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Traditional crafts: Once these skills are lost, they’re lost forever

As seen on Fashion Roundtable.


Source: Amgueddfa Cymru, Museum Wales. Sorting wool.


“My role is to use the deep historic importance of the industry to inform its future. This is all about sharing information and collaboration,”


Ann Whitall, Head of the National Wool Museum said.


I am sitting outside catching the last of the Summer sun, on the desk my partner built for me, my cat curled up on my lap. We discuss the historical significance of wool to Wales and the importance of this industry, particularly as it is in decline. Although we are speaking over Zoom, Ann still manages to emanate a level of passion, which I’ve come accustomed to feeling from those working in the woollen industry.


The National Wool Museum which forms part of Amgueddfa Cymru, has recently required one of the last remaining mills in Wales, Melin Teifi and part of this decision is centred around ensuring that skills are preserved on traditional machinery at a local level.


The National Wool Museum which forms part of Amgueddfa Cymru, has recently required one of the last remaining mills in Wales, Melin Teifi and part of this decision is centred around ensuring that skills are preserved on traditional machinery at a local level.

Ann said:


“We now have a team of four new craftspeople with Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company, who brings outstanding energy to retain traditional weaving skills on-site.


“The vision I have is that when Melin Teifi closes, the Museum plays an active role in preserving those traditional skills with an opportunity to keep Welsh flannel woven on-site.

“To hear the looms you have that sense of place straight away.”


Preservation of traditional skills is a significant aspect of the work that Amgueddfa Cymru do. As Ann and I talk more, we broach the subject of the very real threat that mill closures in Wales will have on the knowledge and skills associated with the industry.


Currently the Heritage Craft Association acknowledges that amongst other wool-related crafts, frame knitting is critically endangered. This was a domestic industry in which whole families worked, with men usually knitting and the women spinning the yarn and using needlework skills for seaming and embroidery.


As far back as 2003, UNESCO developed a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage which stated that safeguarding traditional craftsmanship should focus not only on preserving craft objects like the work that museums do, but also in a continuation in developing opportunities for and encouraging thereof artisans to continue with their traditional crafts so that they can transmit this knowledge to others.


A look through the urgent safeguarding list shows Indonesia is conscious of its Saman Dance; the United Arab of Emirates its traditional weaving skills; and China ancient Hezhen Yimakan storytelling. In fact, of the almost 200 countries who have signed the Convention as part of their cultural policy, the United Kingdom is not one of them.


Source: Amgueddfa Cymru, Museum Wales. Exterior of the National Wool Museum.


Ann said:


“Once these skills are lost, they’re lost forever.


“As part of the wider Amgueddfa Wales, we have an important role in preserving heritage and skills and we take our responsibility towards that narrative very seriously.


“There is great potential for young designers to utilise our ready-mill facility. As the museum also houses the National Collection of Textiles there is a substantial archive of patterns which would be great to see utilised as a research resource.”


Ann tells of the volunteers who come daily to the museum and spin wool, thereby animating the space. Unless a concerted effort is made, there is a serious danger of skills which have been around for centuries dying out. Her hope is for young designers to work with the archives of patterns housed in the museum.


“We very much see our role as an opportunity to tell more of the sustainability and amazing properties of wool, as well as a wider conversation around maintaining heritage and skills and the benefits crafting does for wellbeing.”


This recognition that younger generations need to be more involved in the woollen industry is paramount to its success moving forward. Wool has numerous sustainability credentials and it being Wales’ regional fibre crop, working with this fibre while maintaining traditional and useful skills is paramount, particularly if this can also act to build a sense of community and wellbeing.


As our chat finishes, I am heading to the local Abergele Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. This is a local group founded in 1985 and affiliated with the National Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.


However, like many of the mills in the area, the group is at the brink of closure, partly due to Covid and a lack of members returning. A point which Ann touched on was fresh in my mind and I was keen to ask the members whether they felt a sense of wellbeing and community from attending.


I am with my five-year old and we inevitably take a wrong turn on the way, ending up down a narrow country lane and surrounded by sheep. The irony is not lost on me. As we turn around I spot a bustle of women carrying spinning wheels and baskets of wool into a Church hall.


