Dying Crafts. What to Do?

I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme with a presenter named Jenny Murray talking about 17 crafts on the ‘Red Endangered List’, where certain crafts are in danger of disappearing. Of course we have seen crafts disappear because there was no use for them anymore. John Seymour wrote a book about the Forgotten Crafts decades ago and of course forgotten does eventually translate into lost.

This endangered list, put together by the Heritage Crafts Association, was a research list of crafts possibly about to disappear but wasn’t really comparable to say the endangered species list where we know we must preserve an habitat area or a food source that keeps birds or animals or plant life alive because of ecological reasons, you know, to reestablish what became an imbalance, but I wanted to ask you how you felt about our part in keeping some crafts alive for the sake of it. In the discussion it came about that horse collar making could disappear. These collars were for draft animals and were custom made to fit the horse and were leather collars stuffed with straw that was specifically fitted to the individual horse. It wasn’t that there wasn’t still a modest level of demand for collars but that the trade was not being followed because of the precarious nature of usage and of course as the generations of collar makers lessens apprenticing with a bona fide master becomes hard to find. The other craft in the show was paper marbling. This was presented as a craft that had both historic value and conservation and restorative value too. Who is it that can replicate the old styles to an authentic style and will this knowledge pass without trace with no one to take over?

Of course low demand, over expense often leads not just to the loss of the craft but those who were masters in their field. It wasn’t unusual for a man or women to find factory work supported the family needs better than the craft itself. I asked myself the question should any craft be kept alive for the sake of it if it has no service to the future beyond simply proving its past validity in support of life itself i.e. a horse collar used in a harness for a ploughing team to till the ground, harrow and harvest say? Or indeed marbling paper for lining books when no one marbles paper to much nor do we see such books, ledgers and so on? If the reasons are substantive, it is not that life will stop, as with the wildlife, but that the craft will indeed be lost and forgotten.

When we lose a craft we lose skills and we also lose the tools and techniques and methods. In many cases, pottery for instance, the craft is often preserved through amateur realms where enthusiasts have kept the craft alive because they use non industrial methods. Some crafts, like those mentioned above, will never be industrialised because there is not the demand. I just wondered what you thought; horse collars or paper marbling, basket weaving and wicker work, should more effort go into supporting them or do we just watch them die away in a slow and lingering death? I think that this is more important than we may think. Please give this some thought. Deep thought! Perhaps there is more we need to and can do.

58 thoughts on “Dying Crafts. What to Do?”

  1. It seems that the question relies on how one considers the relation contained within the act (the work). It’s self-evident that any work has the structure: I do X because of Y. Y of course could just as easily represent existential fulfilment as it could financial profitability. Say we take horse collar making. 1) Horse collar making is worthwhile (worth preserving) because people need well-made horse collars, and so conversely when people no longer need well-made horse collars, horse collar making ceases to be of value on account of the severing of the relation; i.e. X no longer to lead to Y, Y being the reason that X was undertaken in the first place. 2) Horse collar making is worthwhile (worth preserving) because of the intrinsic worth of the proper exercise of the practice (the craft). (1) and (2) are quite radically divergent. In (1) the craft is of worth only while it is expedient in a broadly supply and demand context. This invites a further question about a possible distinction between ‘a craft’ and ‘a trade’, in which a ‘trade’ is what one does to live (as employment) and a ‘craft’ is what one does for pleasure or pastime. (Clearly this is only an illustrative distinction, since a trade can be exercised as a craft and a craft as a trade – many tradeswomen and men are masters in their craft – and because this is not the actual definition of a craft, but we can still play with the point for the sake of inquiry). We might take (1) to be typical of a ‘trade’ and (2) to be typical of a ‘craft’.
    But now we have to ask ourselves to which we are taking ‘preservation’ to apply. Do we want to keep a practise alive as a ‘trade’ or as a ‘craft’? And further still, does that matter? It probably does matter here, at least in part, since the act relies on a relation (which is not of course binary, since something may have value in the sense of having features of both (1) and (2) but in the case of ‘dying’ practises this is unlikely, otherwise they wouldn’t be dying). To preserve something there is necessarily some value attached on account of which it is worthy of preservation, and because the value is embodied in a relation it seems necessary to know and acknowledge the relation in order to acknowledge the value.
    If horse collar making or paper marbling really disappeared, would we be sad because no one was left who knew how to do it, i.e. no one had inherited, which aligns more readily with (2) it or because no one wanted traditionally made horse collars or marbled paper and so there was no one left who could make a living from it and consequently no one who learned (and therefore knew) how to do it, which aligns more broadly with (1).
    In asking myself this question, I’m minded that in the case of woodwork I’m sad that not that many people still build buildings or furnishings in the way that once they did as a trade. This being broadly to do with supply and demand, that sadness attached to the lack of demand on the part of the people more generally and the wider attitudes this implies. Occasionally too I’m minded to reflect on the possibility that some trades may risk becoming gentrified. In Britain at least this is not such a new danger; in Paul’s book I found the (rightfully) damning description of opulent ivory plough planes very striking. It is somewhat perverse that rich men would fetishize the tools of men they more broadly supressed. In this I observe too that the joiners I’ve worked with don’t too much like ‘‘hobbyists’’ and ‘’hobbyists’’ don’t too much interact with tradesmen. Which is not by any means necessarily a criticism of either but does seem to suggest the divergence of (1) and (2), and is somewhat curious.
    In considering the question and it’s wider implications more broadly, I’m minded lastly to reflect on the warnings of Sallust and Tacitus, paraphrased by Skinner, that ‘’when a whole nation is inhibited from exercising its highest talents and virtues, these qualities will begin to atrophy and the people will gradually sink into an abject condition of torpor and sluggishness’’.

