Paul Felix has spent over forty years photographing traditional craftsmen and women across Britain. The best of these photographs appear in a new book The Book of Forgotten Crafts, which reveals the fascinating history of British craftsmanship in a series of interviews with leading crafters at work in Britain today. Here Paul explains how he became involved.
“Crafts have always been in my family; both my grandfathers worked with their hands, one with brick and stone and the other with wood, and so did my father. They would say they saw themselves as tradesmen rather than craftsmen – it’s a fine line where one stops and the other starts. l remember my father making a very fine model of a sailing warship, cutting and carving the wood and even making the cannons and cannon balls. I didn’t follow him. Instead l became a press photographer working on national daily newspapers in London. After a few years l moved on to magazines and colour supplements. l found myself on assignments photographing craftsmen all over the country and I became fascinated by their work. My early memories of watching my father in his workshop gave me an ability to appreciate the finer points of their work. As newspapers and magazines changed to focus largely on the world of celebrity, crafts and stories about real people were pushed off the pages; but I continued to seek out and photograph traditional craftsmen whenever l could find them.
In 1999 Tom Quinn and l produced the popular craft book “Last of the Line” published by David & Charles. This generated some interest in the craft movement, and most magazines that cover country matters now like to feature crafts. This can only help the craftsmen and women of this country, each of whom has a very special skill, and a love of what they do. But they need the all the help and publicity we can give them.
With Siân Ellis and Tom Quinn, my long-time collaborators and fellow crafts fans, I have been meeting and photographing some of the best craftspeople in the country. Now we’ve produced “The Book of Forgotten Crafts” and, with the help of David & Charles, l hope and believe we can promote craft in Britain and around the world.
I never fail to be impressed by the commitment of craftspeople, their unrivalled knowledge, their tremendous skills, and the intense passion they have for what they do. In most cases they are continuing a long tradition that stretches back into the mists of time, often using the simplest of tools and methods that would have been familiar to their counterparts centuries ago. That’s not to say that in some cases they have not taken advantage of modern technology; however, that does not stop the products they make from being thoroughly hand crafted. My father showed me the way, just as the previous generation had shown him.
I think we are so lucky to have this large pool of craftspeople in this country – we could have filled this new book twice over! Now, I just hope we can support them, particularly by buying their goods. After all, a man making suits of armour has a very small customer base, but then he only needs one or two orders each year. By contrast, importers of cheap goods are only interested in large quantities, and quality may not be a priority.
Craftspeople in this country can – and do – supply very high quality merchandise that you only get from handmade products, using only the very best materials. Over recent years people in Britain have got into the mindset that cheap is best, and they are perhaps reluctant to pay extra for good quality.
Another of the problems many craftspeople have is the difficulty of charging a realistic rate for their time, which tends to make their business uneconomic. One craftsman I knew, who made fine fishing rods, felt unable to charge a sensible rate, and a few weeks after l photographed him he decided to shut up shop. I’m sure his customers would have paid a little extra. It’s a great loss to see all that skill wasted. However, some craftsmen have moved with the times, and do charge the going rate, while others run courses on their crafts, which have become very popular with the public. These have the benefits of providing craftspeope with income, giving them pleasure of passing on their skills and hopefully inspiring a new generation.
I hope that The Book of Forgotten Crafts will encourage more people of all ages to take an interest and get involved, and that it will re-kindle a desire for beautiful, handmade objects – and that the public will learn to appreciate their true worth.” Paul Felix, February 2011
The Book of Forgotten Crafts: Keeping the Traditions Alive by Paul Felix, Siân Ellis and Tom Quinn
Foreword by Robin Wood, Chair, Heritage Crafts Association
978 0 7153 3831 5 256 pages colour photographs throughout
Buy now at an excellent discount from RUBooks
Margo Selby is the mentor in the weaving episode of the BBC2 series Mastercrafts. This is an adapted extract from the interview with her that features in Mastercrafts the book.
When she was a child, Margo, admits, she found it really difficult to concentrate either at home or at school. But one thing consistently captured her imagination: textiles. She was delighted when her grandmother showed her how to crochet. “That was my first memory of textiles and how to make them, and I loved it.”
Margo’s first degree was in textiles, specialising in woven fabrics, and she then started an MA in constructed textiles at the Royal College of Art. Having found her vocation, she was offered a two-year fellowship at the Ann Sutton Foundation, which conducted research into textiles. This gave her a supported environment in which to set up her business. “I was able to produce a project for industry – in other words a fabric that could be produced in a mill. It gave me a real understanding of how the industry works.”