A red-phone box in the car park serves as a foodbank, overloaded with non-perishables but also books and toys, a signal to the impact that the cost-of-living crisis is having on rural Welsh economies.


Source: Researcher’s own image.A foodbank outside a local Guild in Wales.


Once parked, we enter somewhat timidly to a flurry of activity. Tea is being made in the kitchen, tables are being erected and chairs put out. At the other end of the hall, women are going through a number of Guild magazines and other relics and creating a table to sell some of these items to raise money for their group.


Jenni Frost who is standing in as chair for the local guild, comes to sit with me, her clear determined eyes speak before she does. She nods to the tables and explains that they haven’t had members regularly since the pandemic hit and combined with the cost-of-living crisis, this had been a major blow to their group. Jenni said:


“We’re in an era of desocialisation and due to the cost-of-living crisis, we have members who can’t afford the petrol to attend. The cost-of-living crisis is a concern.”


The group currently meets once a month. Jenni tells me that they teach the entire process from fleece to yarn. Wool requires many processes to turn it from fleece to a finished yarn used for weaving or hand knitting.


This begins with classes on washing fleeces; carding* the wool where it is combed and untangled; to foraging sessions for botanical dyeing classes; and spinning classes, drawing out fibres and twisting them to form a continuous yarn. The conversation flows onto the combined skills the group have. Jenni said:


“Our members are very talented in-house and are happy to share this talent.


“We exist to keep traditions alive. It’s a way to acquire and pass on knowledge and also update skills.


“Industrious crafts like spinning are very calming. The group brings people together with other like-minded individuals.”


This sense of wellbeing is echoed within the group and as Jenni gets caught up with a question from another member I walk around and chat to the women. Some are spinning wool, the sound filling the room. A breeze comes in through the open door and the smell of Wales’ regional fibre flock mixes with freshly cut grass from the adjoining field.


Allyson Lysak is working to card wool on the group’s shared machine with another lady, Valerie Hill. Allyson said:


“Skills will die out, if we don’t maintain the traditional skills.


We come here to meet each other, for relaxation and to learn new skills. It helps us forget about our troubles.”


The woman next to her, Valerie weighed in as she handled a dark brown fleece, a colour which is unfavoured at scaled-up production. As if sensing my question, Valerie said:


“It’s wonderful to come here and collaborate with a mix of skills and knowledge. Although there is no value in colourful fleeces to British Wool, they’re of tremendous value to us.”


One of the only Welsh speakers in the group relays her memories of her mother knitting and how Anne Campbell sat down with her and initially taught her to spin at her local mill in Trefriw.


Jenni comes and joins me once more and we discuss the sheer volume of fleeces that the group receives as farmers want to get rid of them due to the monetary value they receive in return being at an all-time low. Jenni sympathises with the current situation, as she herself understands the work that goes into sheep farming, owning her own ethical flock.


Image: Jenni Frost.


“I have kept sheep for years. For the last seven years I have been working to perfect my fibre flock. This involves a high level of husbandry, with no stress for the flock as this causes the fibre to break, and also not overgraze.


“They have 16 acres to themselves, and are an ethical flock meaning they will be with me for life. These are primitive Shetlands which are wonderful for garments offering very fine wool.”


The Rare Breed Survival Trust had initially classified Shetland sheep as endangered in the 1970’s, however by the early 2000’s they were removed from the list due to their growing popularity for smallholders and hobby farmers who kept the sheep not only for its fineness but also for the sheer range of colours available.


Jenni shows me some of her spun Shetland wool which had been dyed in a gorgeous olive green and rusty orange. However, the fragmented supply chain and accessibility to people with traditional skills are hard to come by, with waiting times for small-dye runs of up to a year. Jenni feels that the lack of mills for processing in North Wales is also a poignant step that needs to be addressed. Jenni says,


“This is very hard without some know-how and locally sourced and produced yarns are happening in pockets of communities, but the supply chain is fragmented and it’s very hard to connect to the correct people like dyers, with very high up-front costs.”