    1. I am firmly of the opinion that my craft, furniture making, joinery, woodturning and most woodworking in general will be preserved and conserved through the unique culture amateurism provides these days. That is, a body of people, individuals, that support organisations and get together to learn from one another. I often tell my students that amateurs will do it whether they get paid or not. Tie their hands and feet together and they will still work wood. Professionals only work for money. Now, I hasten here, I know many professional woodworkers who are really true amateurs. They too will never stop working wood no matter the obstacles.

  2. Those crafts that have artistic value to the public will survive. People will find uses for marbled paper if only to frame it and hang it on a wall. Those crafts that were essentially utilitarian (horse collars) will fade away in the industrial world. Some of those crafts will be maintained in the third world until they are overtaken by “progress”.

    1. You will have to explain this to the Amish in the U.S.. At the present time there is a great resurgence in the use of draft horses. All kinds of new horse equipment is being built. At an event called Horse Progress days a lady from France showed a new type of collar they are producing.

      1. The concerns we’ve been discussing came from a discussion on BBC’s Radio 4 and was about the demise here in the UK f certain crafts. Having lived permanently in the USA and indeed working very much with and in the craft world there I also understand the dynamics controlling and influencing USA crafts. I assume you are American in the USA but that may be wrong. Regardless of the positive spin people living in the USA may have about crafts in the various sectors, the US is as far away from a resurgence as the rest of the world is and if we who admire take our eye off the ball or ease up on pressure to and from political agendas we will certainly lose what we know to be valid for a massive range of people who have yet to discover what we are talking about.

  3. As a budding cello maker I wonder why a Cello was the picture used for this article? It did not appear on the list (at least I couldn’t find it), but it’s appearance here had me worried.

    I assume you are concerned with planes being on the list.

    1. I am not at all worried about plane making becoming a lost craft because plane making is simply a woodworking craft and most any decent hand tool woodworker will do as they did in the pre 1700s and simply make their own. Plane making, that is wooden planes, will never really die out as long as there are woodworkers and we have wood. We have provided enough video work on plane making now and I have no doubt that planes will always be around. As far as metal cast planes go, this is simply an engineering process requiring only basic engineering skills and even fancier infil planes can be made by most engineers. I included the instrument to inspire not represent. There will always be violin makers around I am sure because the societies of makers are so engaged and of course players are always looking for quality instruments.

  4. Dear Mr. Sellers: thank you for the inspiration and hard-work you put on sharing your knowledge, passion and experience.

    As for the topic, I see it as inside this relationship between practical need and value: it seems we are tend to value what we need. Looked from this perspective alone, once you don’t need the crafts, tools, methods then they will disappear to be replaced by new crafts and tools and methods (or maybe a trip to the local store to buy an already made, one-size-fits-all item).

    But I say that more than valuing what we need, we should do what we love, as this is the quintessence of life. If you have no practical need for something but you enjoy doing it just for the sake of happiness and joy, it is for me valid – if not even more valid – to pursuit it.

    The issue is that most societies see individuals as labor and they are required or motivated to do jobs they don’t like to buy stuff they (mostly) don’t need. This kills the spirit and leaves no space, time or energy to pursuit what really sparkles every one of us. Actually, industrialization was sold as the way to shift the human spirit from repetitive tasks to the free time to engage on joyful activities (that might very well fall into what we call “work”). Maybe universal income will achieve this idyllic state? Maybe when the focus is not on productivity but on happiness we will recover these lost crafts, not because we need them but because they make us happy.

