials, such as leather, vellum and gold, have remained unchanged for centuries.
Are there any difficulties in running a bookbinding business today? Many predicted the death of the book, but sales of physical books have never been greater. However, there are now no full-time courses in bookbinding in the UK. I teach in colleges and schools to promote bookbinding and open students’ eyes to the joys of making with your hands. I am delighted that, from 2023, Bath Spa University will be running an open module in bookbinding available to all students.
Why is making handmade leatherwork products important? Making with our hands is part of what makes us human. Crafts have a hugely beneficial, therapeutic effect, improving mood and lowering stress. As our world moves further into the digital, having tangible objects becomes more meaningful. Making beautiful books is socio-culturally and artistically important; it is a protest against the digital and against globalisation, against everything that is poorly, and mass-produced. It’s the same thing that William Morris was protesting against in the Industrial Revolution.
What is the appeal of ironwork and what first drew you to the craft?
To be able to manipulate a cold, hard material into pretty much whatever shape you like. While doing a degree course at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 3D Design in Wood, Metals and Plastics, I quickly gravitated to the metal workshop.
What are the principal processes involved in ironwork? For millenia prior to the machine age and the advent of the electric welder during World War I, most ‘crafted’ ironwork was made by blacksmiths. The seven key skills of the blacksmith were fire-welding, drawing down, upsetting, punching, cutting, twisting and bending; with all those elements mastered, literally anything is possible in iron.
How far does the history of ironwork go back? Archeologists believe that iron was discovered by the Hittites of ancient Egypt somewhere between 5000 and 3000 bce. In the UK we have been working iron since c. 750 bce
Are there any barriers or difficulties with your traditional crafts business in the modern era? Plenty! A society that forgets that mastering a craft such as ours takes many years and thinks that cheap machine-made, mass-produced imports can replicate the subtleties and creativity of the human hand and spirit is a hard thing to fight.
Why is it important that ironwork continues as a craft? We have been producing ironwork for millenia, and to properly care for what we have, then we need to retain the skills that made it. From a practical point of view, we need it in our lives – we all touch and feel something made of iron on a daily basis. Pretty much any functional item the blacksmith used to make can now be made by machines. What the machine is yet to replicate is the soul of the maker, and as long as we seek the imperfections and perfections of the hand, then hopefully we will still be needed.