At the end of her fellowship Margo set up her studio in London and opened a shop in Bloomsbury. Here she sells the beautiful things she makes, and her 24-shaft dobby loom is set up in the basement.
Developing a fabric can take years. “I use lots of different fibres because I’m interested in seeing how they react together – I use silk, lycra, cashmere, mohair, lamb’s wool, cotton and viscose.” Combining different fibres which shrink and react differently in the finishing creates 3-D fabrics.
Margo’s great passsion is colour and texture. “I’m driven by colour,” she explains, “but I want the colour and the structure to work together. I create optical patterns of warp and weft that match and complement each other. I create geometric patterns using a technique called ‘colour and weave’. 3-D colour surfaces are created with a double cloth fabric. This means that the cloth is made from two layers of fabric which swap over to form patterns and raised surfaces.”
Margo designs and develops all her own fabrics, which are now sold all over the world, but the process of designing and making a new fabric begins when she sits alone in front of her loom. “All my fabrics start as hand-woven ideas, even though they are often taken to industrial mills to make limited editions of fabrics which are more accessible. We sell hand-woven items in the shop, but it is the collaboration between the handcrafted and industrial techniques which have made the business successful, and allowed interesting woven fabrics to be available to a wider market.”
Though weaving was once a big industry in Britain it has declined dramatically, but Margo’s enthusiasm and success show that there is a market – and a good one at that – for fabric designed carefully, beautifully and by hand.
For more information about Margo Selby, visit her website.
For more information about Mastercrafts the book, and to order at £6 off the RRP, visit rubooks.co.uk/mastercrafts
The art of stained glass making dates back at least to medieval times. It combines a range of craft skills with the skills of the painter. To many it evokes ancient church windows, but it is actually an important artistic discipline that has survived throughout the centuries intact and largely unchanged, though the colours and designs used by stained glass artists today would astonish and perhaps even delight their medieval counterparts.
Sophie Lister Hussain, who features as the mentor in the fourth episode of Mastercrafts (BBC2, Friday 5 March, 9pm) is a talented stained glass artist who grew up on the Isle of Anglesey, off the coast of North Wales – a primary influence in her early artistic development. “My earliest memories are of my grandmother. She taught me to knit and to sew and the combining of a multitude of different materials. She also instilled in me the self discipline to strive to do my very best with anything I made.”
Sophie is fascinated by all types of glass work, but especially her own specialism of stained glass.
“The majority of my work is stained glass. It’s always etched with acid or painted with kiln firing paints, silver stained or surface decorated by sandblasting stencil work; a combination of any or all of these techniques can give a detailed and rich texture to the surface of glass. Sandblasting gives glass a frosted appearance, and can be used to shade areas of clear glass; painting can be done in many different colours straight on to the glass, and etching produces a range of interesting effects, melting away the surface of unmasked glass.”
After the client is happy with the design, the making of the glass follows the same procedure each time. “First I measure the window frame – this has to be done accurately. Then the designs are enlarged to a full sized working drawing. Any indication of glass paint, silver stain and etching is marked, drawn to scale and even sketched on to the cartoon.
“A cut line drawing is taken from the cartoon, which shows each and every piece of glass. The lines indicate the heart of all the leads, lines that glass cutters know should not be crossed. When the glass pieces are ready you ‘lead it up’ – start fixing all the pieces into their positions using a lead knife, pliers and horseshoe nails.”
By the time that the glass is fitted into the leads, the windows soldered and cemented, the old frame amended to fit again, or the new frame securely installed into the building, then the finished glass can finally be installed into the frame.
For Sophie it is not technique but personality, drive and enthusiasm that really transform a stained glass window into something unique and important.
Although it survives in parts of East Anglia, the tradition of long straw thatching had all but died out in Oxfordshire and surrounding counties until Matthew Williams and David Bragg set up Rumpelstiltskin Thatching, a company devoted to restoring the ancient tradition of long straw thatching to the region. Matt and Dave feature in the second episode of the BBC2 TV series Mastercrafts, broadcast on Friday 19th February at 9pm, and this is an excerpt from the extended interview with them that appears in the Mastercrafts book.