      1. Let’s be nice now. I personally regard contentment as a much higher plain to aim for. It’d been an anchor for me and concluding most tasks brings that to my life but then there are moments of joy mixed in there and bursts of happy working too.

        1. Telmo Oliveira

          And could you or would you achieve mastery without that contentment, without the joy and happiness of doing what you do? Would you be the great communicator as you are without the passion people see in you?

          I find it to be the greatest motivator. And wonder what drives Craig into woodworking 🙂

    1. If you think this universal income will bring you happiness and give you extra spare time for the craft then you’re deluding yourself.

  5. I without hesitation jump to the defense of heritage crafts and demand that they are supported, subsidized and funded as a necessary preservation of our culture and heritage, we in Britain invest in Jazz, Opera and Classical Music not for any material benefit but because culture enriches our society. It doesn’t matter if it’s basket weaving, boat building, carriage building or any other thing, we need to establish places where these crafts can thrive separate from any profit motive, investment in heritage skills and crafts centers is direly needed to stem any further decline.

    1. Gavin, I suspect that we all might feel the same way, protective of the past for the betterment of the future and keeping the best of the past and uniting it with the present and the future because of its inherent good and, after all, these are very much the more proven technologies rather than preservation for nostalgic reasons only.

  6. I as a church musician have recently contemplated the same as I see old hymns being replaced by modern worship music.
    Many churches now in the US have no hymnal, instead a television screen on which the words are displayed for the congregation to see. Most of the older musicians that know this music are dying off, and I have experienced a couple of situations where an artist will take an old hymn, re- vamp it, modernize the music and publish it. When I mentioned to those friends of mine listening to the song on the radio that, “Hey, that’s an old hymn”, they have not a clue.
    But there a lot of times are people who will stumble onto something, fall in love, and keep it alive just because. I don’t know if it is still going on, but a few years a go there was a pretty steady effort to preserve the old folk music.
    Just some thoughts.

    1. Thanks for this Mike, it might seem a little diversion but I think not.We must always put craft work into context and see it as part of culture rather than isolated as preservation or conversation along. Culture is always changing and by its very nature is a very powerful dynamic in that it determines how we speak, what we eat, what we wear and much more than I can say here. In essence it is supernatural.

      1. Paul, I think we in the modern world are bemoaning the loss of craft or trade but forget that a large part of the world is still practising blacksmithing, tinsmithing, brick making, basket making, etc.. They tend to see it as a trade for making an income. By the way try finding a machine that can shoe a horse.

        1. Not sure what “we in the modern world” means particularly but I am sure we are all just as aware that not all the world has fallen under the spell of modern ‘progress’. Our modern world demands that all the rest of the world adopts what we have which is not necessarily craft but technologies and machines developed by industry for industry for producing mass-manufactured goods. It’s important to see that whereas the Amish in the USA may well be making and supplying collars and harnesses from what some will consider a more self-styled, artificial world, there is a demise elsewhere that cannot be arrested by farmers returning to draft animals for production.

  7. It is almost inevitable that craft skills not currently needed or fashionable,will wither. Perhaps those still engaged in trades where they feel that skills may go extinct might be persuaded to fully document, in film or words, their arts. I do know that some expert tradesmen are loth to fully explain their methods in case of helping out the competition.
    When any fully developed and once necessary craft disappears it is a cause for regret, But if one does it is our fault, like the destruction of our environment,the climate etc.

  8. I wonder what the endangered craft list would be if it were written for the U.S. instead of the U.K. It seemed to me there in the states there are at least strong hobby movements that preserve many of the crafts on the Heritage craft association list. There are around me fiber arts guilds, turning guilds, carving guilds, knife makers, spoon carvers, glass blowers, black smithers, etc. So I wonder what the conditions are that put a craft on the list. I will have to read more on this.

    1. I agree. I was thrilled when I arrived in the USA to see just how much effort the Americans put into their craft work and the support of all types of crafts by actually seeking out hand made craft work to buy. Good for you USA. Europe is a very different world, I’ve seen.

  9. Matt Shacklady

    Are we making a judgement call today on the future? Who is to say whether horse collar making will be needed in the future? Imagine a scenario where a basic income is provided to everyone by government (as is being trialled in places right now) and people see work differently. Someone chooses to farm using draught animals and so will need collars. The meaning of work will have changed. Profit is no longer the main driving factor and so they approach work differently, choosing a more ecological way of working, a more fulfilling way of working(?). Granted the need probably won’t be huge, and it can all probably be re-invented, but why do that?
    I find books (even on woodworking) don’t go far enough on showing technique and the little unspoken things that are picked up from a lifetime of doing something(or many lifetimes of those that have come before). How to hold a tool, how to select materials, the feel of a finished product, etc. That’s the kind of thing that we need to make sure is passed on. Video seems to be doing that for woodworking (although there are gaps: e.g. sash making). If we capture the endangered crafts and the wisdom of those still practising it on as many media as possible then we have the chance to resurrect it in the future.

