Discovery Centre, University of Southampton, Winchester
Wednesday 5 – Friday 7 September 2012.
The themes of this third international, interdisciplinary conference focusing broadly on knitting will include adornment, discovery and exploration, representation in all types of media, and sport and well-being from voices across the world.
I am going over the border today, to a country where traditional culture and language has been fiercely defended for years. I am slightly wary as to where to start on this as I could easily emigrate and spend all my time just writing about Welsh stuff; blankets, baskets, love spoons, clogs etc. But as I have to start somewhere I shall start with the cyntell basket (I believe ‘ll‘ in Welsh is pronouned ‘th‘ so it would be ‘cynteth‘ – but please correct me if I am wrong).
The cyntell is a multi functional basket used around the farm to ‘carry stuff’; animal feed, potatoes and fruit and they can also be utilised around the home, for laundry and sleeping babies amongst other things. I also wonder if they were ever used, way back when, as a unit of measure like the trug in Sussex.
In fact, like the Sussex trug and the Cumbrian swill, the traditional frame basket was not confined to county or country borders. Known as a cyntell in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, identical baskets were found across other regions and over in Ireland, where they were known as skibs, scuttles and Sally Saucers.
The cyntell is formed around a thick, dried willow or hazel hoop, with split and shaped wooden ribs, which together form the frame which is interwoven with willow. The original farm baskets would have been rustic affairs but a tradition developed to weave more elaborate competition baskets and these are what are more common now.
The survival of the cyntell is said to be down to three men, D.J Davies, Marvin Morgan and Les Llewelyn. In the late 1990′s they were all working at St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff. Mr Davis was the basket maker, Mr Morgan the miller and Mr Llewelyn whittled love spoons and walking sticks.
Mr Davies had been the resident basket maker at St Fagans since it opened in 1948, demonstrating the weaving of cyntell basket as taught to him by his farmer grandfather (who had been taught by his father, no doubt). Aware that Mr Davies was one of the only craftspeople still making the traditional basket, Mr Llewelyn and Mr Mogan decided to ask Mr Davies to pass on his basketry skills. As Mr Davies had begun to think he would be the last basketmaker in Wales to make the cyntell basket, he was delighted to pass on the skills which had been passed through the generations, via his grandfather.
Having gained the necessary skills to call themselves basket makers, the two younger men set about keeping the traditional Welsh basket making skills alive and kicking. Mr Davies and Mr Llewelyn became founder members of The South Wales Basketmakers and Mr Davies also became President of the South Wales Stickmakers group. I believe Mr Morgan became the resident basket maker at St Fagan’s after Mr Davies retired, but unfortunately, when I searched St Fagan’s website I could find no reference to either cyntells or Mr Morgan.
Luckily for us, many people now seem to appreciate the relevance of craft items associated with particular regions. The South Wales Basket Makers Group holds regular courses to teach others the essential cyntell skills, with Les Llewellyn running many of these. It seems the knowledge passed on from Mr Davies is now safe in the hands of keen basket makers in Wales and beyond. Indeed, it could be said (at a stretch) that cyntell basket making is a growth industry and let’s be honest – there is not many of those about these days!!
Courses and Sales
Links through to makers who produce cyntells and also to cyntell making basket courses for interested people.
Right – here it is. My first blog post for Dulwich OnView my local online community magazine. I can’t believe how hard it was! I was limited to eight hundred words and it made me realise that I do drone on abit. I find it very hard not to include everything I know. Anyway here it is, all very interesting stuff and great I have found a regional craft right here on my doorstep. I may well feel obliged to revive the local industry from my garden shed, now there’s an idea! I could make mugs.
Anyone who lives in Dulwich and likes a bit of gardening will know that six inches below the ground lies thick and heavy London clay. I was doing some digging in my garden the other day, swearing at the nasty stuff and I thought to myself – someone should open a pottery to get rid of some of this.
So, whilst breaking my back digging a hole only just deep enough to plant a tulip bulb, I dreamt up a fantastic plan to rid my garden of the gloop. I will start an swap scheme, anyone who wants a bag of my lovely clay to make pots, can come to my garden and dig themselves two sacks full of the stuff and in exchange they can fill the hole back up with couple of sacks of loam rich compost. Now those who know me will realise I always have some new plan or scheme, some good and some really bad, but I honestly think that this one’s a corker. How can it go wrong?
As this was obviously such a brilliant scheme, I gave up the digging and went inside to start my cunning plan. Why should I dig when people would soon be queuing up to do it for me? One quick google search later and I discover Lambeth has always been the home of London pottery and interestingly, it is where Royal Doulton all started. I never knew that!
To be honest since traditional industries usually developed near the raw materials and since I know Lambeth is built on top of an endless supply of London clay, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it used to be famous for pottery.