Matt and Dave are eager to emphasise that long straw thatching is truly green. ‘When we use wheat straw we’re using something that’s just a by-product of food production,’ says Matt. ‘We have eight acres of local wood that we coppice for our hazel spars and we’re negotiating with local farmers to get them to grow the sort of wheat we need (the older varieties) so we don’t have to transport it miles across country.
‘Straw thatch is, if you like, the ultimate green material – it’s a superb insulator, it uses a by-product of an important food crop and it looks great!’
In their pursuit of authenticity Matt and Dave have learned to look deep into the past when they start work on a roof.
‘We can read an ancient roof because under the top coat of thatch on a very old house you might find straw that dates back five hundred years or more,’ says Dave. ‘When we get down to that level we see ancient varieties of wheat straw and occasionally rye that might have been used in a year of bad harvest. Whatever was used it had to be local because transport was slow and very expensive.’
Early on in their thatching careers both men noticed that the lower layers of thatch that had survived longest had been put on in a very different way from the method they had been taught. ‘Other thatchers in the area told us that doing things the old way was just too difficult,’ says Matt, ‘but having seen the unbroken long straw tradition that survives in East Anglia we learned by seeing how old thatch had been put on, and slowly abandoned the combed reed techniques we’d been taught.’
Dave and Matt both studied thatching at Knuston Hall, one of the few thatching schools in the world, where long straw thatching is still taught. Matt and Dave discovered that long straw had traditionally been the dominant thatching style throughout the Midlands and the south of England. But even within long straw thatching, different counties and areas had their own distinct and decorative styles.
‘It was so fascinating and it made us determined to stick to the Oxfordshire style, which was relatively straightforward and unadorned – but it is the right style for our area.’
Matt and Dave have a simple explanation for their company’s unusual name: ‘If you remember the children’s story, you’ll know that Rumpelstiltskin was the only person who could spin gold from straw. That’s what we like to think we’re doing!’
For more information and to order the Mastercrafts book at £6 off, visit www.rubooks.co.uk/mastercrafts
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Guy Mallinson, master green woodworker, talks about his contribution to the Mastercrafts TV series. Don’t miss him in the opening episode this Friday, BBC2, 9pm
I run courses in green woodwork, art and craft in a woodland workshop in West Dorset. The courses are designed for all levels of ability and our guests come from all over to enjoy escaping to a beautiful and peaceful environment in which to enjoy the pleasures of hand-making and craftsmanship.
The woodland workshop consists of a number of parachute shelters, tipis and canvas tents with log walls and huge open fire pits – it is warm and cosy in the winter and cool and shaded in the summer. We work all year round in the woods using ancient techniques that require no electricity, glue or chemicals.
It seems like just yesterday that the film crew and trainees left the woodland workshop, but the production company (Ricochet Productions) and the BBC have since been busy getting everything edited and ready for airing. The ‘wood’ episode will be the first in the series to be aired, at 9pm on Friday 12th Feb on BBC2.
It was a fantastic experience and a joy to spend six weeks with the trainees working our way through our courses and discussing the role of traditional craft in the 21st century. Tom, Charles and Sarah worked incredibly hard and we were all delighted with their final projects, as well as being a tad proud of them all! It was strange to go from telling guests that our courses are non-competitive to finding myself having to stand back and let the trainees get on with their final project without helping – as it WAS a competition!
We were delighted to have Mike Abbott here on the final day to judge the work of the trainees. Mike has been working in green wood for many years and wrote the books that helped me on my transition from cabinet-making to green woodwork. We could not have had a more respected green woodworker to decide the winner. I was also pleased not to have to pick between them at the end of six weeks working together!
Our neighbours at Forde Abbey were also incredibly helpful and we were able to spend some time in their woods to select suitable ash trees for felling for their final project – using horses of course. The winning chair (still top secret!) will be on view to the 50,000 members of the public that visit Forde Abbey this year. Quite an accolade for the winner.
Another bonus for me was during my research to get to know and correspond with Robin Wood who, as well as being being a fine and respected craftsman making bowls on a pole lathe amongst other green wood skills and writing books and teaching, also helps run the Heritage Crafts Association. This was founded a year ago and has recently been granted charitable status. With the Mastercrafts series and other public exposure for traditional crafts, I am sure the Association’s establishment has been very timely and will help further spread the word about the value of traditional crafts – be it for heritage, leisure, product, therapy or education.