    1. I’m not altogether sure really. There is a good possibility that new technologies might replace the moulding of straw stuffing with a new material as yet undiscovered. I may dislike MDF and what it stands for but it has become ubiquitous to every woodworker as far as I can see and meet these days. The only reason stuffing horse collars might escape such possibilities is the low demand I suppose.

  10. I grew up in a community that had, and I believe still has, a large Amish population. When I was about 15, I spent a pleasant afternoon watching the Amish tenants on our farm make a harness.Don’t worry, as long as there are Amish on this earth, harness making will survive.

  11. I believe in survival of the fittest, whether it’s craft or business. We still have a good following in woodworking, but who knows what is to be left 200 years from today. Both the amateur and professional (production) woodworkers will be shrinking in population over time in my view.

    The new generation is drawn to technology (everywhere I go, I see kids glued to their digital devices and kids spend even less time in outdoor activities, compared to 20 or 30 years ago). Their span of attention, according to some studies, is reducing which, as we know, is pre–requisite for fine work.

    Woodworking, plane making, etc. should still be fine as a craft in the next 50 years. I am less optimistic about the state of craft for those sectors after 100 years.

  12. In preserving, are we talking about government funding or individuals purchasing products from people making handcrafted items?

    I am not sure about in the UK, but there are government run historic villages that do preserve old crafts. The one that comes to mind is Colonial Williamsburg.

    Then there are areas in the US where there is a market for handcrafted items (including horse collars). I grew up in the largest Amish/Mennonite community in the world. People would flock there to purchase Amish items, hire Amish construction crew, etc.. I know that in Lancaster PA, the Amish name produces around $2 billion dollars a year.

    I guess the question that comes to mind is, is it right to spend someone else’s money (tax dollars) or should we fork out the extra money and buy handcrafted items? How many items are in our homes could re replace with handcrafted items? Furniture, belts, bags, footwear, cloth, etc… If there was a market for the craft, it will not die. The only way there is a market is if people purchase those items.

    1. “If there was a market for the craft, it will not die. The only way there is a market is if people purchase those items.”

      I suppose few would argue handmade goods are appealing. The question is Can people afford them? or Are people willing to pay for the higher prices those handmade goods command?

      People with good tastes and/or with money have always been buying custom or handmade goods. The problem is they are the minority and they are not large enough to support the craft sectors. The people I know who do custom woodworking work almost all have another job or means to support their woodworking passion and ideals. If you asked me, they make at the most what an average worker makes or slightly better, with their two jobs. How can a craft survive in the long term if people in that trade struggle to keep a decent living?

      If I guessed, I would say 60% to 70% of hand tool purchases came from amateurs; few professionals would keep buying new “toys” whenever they are released into the market.

  13. I feel that as a hand tool worker both as a hobby and at work , I am shaping the future not hanging on to the past. When I make or repair something the energy consumed comes from breakfast cereal and toast. The tools are older than me and will be passed on .
    When the gas runs out and the lights go out , we will have to look at working as energy efficiently as possible. Yes machines will do the heavy work but muscle power will have to fill the gap. Heavy horses may well make a limited come back for some tasks and the throw away plastic items of today may be replaced with biodegradable items made using adapted traditional methods.
    Crafts can adapt: putting an individual finish to a machine made base. Adding beauty to function.
    As craft workers we should look ahead with hope . We can have our cake and eat it!

  14. To me the biggest loss will be understanding the lifestyle of the artisans working the lost crafts. What was a horse collar makers day like? We’ll lose the understanding of what relationship is needed with the horses and farmer, his suppliers and tool makers ( the ecosystem of farming equipment). What other things would a horse collar maker make? What did he make for people special to him?

    That said I suspect that many specialized crafts will be preserved to some extent by generalist artisans. If someone deeply understands the nature of a material (say leather, metal, wood) and the processes of working said material I suspect they could preserve a craft to some extent. If there is a need for restoring a craft, I trust thoughtful artisans to figure things out.

    1. I would that we could have genuine films of old makers with a lifetime of experience. They handled the tools and materials totally differently than enactors do. Some crafts have already gone because the old makers and their environmental cultures have I am sad to say. But I do think there is a place to support those dedicated to the work of cultural conservation and such.

      1. You don’T suppose there are people out there who simply have not heard about different crafts and are looking for something?

