The Big Picture: Heritage Crafts Association

by Meghan Urback.

All images by Nick Hand.

At Handful of Salt, we’re always striving to bring attention to American makers, but also to the marketplaces and organizations that support them. In the past, we’ve spoken with craft leaders such as Chris Amudsen at the American Craft Council, Stephanie Moore of the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, Brigitte Martin of Crafthaus, and Jill Read of the Crafts Council in the UK. We like to think holistically about the future of craft—be it in the marketplace, academia, museums, non-profits, magazines, or in the homes of makers—and what can be done to promote its growth as a way of life. These are some of the places and people helping to make that happen.


Robin Wood, chair of the HCA, in his woodshop


The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) is an organization in the United Kingdom dedicated to fostering traditional crafts. Browse their map of craftspeople and you’ll find boat builders, stained glass makers, quilters, calligraphers, cutlers, men and women who are masters of marquetry, tapestry, and scissor-making, among many other wonderfully enticing skills.

Robin Wood, the chair and a founder of the HCA, is a woodworker who turns wooden bowls on a pole lathe, powered not by an electric motor, but by a foot treadle. He forges his own tools and works in an 18th century stone stable dug into the hillside of Hope Valley, England.

In addition to supporting and advocating for craftspeople whose professions are under-recognized, Robin and the HCA also focus on ways to enable masters to pass on traditional skills to the next generation. Intrigued and inspired by the HCA and Robin’s own work, I wrote to him with a few questions.

Could you tell me a bit about the founding of the HCA? 

In the UK, heritage crafts have fallen outside the remit of all support agencies. There is good support for the innovative, artistic end of the craft spectrum, which results in many folk seeing that as somehow better and the direction to aspire to. Many craftspeople, however, choose instead to make excellent traditional work, [which] has not been recognized as art or heritage (the latter in the UK is restricted in meaning to buildings and monuments). Four years ago, a group of us decided the time was right to try to do something to change things, so [we] set up the HCA.

How does the HCA define a Heritage Craft?  What are a few of the trades in the UK that are in danger of being lost?

We define Heritage Craft as work which relies on traditional skills and produces mostly functional items. There are many trades with only one or a few practitioners. Sheffield was the home of steel and knife making, yet in the year that celebrates the centenary of the invention of stainless steel, there are only a handful of cutlers left, one scissor maker, a few pocket knife makers, one freelance knife grinder, [and] few folk under 60 years old. This city’s heritage is on the brink. There are many more examples, one swill basketmaker, one sievemaker: from shipwrighting to wheelwrighting, the story is similar.


Robin’s tools


Are there organizations or government programs in other countries that you are looking to for inspiration for the HCA?  Have you come across any exciting models for how to build a sustainable future for traditional craft?

There are many support systems that have been tried in other countries and in the past in the UK—from William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, to Japan’s system recognizing traditional crafts and national living treasures, [to] Sweden’s national folk craft school and regional craft consultants. Germany and France have enviable apprentice and journeyman schemes and UNESCO has excellent guidelines for the preservation of traditional knowledge recognized under the 2003 convention on intangible cultural heritage (which the UK and USA have sadly not ratified).

All these systems have things to learn from, but none are perfect and without drawbacks. It is important [that] rather than looking enviously elsewhere, [one should] value what is happening at home and work hard to make things better.


Robin Wood turning a bowl on a pole lathe


A major threat to the viability of heritage handwork is the lack of new makers joining the ranks of aging craft masters.  Do you have any ideas about best methods for encouraging young people to learn these skills?

This is the biggest single issue facing craft in the UK and not a quick one to answer. Often, I hear people say [that] young people don’t want to learn or work that hard for that long for that little money. But I also hear from a great many young people who are totally passionate and dedicated and working hard to get into traditional crafts.

The fact is we have a chronic lack of established entry routes to the sector. If you look, say, at the arts, music, theatre, design, [or] architecture, then you know what to do if you want to work in those sectors. Most people currently working in the crafts describe themselves as self-taught, which does not really tell the full picture. Generally, people first become inspired by seeing someone else doing related work, then maybe they take a few week-long taster courses, they practice at home, read every book on the subject, visit museums and shows to see inspirational work. The next step is the hardest: making the move from dedicated amateur to full-time professional. We need to look at this current pathway and make it work better. One problem with it is that [while] it tends to fit for mid-life career changers, there are few clear entry routes for younger folk.


One of Robin’s bowls


I’m guessing that many traditionally-made, handmade items are most easily sold as a luxury good. Does that ring true in your opinion?

I think the idea of luxury is changing. When economies are booking, people are happy to spend money on things they know are fashionable today but will be in landfill in five or ten years’ time. When money is tighter, people look for value and that can often come in traditional work that is well-made, timeless, and lasts.

People also opt for craft on ethical grounds. The last 25 years have seen a huge renaissance in traditional food production, from organic farming to craft beer. People like to know the story behind their things and craft has the best story there is. Recent stories from the fashion industry have highlighted the dire effects of mindless, cheap consumerism. Craft was always political, and the time has come for it to be political again. We need to question the production systems necessary to sell clothing for a few pounds and offer viable alternatives that are well-made and last.


Spoons and tools at Robin’s studio


The HCA began in 2010. What has been the most exciting development in the past three years?  Any particular story you’d like to share?

It has all been a bit of a roller coaster. Sometimes in life, you feel like you are working hard against the odds; now we [seem] to be pushing a snowball downhill. The time was clearly right for a traditional craft organization in the UK; we have been without one for over 50 years. It is still a huge amount of hard, voluntary work. We still have no funding where[as] the contemporary innovative crafts have £5m annual budget to use, but we are making a difference.

If I was to pick one [exciting story to share], I would say it would be award ceremonies. I have judged quite a few now, and it is wonderful to read the stories and see the dedication. Traditional craftspeople rarely get recognition for what they do at the highest level, and that is why we try to show them at venues like the V&A and have major awards such as the craft skills awards, presented this year by HRH The Prince of Wales. It is heartwarming to see people recognized after maybe 45 years [of] working away on their own.



Heritage Crafts Association

Robin Wood

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