I hope that you enjoy the series and, if you feel inspired, do sign up for one of our courses and see how you get on compared to the trainees! You can even make exactly the same chair as they did in their training on our ‘Make a chair from a tree’ masterclass course, or for the less ambitious try ‘Carving a wooden bowl’ or ‘Pole lathe turning’: they’re both very popular and great fun! There are lots of other courses for all levels of experience.
We don’t want to spoil the surprise so we’re keeping tight-lipped about the goings-on in the woods but you can see a preview of the series here and read an interview with Monty Don on the BBC website here
We also felt very honoured to be asked to contribute to the fantastic new book being published by David & Charles to accompany the ‘Mastercrafts’ series, which will be launched on 12th February as well.
“Working on the publicity for this book has been a bit of a whirlwind to say the least. Having to keep hush-hush about the book until the BBC announced the programme was particularly hard for me as I was bursting to tell the magazines about it as I knew so many of them would love it! Then the date of the first episode – and therefore the book’s publication date – was brought forward to Friday 12th February, which made everything even more intense. We have had some fantastic interest in the book and have set up some great features and interviews – look out for lovely pieces in Craft & Design magazine, BBC Countryfile, Choice, Grand Designs, Country Homes & Interiors to name just a few, and interviews with the mentors on their local radio and in the regional press. Monty Don will of course be in the national press and on radio/TV talking about the series.
Mastercrafts has been really exciting to work on, not least because the mentors all have such interesting stories about their crafts, but also because the interest out there in rural crafts in general really seems to be growing. It’s been great seeing the numbers on the facebook fan page go up and up and that it has become a real forum for enthusiasts and crafters alike. There is a real buzz about the show and now that the trails have started it’s even more exciting! The advance copies of the book came in this week, and seeing them all finished is just fantastic; the editorial team did such a great job and the images are stunning. I’ve loved working on this project; it’s been a real team effort and the support from the mentors has been invaluable. Go, team Mastercrafts!”
From Stephen Bateman:
Reading through responses and comments on facebook last week, I was struck by how important the sense of satisfaction and reward are from physical exertion amongst those pursuing a rural craft. Robin Wood and Adrian de Montfort both spoke about the gratification they gained from physical effort and contrasted this with “office folk, (…) sweating it out at the gym” which, evoked, for me, the sentiment expressed so well by Monty in a recent interview where he says: “manual work today is channeled into gyms – people going nowhere fast.” Wow, those words are powerful!
It seems an overriding sense of satisfaction in rural crafts is derived from achievement. Crafting something out of nothing and fashioning it into a tangible, well-made and lasting article is what gives purpose, integrity and satisfaction to a craftsman’s work. Colin Broadbent, on facebook last week, gave a wonderful insight into this when he testified that: “seeing a project through from start to finish allows me to sit down tired at the end of the day but with a smile on my face… (and) I earn much (…) less working for myself, but the job satisfaction is priceless.”
Again I see a parallel with Monty’s own admission that “while (a craft) may not be particularly well-paid, the personal rewards in terms of a sense of satisfaction are something you just can’t buy” and “to make a chair from a tree that’s growing – it’s enough to change your life.”
I am sure there is much more we could say to nourish this topic of discussion and I look forward to your testimonials – I am sure we will get some perspectives on this from the commentary in the show, both from the mentors but also from the apprentices – keep your ideas coming, I am eager to hear your stories.
For more information about the book or to pre-order, click here
Stephen Bateman, Publisher of the Mastercrafts book, asks ‘Why give up a comfortable office job to pursue a traditional craft?’
Dear Mastercrafts friends
In less than 2 weeks the long-awaited Mastercrafts series and book will broadcast and publish simultaneously.
The TV series, which we have already glimpsed here, promises to disclose the serene quality of another, more creative, forgotten but re-emerging and reasoned way of life; a way of life that is being rediscovered by everyday people in rural communities where traditional rural crafts are being embraced in favour of meaningless office jobs on the end of frenzied commuter lines.
Following my post on the Mastercrafts Facebook page a week ago, I have set out to uncover the personal motivations that are driving so many people to reassess their working lives and opt to pursue a craft skill they value, even when the financial rewards are slimmer than they are used to.