        1. Personally I think devices like the one I am typing my response on has taken its toll and instead f getting out there making people spend masses of time playing. Thats the strange thing. My audience now learns to work wood through the same technology that is damaging other aspects of societal life. I reach hundreds of thousands every month. The question then becomes am I entertainment or an encouragement to get out there and do? Young parents with babies are creating their own problems. I noticed recently that babies and parents have very little eye contact as both parents are staring more at their smart phones than looking at their babies; they can no longer rely on the bonding that takes place when parents no longer making the kind of eye contact we did with our babies. This was also an article in a national newspaper which suggested that this deprives the babies of the nurturing love a simple staring into eyes can have. We will not know the outcome of this until it is already too late. So, in answer, I don’t know if people see that such possibilities exist for them but I do believe that it is getting less not because there isn’t information out there but a dearth of what information consumes and that is PAYING attention!

  15. I’m more worried we have a lot of small and big factories closing in Europe and opening in Asia. No computers made in europe, no google, tesla, spacex. This means skills are lost, and we are not driving technology. Big problems are high taxes and regulation. It’s cheaper to produce something in china and ship to UK than produce in UK and ship to Italy. We have to make some big changes.

    1. This sounds like what Trump in the States when as a candidate was trumping about (no pun intended): change the dynamics of global trade so American (in your case, European) jobs can be created or saved. Trump is only in his first 6 months and it is still too early to say if he will succeed on that count. But the chances of success are getting slimmer by the day, if you ask me. He is more likely to use trade decisions as political leverage with China rather than for economic reasons.

      Trade wars will result in losses on both sides and that means it is a give and take. You may gain by keeping some jobs but so will the other party, in this case, Asia, including China as the major but not the only, player. Korea, Japan ,Taiwan, India, to name a few, are also producers of many imported goods.

      Last time when I was in London, I was hard pressed to find British goods that were actually made in Britain. The same in Rome, Italy (except some clothing), or Spain. So I understand where you came from.

  16. I’ve been a finish carpenter for 30 years every senses the last day off high school. The thing that worries me is the young people I see every day don’t wanna put in the time and effort it takes to be a good carpenter. They don’t wanna start at the bottom putting nail holes and sweeping saw dust after the journeyman running and getting tools out of the back of the truck. They want top dollar they want it now and there will be no cutting and nailing base for years to get the experience of angles and how to achieve some of the special techniques it takes to achieve a nice tight fit. It saddens me to see the future of finish carpentry at least in Washington State I can’t say for the rest of the world. After you’re done reading this remember I’m a carpenter not a scholar. Have a great day.

    1. Chris Goodrich

      You’re dead on, James. The social structure of raising kids is not what it used to be, and in my opinion not for the better. My Grandmother used to say “it takes a village to raise a child”. Now we can’t correct a child’s mistakes.

      Back to your statement, it reminds me of my 78 yr old father’s favorite saying about the young generation and their expectations of work; “they don’t want to work, they just want a paycheck”.

  17. As a traditional Boat Builder, Sail Maker, Rope Maker, and Rigger, I see no threat in lack of demand for these services. Demand is probably actually on the rise!
    But, and it’s a big but, it is getting harder and harder to get good quality hemp fibers for Rope Making, or good quality cotton cloth for Sail Making, or cupper nails and roves for Boat Building.
    Take traditional Rope Making, there is demand enough for maybee four proffessionals here in Sweden. Since Hungary has stopped growing hemp all hemp is now grown in China. 99.999% of the hemp market is in textiles and insulation, the companies that produce hemp has no interest in selling less than a container, which would last perhaps 10 years for the Rope Maker. Quite an investment. But worse is that the long fibres in hemp (which makes it such a good material) is not needed for textiles and insulation products, so the producers chop up the fibers to make them more manageable by the machines…

    1. Yes, every economist in their fat ivory towers praises the global economy we have created but the fat cats don’t make boats, sails or hemp ropes.

      1. I had to snigger at this remark. Mr. Sellers, I highly value your woodworking skills and learn a lot from them, but sometimes you sweep with a very broad brush…

        Perhaps it comes as a surprise that at least one of your readers/pupils is a business economist 🙂

        And this particular economist actually has built and repaired boats. Was building my first boat when I was about 5, starting out with the most important part: the instrument panel!

        But when it comes to boats I prefer epoxy & glass fibre (GFRP) over wood. Too much maintenance in wooden boats to my liking.

        (and realizing after I wrote this… I’ve actually repaired a sail too… nearly forgot about that one. Never made hemp ropes though).

        Your readers are of a very varied plumage indeed.

