From blacksmithing to basketry, from weaving to wood-turning, we have an incredible range of heritage craft skills in the UK and some of the best craftspeople in the world. But many of these skills are dying out, or even in danger of disappearing. We all need to do whatever we can to prevent this — which could include anything from buying handmade, British-made products to learning a new craft.
One craftsperson doing his bit is Aaron Petersen of Ferric Fusion, whom I met during a recent visit to Carmarthenshire. Aaron has been making ironwork for more than two decades. After six years’ work as the resident demonstrating blacksmith in the National Museum of Wales, he now runs ‘learn to blacksmith’ courses in St Clears, passing on the intricacies of this ancient craft. (And very adept — and patient — he is too, as I can testify: he guided me, a first-timer, expertly through the process of hand-forging a wrought-iron hammer-in beam hook.)
Also, for the last two years (with the help of a generous grant from the Radcliffe Trust) the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) has been assessing the vitality of the UK’s traditional heritage crafts and identifying those crafts most at risk of disappearing.
The issues affecting the viability of heritage crafts (defined as “a practice which employs manual dexterity and skill and an understanding of traditional materials, design and techniques, and which has been practised for two or more successive generations”) are many and varied: an ageing workforce; a general lack of training opportunities; a lack of awareness that the craft exists as a viable career option; problems in recruiting new entrants to the craft; falling demand for craft products; the unwillingness of customers to pay higher prices for handmade and British-made products; and competition from overseas.
The HCA has now published the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts, the first study of its kind in the UK. This research (available in full online at the HCA website) is enabling the HCA to shine a light on this important aspect of the UK’s heritage that has, until now, been languishing in the dark.
The research makes fascinating if sometimes salutary reading. Here we are in the midst of the cricket season, and it is shocking to read in the report that nowadays no one manufactures cricket balls in the UK — cricket ball making is now classified as ‘extinct’.
“It is our hope that this research will be a call to action to those who have it within their power to resolve or alleviate these issues,” says HCA project manager Greta Bertram, “and that this project will mark the start of long-term monitoring of heritage craft viability and a shared will to avoid the cultural loss each time a craft dies.”