Responses to my post last week helped me establish a clearer understanding of the higher drivers in people forcing this change to occur, and, over the course of the next 10 days, I will endeavour to broaden and extend the ideas on these motivations which, I hope, will help answer some the questions so many of us ask ourselves everyday, like: “How can I reach fulfillment and still earn money?” and “What will I have to show for myself when my working life is over?” I will post one thought a day until the program airs and hope that you, my fellow craft enthusiasts, will respond with your opinions, testimonials and anecdotes.
This is my first thought: Permanence
I believe that people who excel in a rural craft do so and love their craft because they achieve and enjoy a greater sense of permanence from connectedness. Working with their hands and minds, thinking and shaping with hands and tools simultaneously to transform materials, releases, I believe, a deeper sense of connectedness. It is hard to describe to anyone who has not experienced this symbiosis but the feeling is truly addictive and is capable of putting one into a sort of trance.
I can vouch for this. When I have worked wood for a long time and feel I have achieved some measure of mastery, I feel myself after some hours, enter a state of contemplation and ecstasy, in which I shut off from the world outside and happily forget to do the mundane things such as eat and rest.
The feeling I am describing is something similar to that which I believe T.S Eliot describes in The Four Quartets, when, in his poem, he talks about being “At the still point of the turning world.”
A similar evocation comes from another author and craftsman I had the pleasure of reading this summer in the lovely little book titled “Delight”, and published exclusively as a exclusive collection for Waterstone’s. In this little book, David Linley, the bespoke furniture maker and chairman of Christie’s, reminds us wisely that “you don’t need constant change to be happy, you just need things to last.”
Likewise the modern philosopher Alain de Botton, in his book “The pleasures and sorrows of work” points to the satisfaction that comes from reshaping a part of the world into an object of permanence which he describes as “the stable repository of (…) skills and an accurate record of (the) years, (…) collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing (that) one could hold or see.”
I would be interested to hear anyone’s personal account of their communion in work.
If you would like to, do leave a comment below, or join in the discussion with over 500 other supporters of traditional crafts on the Mastercrafts Facebook page
Find out more about the book and pre-order here
“I love old buildings,” says stonemason Andy Oldfield, the master stonemason who acts as mentor to three unskilled enthusiasts in the Friday 19th March episode of Mastercrafts. Andy, until recently, worked at the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, one of Britain’s most spectacular Elizabethan houses. “I was taught the skills of the stonemason by Hardwick’s master mason Trevor Hardy. Working at Hardwick was a challenge and a privilege because the work done repairing and conserving the stone will last for generations.”
After what he describes as something of a mid-life crisis, Andy retrained as a stonemason at the age of thirty-one. Before that he’d worked in a succession of different jobs. But nothing captured his imagination in the way that stone carving did.
“I loved it from the first day of my apprenticeship,” he says. Like most apprenticeships the work of the stonemason starts with the basics, as Andy explains. “It’s quite simple really. You go to the quarry and get a rough block of stone. You then have to turn that rough block into a fairly precise cube. It’s a process known as ‘bonding in’. You make a flat surface on one side of the stone, using a simple chisel and mallet combined with special wooden blocks that are effectively depth guides to stop you taking too much stone away and to ensure that your finished surface is level.” He insists that once you are able to make a perfect cube – no easy task – you have all the basic skills necessary even for complex carving.
Andy is immensely proud of the long tradition of craftsmanship of which he is part. The materials from which the stonemason’s tools are made may have changed here and there over the years, but in terms of their basic design, they would be instantly recognised by a medieval stonemason. “Stonemasonry tool skills go back a thousand years and more,” he explains. “In addition to the skills needed to work stone, there is the knowledge of stone itself. Different stones have very different qualities. Sandstone, for example, is relatively easy to work because it is soft, whereas granite is difficult because it is very hard. That’s why granite chisels tend to be made in a far more resilient way. Once the stone is down to its basic shape the finer tools come into play. Decorative carving is difficult, there’s no doubt about it. We use fine tools and round nylon mallets – the heads of the mallets are round because it means they can be used from all angles. Stonemason’s mallets were once made from fruit wood, but nylon lasts much longer – perhaps as long as ten years.”
Andy is now concentrating on private commissions for stone carving and sculpture, and passing on his skills to others through courses. His business The Fringe Workshop is based in the Peak District.
Here is an inspiring video in which Andy talks about the turning point of his life when he managed to get an apprenticeship in stonemasonry with the National Trust.
Andy is featured in the tie-in book to the Mastercrafts TV series. You can find more information about the book and order it for £14 (RRP £20) here.