        1. They are (your last line) and I am about to start making a rowing vessel with one of my sons because we live virtually on the Thames. Its wood and epoxy/fibreglass.

  18. People today seem to forget that dead is dead. Nada, no more and when something like the traditional arts (among other things) dies then it is highly unlikely to be revived or reinstituted. I have Seymour’s (and others) books and enjoy them greatly and it would be a tragedy if their subjects were in fact at the end of the line. In Japan they have a scheme for want of better term where a master of a traditional nation art is revered by the nation as a whole and while we perhaps do not need to go to those lengths perhaps something similar could be put into place in the western countries. It also needs to be remembered that most of these skills, crafts and arts came about as the result of hundreds if not a thousand years of trial and error and suddenly, just in the last 50 odd years, we have ‘decided’ that they are now not needed. It seems, when thinking like that, a bit foolish to dump them at such short notice so to speak. The modern trends may turn out like other fads of today that have disappeared after a brief chance in the limelight. I say, preserve them at all costs – who knows, perhaps just highlighting them on TV or social media will give them their own chance to shine through the dross of modern life!

    1. I think we would have to revert back to or create another system other than colleges and universities being the qualifying institutions. They mostly give new graduates an artificial confidence that leaves them in to much debt and without a job outside of industrial machine work. If we think already that we are the new masters of our craft that too becomes an unrealistic expectation. I think craft training and apprenticing needs to take on a new dimension. My apprentices are very equipped to enter the world of crafting once they complete their time with me.

  19. I hope this conversation will continue beyond today. Some very interesting and valuable opinions have been expressed. May I recommend ‘Last of the Line, Traditional British Craftsmen’ written by Tom Quinn and Paul Felix.

    If still available try bookstores or order from David and Charles, PO Box 6, Newton Abbot, TQ12 2DW in the UK. (ISBN 0-7153-0726-6) Last printing was in 2000 so some of these traditional arts may now be gone. The book explores 20 different craft tradesmen who are among the last in their fields.

    All of our world society and collective culture is lessened when human skills of any kind disappear. Rah rah for machinery which can never have a soul or be able to express love. Computers and robots are our tools and our servants and let’s be sure we keep it that way.

    By holding on to and preserving our human creative skills, our arts and ability to construct rational thought without inordinate dependence on computers and machines we protect the essence of being human. Freedom to think, to explore, to question, to make, to create, to change, to grow, to adapt, to feel, to love, …… etc.

    Keep this conversation going….a robot will never understand a horse like a human can even if it can make a collar for it. Rah rah for humans.

  20. Miguel cobos gómez de linares

    Just a brief comment for two reasons: first, it is the first time I take part in this blog,; second, I am but an aficionado, just my love for wood and for the craft encourages me to participate; third, my english has limitations. Why then write a comment? I think the so called forgotten crafts -I also read Seymour’s book- are simply part of a tendence started decades ago, and that is the obsession for inmediateness and the permanent distraction from present and from reality. Many people nowadays don’t walk, don’t cook, don’t read, and in general don’t practice anything that flows slowly, quietly, and requires certain concentration, and a deeper perspective than what can be seen right in front of the nose. Many years ago, Lovelock formulated his theory of Gaia, the Earth as a whole, an ancient thought we owe the Greek, and he pointed the fact that most people don’t know how to build a fire, or work with simple tools to survive under difficulties, though we are menaced by the probability of undergoing harsh difficulties to survive due to the destruction of all the things we need to survive as a species. I must conclude: if we don’t learn how to work with our hands and if we don’t teach our children to do it and to respect those who still have the knowledge, and listen what they have to teach us, we are bound to disappear sooner than later, or even worse, live in a world that doesn’t make much sense.

    1. An issue I have come across and it’s a problem is the syndrome of the all-knowing parents who usher their children to the lowly carpenter’s bench and then describe what he is doing as if he is nothing more than a wax figure manipulated by clockwork and his vast knowledge as the father is to fill in the blanks for the kids. “Look!”, she says, “He’s making a dovetail joints with his knives and a hammer!.” But its a mortise and tenon joint, actually. Then the dad jumps in and say, “Look at his spokeshave.” and lifts up the cabinet scraper. “This is for making spokes for wagons.” Oh well, such is the age we live in. We freeze and pretend we are part of Madame Tussauds.