Pottery has been produced in Lambeth since the Roman times, at least. The potteries, or pothouses as they were known, were concentrated near the river in the area between Vauxhall Bridge and Lambeth Bridge. Here they could take advantage of the supply of water, easy access to transportation and the low lying location, which provided the most perfectly humid atmosphere for making pots and most importantly was the supply of London clay.
Lambeth’s fame for pottery really took off in the sixteenth century when tin-glazing came to England.
Tin-glazing, or Delftware, is a method of producing a white glazed pottery, which can be over painted with metal oxides to create intricate patterns or pictures and back then this was cutting edge pottery technology.
Lambeth Delftware proved very popular, pothouses produced tiles, wine jars, and apothecary pots. The industry got a real boast in the mid seventeenth century with the introduction of tea and chocolate into English polite society. The ladies who lunched were desperate for the very latest teapots and cups to show off at their tea parties.
However, during the eighteenth century Staffordshire took over as the centre of the English potteries and Delftware production in Lambeth declined. I suppose it would have been very easy for pottery production in Lambeth to fizzle out altogether but I guess the kilns and expertise were there and needed to be used and in the last half of the eighteenth century Lambeth pothouses began to produce a robust type of pottery called salt glazed stoneware,
The most famous of the Lambeth stoneware potteries is now known as Royal Doulton, but it started back in 1815 as Doulton and Watts. If truth be told, Doulton and Watt’s made their mark by making the most boring, unglamorous of stuff – leech holders for doctors, ink bottles and chemists pots and most famously the sewage pipes under the roads of LondonIn the 1850′s, after making themselves some money from all the boring stuff, the company began a new initiative called Doulton & Co’s decorative stoneware. They teamed up with nearby Lambeth School of Art to produce highly decorative tableware, sculptural panels and tiles.
It must be said, there were other stoneware potteries in Lambeth and James Stiff and Sons and Stephen Green’s Imperial pottery deserve a mention, but it is fair to say Doulton quickly eclipsed other local firms.
Then, in 1901 the company became Royal Doulton courtesy of Edward VII and continued to be a big employer in the area. But pottery production on any great scale stopped abruptly in 1956, when the factories had to close due to the new clean air regulations.
But never mind the history lesson – back to today and my cunning plan. You may have noticed that times are hard and banks aren’t lending, yet I really think I may have discovered the solution for many Lambeth residents. It’s been here all along, right under our feet, gardens full of a heritage product! Tons and tons of world famous ‘Lambeth Doulton Clay’! Never mind swap schemes, I’m going to sell my clay! Local clay for local potters. With a bit of clever marketing I am sure it would work. Now I just need a plan to decide what to do with the massive hole I will have in my back garden!
In the meantime, before I get around to digging myself some London clay I have . found someone who already uses it to produce lovely little bird sculptures. Find them here at LondonClayBirds.co.uk. How sweet are these!!
For a very long time traditional crafts have existed without any formal support network outside of each individual crafts guild or association. The Heritage Crafts Association is a new association that has been set up to represent the interests of all traditional crafts which do not fall under the remit of other organisations. The Crafts Council support and promote contemporary crafts, heritage building crafts have the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, but for a long time traditional crafts which don’t fall under either of these umbrella’s have had to muddle along on their own. Clog makers, trug makers, traditional weavers, besom broom makers and a whole host of others have long known that their crafts skills are an important part of living heritage but there has been no organisation to represent them. Until now!
The Heritage Crafts Association’s website states;
“The Heritage Crafts Association is the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. Working in partnership with Government and key agencies, it provides a focus for craftspeople, groups, societies and guilds, as well as individuals who care about the loss of traditional crafts skills, and works towards a healthy and sustainable framework for the future.” heritagecrafts.org.uk
I think the formation of an organisation to promote and protect tradition crafts as living skills, rather than activities which belong in museums can, only be a good thing. After all as my journey around the country is proving traditional crafts and the skilled craftspeople who practice them, help to define the individuality of an area and link us to our heritage and locality.
If it is true that human progress is made possible by our ability to pass on knowledge and experience then it is imperative these traditional crafts are seen as part of our living heritage rather than packaged as historic reenactments . They form part of our cultural inheritance and as such we are obliged to pass them on to the next generation.
So, the Heritage Crafts Association can only be a good thing as far as I am concerned. Prince Charles agrees with me, he has agreed to be the Association’s president, which for an organisation only a couple of years old is no mean feat. They have also gained support amongst government departments and all this in two years – amazing!
Some crafts need a bit of a push and the craft of swill making is one of them. So I shall be highlighting some of the crafts I have encountered which are teetering on the edge of extinction, almost consigned to history, but not quite. The craft skills which have been passed from generation to generation for centuries, now being practiced by just a handful of people.