Jenni’s commitment to this group of women is palpable as she shares her hope for the small community of skilled women that she is part of. Jenni said:


“Pre-covid we had a wool festival yearly where we sold our own fleeces and yarn, as well as friendship days with other guilds. Success would mean bringing this back and recruiting new members.”


Writer’s daughter with raw fleece.


As we go, my little girl and I leave laden with a small peg loom for rug making, and a courgette from someone’s garden, as well as a stack of weaving magazines. This is a group that is desperate for new members and with the welcome we received, we’ll certainly be back.


While driving home through the countryside the clouds hang low and the higgledy lanes stretch on towards the glistening sea. As we make our ascent up the Sychnant pass we are met with sheep and Carneddau ponies, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was a missing piece to this story.


In the group I had watched as my little girl sat in awe, with my mum and auntie, two very talented spinners and weavers, while a lady demonstrated how to blend wool. When we got home she asked if she could learn more.


Preserving heritage


This is when Daniel Carpenter, the Operations Director of the Heritage Crafts Association offered some insight into the barriers faced by traditional crafts. Daniel said:


“It's a combination of things. Often craftspeople are so busy fulfilling the demands of a niche market that if they step away from production in order to train people then when they return that market might have gone elsewhere and many can't afford to step away from production as they are operating marginally profitable businesses.


“A trainee is a liability for the first couple of years before they can become an asset and increase the income of a business, and there is no guarantee they will stay employed with that business. So financial help is needed to mitigate the risk.


“Only around a quarter of the crafts we cover have apprenticeship standards that allow employers to draw down government funding to help take someone on, and even if they do there are a lot of bureaucratic burdens that many microbusinesses aren't set up for.


“We need more apprenticeship standards, more institution based training, more practical subjects taught in schools. We also need greater public appreciation of heritage crafts to drive all of that and support the prices that skilled craftspeople need to charge in order to remain viable.”


Currently in Wales the Heritage Craft Association has funded two projects looking at endangered basket-making skills. One of which was cockle-basket making in the Gower Peninsula, the other lip-work basketry.


Although the Association has plans to look at more indigenous crafts in Wales in the future, Daniel shares that they have managed to get further in Scotland so far. Daniel talked of Scotland’s advancement over the current Westminster Government on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Daniel said:


“The Scottish Government has always been further along than the Westminster Government in terms of Intangible Cultural Heritage and it is likely that if they gain independence they will be ratifying the UNESCO Convention.


“We need the government to ratify the 2003 UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage to help raise awareness and direct support.”


A recent report found that the number of younger people taking up Design and Technology qualifications had declined drastically in England, with 21.8% in 2020 entering a Design and Technology GCSE, compared with 44.2% in 2009. When asked about the links between the education system and the decline in crafts, Daniel agreed that this is rooted in the current curriculum favoured by Westminster, Daniel said:


"There's a wider social aspect. Crafts and all practical and creative subjects have been pushed out of the schools' curriculum over successive decades with a focus on core subjects like English, maths, science and IT. But that's all based on a very narrow definition of economic productivity of the jobs the government wants people to go into.”


Success therefore in preserving crafts requires a plurality of approaches in which the government has a role to not only safeguard crafts, but also in exposing these crafts to the younger generation. Daniel agreed and offered the Heritage Craft Association’s desire for a Craft College, somewhere where these skills and crafts could be taught. Daniel said:


"In the long term I think a lot of this is around public perception and people valuing craft skills as part of our culture. People don't think of skills as cultural and perhaps when you think of culture you think of opera or books and literature, you don't necessarily think of the social practices.


“And I think that's related to a kind of gatekeeping by a cultural elite over a number of centuries, that working-class occupations have been annexed outside of culture and that continues to this day.


"There's really so much potential that we're not tapping into, in terms of placing us globally in the world as a craft capital.”


Source: Colette Davies. Lip-work basketry.


Currently in Wales the Heritage Craft Association has funded two projects looking at endangered basket-making skills. One of which was cockle-basket making in the Gower Peninsula, the other lip-work basketry.