  21. Hi Paul – I enjoyed reading this. It brought to mind what has happened in my family. My grandfather was a farmer. If my grandfather needed a new chair or a table, he talked to his neighbor (a couple miles away….) who survived as a woodworker. My grandfather would give him a hog or a calf in exchange for a piece of furniture or custom wooden farm tools. It did not come from a store. The arrangement worked well for both of them. In my house today, I have a beautiful plant stand and a rocking chair made by this man. There is no brand label on it but I can tell that he made both of them. For his hard work and craftsmanship, he received food from my grandfather. No middle men, no brokers, no transportation – simple. Oh he also made mandolins and guitars. The older I get, the more I appreciate how this worked but it makes me sad because the area where my grandfather and the woodworker once lived is dominated by conglomerate corporate farms who are there for one purpose – profit. There are no family farms there anymore…..

  22. Industrialization — which can essentially be viewed the death of handcraft — has been enabled primarily by one thing — that being cheap fuels for production and transport from large centralized factories.

    Anyone who has studied our current energy supplies (which I would think should be particularly acutely understood in the UK with their dwindling North Sea fields!) knows full well that our era of affordable and plentiful fossil fuels is coming to an end.

    With this in mind, I’m quite convinced that many of our dying crafts will soon see revival as a matter of necessity, not for the sake of nostalgia. I’ve been building my own skills as much as possible, and find it to be the most satisfying part of my life!

    I, for one, use horse collars on a regular basis, and know of manufacturers nearby who still make them (Amish, not surprisingly). The widespread belief industrialization is a one-way street is completely ignorant of history (look at the loss of knowledge that came with the collapse of the Roman Empire, for instance) as well as our global energy situation. The massive growth of global debt — which began to grow exponentially with the peak of conventional oil reserves — should be enough to betray this fact to anyone.

    So for the time being we’d do well to preserve as much as we can. We’ll soon find it indispensable!

    1. Hear! Hear! David. I could not have put that better myself. Cheap fuel has been the common denominator for all globalisation of production and sale of cheap goods around the world. What happens when fuel is no longer cheap for the huge iron ore ships and coal ships to ply between Australia or Brazil and China and for the resulting products to then be again transported across the world as finished (or near finished goods) is difficult to say. We will have to live with a lower “standard of living” – that is for sure – but it may be the saviour of a lot of the skills we are talking about here. Skills long lost will have to be relearnt. Indispensable they may be when that happens! My only concern is that there may be so little timber left at that time that our descendants may have so little to work with!
      The debt issue is another issue entirely – and which could send us back to the feudalism from whence we have come.

  23. One skill set that appears to be making a revival is the craft of brewing beer. Small craft brewers are springing up and making a beer superior to the mass produced product. And people and taking notice and buying them.

    1. Do you think that they have applied ‘craft’ to crafting beers for a justifiable reason as it is purely a drink rather than something shaped and crafted three dimensionally into a thee-dimensional end product that remains as a shaped item?

  24. A thought about amateurs vs professional.
    I love to use my scythe to cut grass around the house. I have learned from the elder in my village and now I am the only one left that uses a scythe and maintains one properly peened and scharpened. I think once you have learned to use it, it is a very efficient tools and I love it. But when I look at what I do with it and what the people in my village used it for, maybe a centuary ago, it is totally different. I mow for at most one hour and that is it. I think I could not do what people did a centuary ago, first because I don’t have the strength and endurance they had and probably because the context is different. People worked together and there was a whole organisation behind this that allowed to harvest huge quantities of hay. For example they were able to mow in very steep locations where noone can go nowadays using a tractor and so even if I had the physical condition to mow all these steep slopes, I wouldn’t be able to bring in the hay because I don’t have the horses that were used at that time to pull up the hay in the slope. What is important is not only learning the craft by itself but also knowing the organisation around it and the life style. Even if I acquire all that knowledge, my body will not be in the shape needed to work as efficiently as people did and so what I am doing is a bit different.

    1. Hi Marc try to read “Good Neighbours” by Walter Rose, he tells of life in England circa 1870. He goes into great depth about the harvest cut by scythe……a very interesting read. I have also read his book “the village carpenter”

  25. This discussion brings to mind Robert Frost’s story about a New England axe helve maker…
    “Baptiste knew how to make a short job long
    For love of it. And yet not waste time either.”

  26. It’s interesting that it seems generally accepted that hand-made furniture is almost impossible to sell at a profit. I wonder why that is, as I would have expected that there would be a fairly lively market for quality pieces of furniture, regardless of price. I say that with the caveat that I’m a Londoner, and see lots of money around (little of it mine, but it is here).

    The obvious answer to unprofitable furniture making should be higher prices. But I presume there’s some reason higher prices aren’t possible. Is it the fact that so much antique furniture is available at often silly prices. Or could it be possible that hobbyist furniture makers are inadvertently harming the market for fine furniture by charging prices that undercut full-time professional furniture makers?

    p.s. I’ve seen some encouraging and some disparaging comments on a universal basic income. I don’t think this is the place to discuss the pros and cons. Which is a shame because I’d love to. But I’ll add my positive vote for the system.