I shall start with the Cumbrian Oak Swill. You will recall from a previous post about cumbrian swills, these baskets were once used in many different walks of life; mining, shipping and farming to name but a few and there was a thriving basket making industry to supply the baskets. Today this thriving industry has contracted down to one full time swill maker, Owen Jones. He is the Cumbrian swill maker. It is quite astonishing to think a whole cottage industry has dwindled down to one individual in a generation.
I am not sure what Owen Jones thinks of his role as custodial of the swill making craft, it must be a bit weird to know everyone is documenting you as an endangered species. There are even videos of Owen Jones making a swill archived at the Museum of Rural Life at the University of Reading, just in case he decides to jack it all in and retrain as a banker.
But I am happy to say that right now Owen Jones retraining as a banker seems unlikely. I have just ordered my first oak swill from Owen and he didn’t mention any plans to stop. In fact he now has an apprentice, so hopefully the craft of swill making is safe for the moment.
If you would like to purchase an oak swill from Owen Jones then his website is -
Here you can order an oak swill in a variety of sizes, find out which craft fairs Owen will be demonstrating at and also book yourself on to a Swill Making course. Now that’s something I fancy, three days in the Lake District learning how to make a swill. I have got a plan to make a really big one and use it as a chair – yes, obviously I would need to put some legs on it!
Stop press: Swill making is spreading. A welsh maker, Ruth Pybus, learnt her skills from Owen Jones and now offers swill baskets alongside the traditional Cyntell, a welsh willow frame basket. You can find her baskets here -
I’m back!! Having realised I’ve not been very good at getting my blog posts out on a regular basis recently, I have given myself a bit of a talking too. Apparently this happens quite often with new bloggers. People start off all enthusiastic, then get bored and go and do something else. Now, if you know me in the real world you will know – I am very good at starting things, doing it for a while and then getting bored and going off to do something else. Well, you will be pleased to know this is not such an example. I have just been busy sorting out other stuff.
This lovely blog was started as the precursor for Potter Wright and Webb’s online shop, specialising in the traditional regional crafts of the British Isles. The blog was meant to focus my mind on getting the shop up and running. The plan was I would do one post a week, featuring a traditional craft object, which I would then sell in the shop. But I have discovered I am far more interested in finding out about all the amazing regional crafts from around the country than actually starting a shop. Having to worry about stock levels, wholesale prices, advertising, featured products and profit makes me go all of a quiver!
I have also discovered most of our traditional Heritage Crafts are in a precarious position. Often only a handful of craftspeople operate commercially and many of these are simply unable to offer wholesale prices. So I have slightly shifted my focus. I’ve decided to put off opening the shop (at least until Angela Merkel and friends have worked out where all the money has gone). Instead I shall concentrate solely on making this blog the home of all things to do with traditional regional crafts. I shall continue on my journey around the British Isles featuring all the lovely things I come across, linking to the websites of the individual craftspeople as I go. Who knows where my meandering will end up! It has already lead to me writing a post for the November issue of Dulwich OnView about Lambeth pottery, so that is pretty exciting, in fact I had better stop writing this and start writing the article for them!
I have just discovered another variation on regional rag rugging that I was unaware of until today. In Staffordshire rag rugs are known as bodged mats. Bodged meaning poked and each of the strips of fabric are poked, or bodged, through the backing material and knotted to hold them in place.
Its a good job this is a virtual journey around the British Isles, because geographically my journey so far has not been logical. Starting in Sussex I have zipped up, down and across the country as the whim has taken me. For this post, as I am going down to the Woodfair at Bentley Wildfowl Museum at the weekend, I thought I would take a look at a woodsman craft and so are featuring the Bodgers of Buckinghamshire. To be strictly accurate they were the Bodgers of the Chilterns, which stretch over Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.
The Bodgers of Buckinghamshire were woodsman who made the rungs, stretchers and legs of chairs to supply the local Windsor Chair industry in High Wycombe. Traditionally, rather than transport the wood to a workshop bodger’s would work in the wood or forest, building a temporary structure to work under and using a foot powered pole lathe. Later some had their workshops at home. They weren’t, as it is sometimes reported, an itinerary band of men travelling from place to place, picking up work but rather their workshops could be said to be itinerant, moving around within the wood.
The bodger’s craft can be traced back over five hundred years. Stuart King has written a very interesting article on the last of the Buckinghamshire bodgers who clung on until the 1950s. Thankfully, there are still a handful of people who make a living from hand turning on a pole lathe but they don’t exist by bodging alone, which has gradually ceased to exist with the mechanisation of chair production. I have written another post on the origin of the word bodger, which has more details, if you are interested take a look.