Weaving traditional crafts into the curriculum
Even half a century ago the rural Westcountry was awash with traditional and old-fashioned skills, but now they are disappearing. Martin Hesp has been learning about a new campaign which attempts to hold back the decay and bring them to a new generation.
Regions like the Westcountry are losing many traditional country crafts, despite the fact that hands-on cottage industries are worth billions of pounds to the UK economy each year.
That is the underlying belief behind a new campaign which has been launched to reverse the decline in rural crafts such as weaving, tapestry, felting, leatherwork, button making and willow weaving – and to stop some from dying out completely.
Teaching such crafts can be expensive, so the Heritage Crafts Association and FACE (Farming and Countryside Education) – with the support of the Ernest Cook Trust – have this week launched a project which is aimed at enabling teachers without specialist training to reintroduce the fun and learning opportunities of traditional countryside crafts into schools.
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Only last year the Government carried out a survey which found there were still more than 210,000 people working in 84,000 craft-related firms, with a total turnover of £10.8 billion in England.
"Some of the crafts are thriving, but the problem is that a lot of the people working in crafts are getting older and there is nothing in place to get younger people into those pastimes," commented Dr Pat Reynolds, administrator for the Heritage Crafts Association.
"In ten years, in some crafts, there will be nobody left," she told the Western Morning News. "We and other people are trying to preserve skills by doing things like video recordings with experts. The real way to learn, of course, is to sit at a bench and watch an expert, but if that's not possible there are other ways to preserve these skills."
Supporting the new campaign, former Further Education Minister John Hayes, now Minister without Portfolio, said: "Heritage crafts matter. These free downloadable resources with tested craft projects will bring an important part of our heritage and economy back into the classroom."
Study materials are aimed at non-specialist teachers and include notes on how a craft can be a focus and enhance study across the curriculum. They also include the background stories of various crafts featured, a personal statement by a maker, and details of a craft project for pupils to undertake themselves.
Commenting on the new campaign, Simon Williams, marketing officer for the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, told the WMN that the Westcountry was still fortunate in having a healthy number of people involved in the making of handcrafted objects.
"The last time I looked at Arts Council figures, the South West had around 19% of all the UK's craftspeople and makers," he said. "What we have here is a mix between contemporary and traditional. Quite often the skills are a continuum – skills are passed down and nurtured, which can be turned into contemporary work.
"A lot of crafts in Devon are based on traditional industries that were here historically. For instance, around Bovey Tracey many businesses were centred on the pottery industry because of the quality of the local clay. People might have been working in industries that were mass producing articles for sale, but now those same people are making individual items on a small scale.
"It has become more common for people to take up the mantle of previous skills left over from previous manufacturing industries," Mr Williams went on. "So a lot of the battle in saving old crafts is about retaining the skills where they exist. That seems to make sense in areas where there is a bit of a stronghold – like, for example, in Somerset where there's always been willow making."
Dr Reynolds told the WMN: "Craftspeople can look for ways in which they can afford to take on apprentices – but the trouble is it is difficult to train people. One of the things they can do is join our association and help us push forward with training programmes.
"It is vitally important we do this – for example, we are at the moment getting the last maker of wooden ladders anywhere in the UK to pass on his skills. Wooden ladders are particularly important in the thatching industry where a thatcher who has to use ladders all day every day wants something that has been made specifically for him. Modern metal ladders only come in certain sizes."
The Heritage Crafts Association is leading the new project utilising the knowledge, experience and contacts of FACE to ensure that the resources are fit for purpose and that the resources are made directly available to the widest audience of teachers.