Although the Association has plans to look at more indigenous crafts in Wales in the future, Daniel shares that they have managed to get further in Scotland so far. Daniel talked of Scotland’s advancement over the current Westminster Government on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Daniel said:


“The Scottish Government has always been further along than the Westminster Government in terms of Intangible Cultural Heritage and it is likely that if they gain independence they will be ratifying the UNESCO Convention.


“We need the government to ratify the 2003 UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage to help raise awareness and direct support.”


A recent report found that the number of younger people taking up Design and Technology qualifications had declined drastically in England, with 21.8% in 2020 entering a Design and Technology GCSE, compared with 44.2% in 2009. When asked about the links between the education system and the decline in crafts, Daniel agreed that this is rooted in the current curriculum favoured by Westminster, Daniel said:


"There's a wider social aspect. Crafts and all practical and creative subjects have been pushed out of the schools' curriculum over successive decades with a focus on core subjects like English, maths, science and IT. But that's all based on a very narrow definition of economic productivity of the jobs the government wants people to go into.”


Success therefore in preserving crafts requires a plurality of approaches in which the government has a role to not only safeguard crafts, but also in exposing these crafts to the younger generation. Daniel agreed and offered the Heritage Craft Association’s desire for a Craft College, somewhere where these skills and crafts could be taught. Daniel said:


"In the long term I think a lot of this is around public perception and people valuing craft skills as part of our culture. People don't think of skills as cultural and perhaps when you think of culture you think of opera or books and literature, you don't necessarily think of the social practices.


“And I think that's related to a kind of gatekeeping by a cultural elite over a number of centuries, that working-class occupations have been annexed outside of culture and that continues to this day.


"There's really so much potential that we're not tapping into, in terms of placing us globally in the world as a craft capital.”


A new curriculum for Wales


This governmental inertia towards the creative industries was fresh on my mind when the leaves were just turning into autumnal hues and I could finally wear the jumper my mum had knitted for me using Welsh wool. I’d heard some talk at my daughter’s school that the curriculum in Wales was benefitting from a change to include Expressive Arts and wanted to dig deeper.


While the Welsh Government declined an interview, on the current education system, a Welsh Government spokesperson said:


“Both STEM and Expressive Arts are critical to learners’ development as individuals. The Curriculum for Wales recognises this, which is why both Science and Technology and the Expressive Arts are recognised in law as Areas of Learning and Experience. Children and young people will now learn about both of these until they leave school.


“Under the new curriculum, Expressive Arts empowers schools to draw on a range of art forms and crafts to give them practical experience of these.


“The Curriculum for Wales empowers schools to explore the links between subjects, rather than teaching them in isolation, so children and young people better understand the interconnectivity and breadth of their learning. For example, pupils learning about science can benefit from the creative process they would learn about in the Expressive Arts.


“Learners will also explore the close links between the Expressive Arts and Science and Technology where both Areas rely on similar methods of discovery and ideas, for example, enabling them to use their skills to better understand the relationships between science, government actions and economy behind the Climate Emergency.


“The new curriculum aims to support pupils to become enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work. Careers and work-related experiences are a cross-cutting theme of the Curriculum for Wales across all areas, including Expressive Arts, to enhance pupils’ career thinking and planning.”


It is stated that the addition of the Expressive Arts within the new Welsh curriculum requires an equitable opportunity to include five disciplines cited under the umbrella of Expressive Arts which are said to be digital media, music, film, drama and art. Art thereby including craft, fashion and design which is a promising development.


Looking further into the new curriculum, it is clear that the Welsh Government is also very keen to grow informed and self-aware citizens who can engage with challenges such as the climate crisis that face humanity. This has just rolled out in primary schools this September, across Wales, with the majority of secondary schools commencing next year.


For the Welsh Government to explore new economic opportunities, young people need to be prepared for the future needs of the labour market. Given the climate crisis, this will be very different to how it is today, requiring those children to become adults who can think both creatively and pragmatically about the challenges ahead. Something which can’t come soon enough.

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