    1. Of course you can make a living from hand made woodworking provided you have gained the skills to work efficiently. My life has proven that, being part of the pro machine age, mastering it and then returning to my core skills of hand tool woodworking. In my work hand cut dovetails are ten times faster than setting up the router and the jig and the sizing of dovetail etc. Skilled, workmanship is for the main part a craft of the past but we are effectively changing that in that it’s not professional woodworkers that will uphold the traditions of well-proven tried and tested technology but amateurs and it’s amateurs that actually have less time than professionals to perfect their skills; they just do it because they truly value the craft for all the right reasons and not mostly for money at all. Only a few professional furniture makers are skilled or efficient at hand work in my view, not liker in the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s. They often seem more the amateur than the professional in terms of skilled work when it comes to hand made and hand work, it does sadden me to to say that and I know it’s not that no skill exists at all. Mostly I say it based on students coming to visit me who are in or have just completed their degree courses and then because I see how long it takes some men to cut a basic half lap dovetail. What should take a few minutes often takes an hour or two. Because one person takes too long to be efficient does not mean it can’t be done. It just means they have not done it enough to be truly efficient with guaranteed results that’s all. And then most colleges are in the government pay anyway, they devote training to machine-making via industry with just a little nod to hand work to appease the students who went under the impression that they were indeed entering a sphere where they would develop skilled hand work. Often the colleges tell them it can’t really be done, but that’s mostly because they don’t know because they are mostly knowledge based instructors with little or no experience of working in the field as such, rather than it being experience-based.In my fifty plus years of making hand made pieces I have never not sold my work and I have always paid every bill as sole income provider.

  27. I very much agree, the real tragedy is that the one organisation that could pull some muscle here, the Crafts Council sit on their hands and do nothing. They are great at traipsing all over the world, working on their website and making themselves look important but when it comes to substantive work to support individual craftspeople or effective action to keep dying courses alive, they do nothing effective.

  28. Hello Paul,
    I live in Marostica Italy, here there was a tradition of making straw hats and bags. It was at one time a large industry for a beautiful small medieval town with a castle. A few times a year, there are festivals that show the traditional handwork of the past and a mature generation of weavers sell their bags and hats. They are absoutely wonderful and the price is embarassing low for the quality of the work they do. Craftsmanship, skilled fingers working away but they still have trouble selling a bag (a work of art) for 25-40 euros. The weavers are older than 65 some topping 85. A younger generation just does see the value or have the time to learn this. To work as efficiently as this crew does takes years of labor and love. Unfortunately, I think these skills will be lost because of the required time to master such a beautiful art and it would be difficult for someone today to be able to afford the time. Yes, a few follow the tradition but with each passing generation there will not be enough masters to pass the skills required for the even fewer that follow that generation. In the long run, I think it we be what we now view in a museum. There are real skills here even if the product is not required by our lifesyle anymore. The dexterity, coordination, planning and community that is required would be a benefit to everyone in trade for time spent on the cellphone but instead we shify to meditation classes and time alone with our social accounts. I don’t think the question of “should it be saved” helps, the answer seems to be that these trades won’t make into the future due to time constraints of staying alive and paying rent. A great video series produced in German – “Der lezten seines standes” is a tribute to things that will soon be gone, unfortunately.

    1. Politicians, educationalists, economists know nothing of craft and creative working with your hands. Their whole lives govern educators, trades, economies and much more. Most are privileged whether from privileged backgrounds or from education and finance.They generally know nothing of manual work except as interim jobs during their teen years or university–a few hours a week. I know that seems sweeping but having spoken to them it is as if a dark cloud descends over them and their eyes glaze until you are done trying in a few sentences to explain what art and creativity means to us. It was educationalists overseeing education that tied hands teacher’s hands and outlawed real woodworking and real metalworking. They were the ones that qualified general subject teachers to teach woodworking to boys and girls in the 1970s on up. Industrialists cry we have no people coming into our industry so we make technical geniuses fill the gap and robotics become the new working man. No one understands the significant importance of man’s need to work and, AND, to work with their own hands. How can such people living such privileged and detached lives know any different. I certainly do not think heritage crafts have real value in production today per se. We should not keep crafts alive on anticipation that we can retrieve a past “way of life” nostalgically. If a craft is held and demonstrated for viewing in a museum setting then that is significant in showing the past as a museum entity of insight and not as an industry. many crafts will indeed be lost over the next few decades… just as new ones will emerge.

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