Stitch it, build it, punch it, sew it, craft it
IN 2011, in celebration of the Year of Craft, The Irish Times asked me to write a weekly column on traditional skills and where to learn them. Each week, I researched a different craft. Starting with outdoor skills, such as dry-stone walling and hedge-laying, the column moved on to studio-based crafts, such as pottery and glass, then delved into conservation skills before focusing on stitching crafts and other home-based traditional skills. The series has now resulted in a book.
Meeting and talking to craftspeople, I was struck by their diligence and perseverance in pursuing handmade creative work in far-flung studios scattered throughout the country. Many of them had persisted with this during a boom that brought cheap reproductions of almost everything to our shops.
Being a craftsperson requires a certain stoic resistance to mass-market trends as these individuals are often to the forefront of new trends.
Equally impressive is a dedication to keeping old skills alive or reviving them, and the absolute passion in developing a piece beyond its function into an objet d’art – to be enjoyed purely for its aesthetics of colour, texture and form.
While researching the origins of each craft, I became fascinated by the sweep of history that many skills embraced. To consider the origins of stone-carving, metalsmithing or even paper-making, one must ponder the rise and fall of civilisations and sometimes even religious conflicts that either promoted a craft (calligraphy, for example) or held up its development (paper-making, for example).
In this technological age where we take complexity for granted, it is intriguing to consider how the human imagination of former times worked out how to weave threads into intricate patterns on rugs and garments or to melt and solder various metals into delicately designed teapots that last for centuries.
Some makers and designers say that those who come on weekend workshops and summer courses are often very technologically-minded individuals who get great pleasure from making something for themselves.
It is this tactile quality of work that attracts most craftspeople to do what they do. And, it is this tactile quality of work that is important to celebrate in these times when almost everyone interacts with technology every day.
The late Justin Keating, a former chairman of the Crafts Council of Ireland, put it beautifully in his introduction to the book Traditional Crafts of Ireland by David Shaw-Smith. He wrote: “We need the wood and clay and stone and natural fibres speaking directly to us as part of our search to re-establish contact with nature.”
One is also tempted to say that the revival of interest in learning craft is a kind of reaction to over-consumption. Now, when we have less money, we are drawn towards making things for ourselves rather than constantly buying things. Even a music festival such as the Electric Picnic in Co Laois has a green crafts zone where people can make things under the shelter of living willow sculptures.
The fulfilment gained from making something yourself – whether it’s homemade jam or chutney, a candle, a bowl, a hat or a patchwork quilt – is a personal experience unique to each individual maker.
Sylvia Thompson’s book, Hands On, will be launched on Tuesday 10th July at 6pm in the RHA, Dublin by Sonya Lennon of RTÉs Craft Master. Hands On is available to buy through LibertiesPress.com
Craft class: Leather, punch, repeat
IT’S A WET Tuesday morning in the Dingle Peninsula, and I’m about to whack a metal crew punch with a large mallet. If I hit down hard enough, the punch will create a narrow rectangular hole in a strip of leather, which will allow me to fasten a buckle to what will soon be a belt. But I’m feeling slightly nervous, mostly because leather designer and craftsman Conor Holden is holding the punch and I’m worried that my inexperienced mallet-wielding may end up breaking his fingers.
“Don’t worry about it,” says Holden cheerfully. He urges me to imagine something – or someone – that annoys me. I swing again. The punch slices down through the leather. I feel wonderful.
Holden has been holding workshop courses in the Holden Leathergoods studio since last year. Over the course of a week, he shows participants the basics of leather work and teaches them how to make a handbag.
Most of the people who do the workshop are designers or craftspeople who want to develop their professional skills, but the course is also open to interested amateurs, including those with no experience. One workshop was attended by a woman who loved Holden’s elegant bags and accessories and was interested in learning a new skill. Her husband joined her in Dingle to play golf – but after bad weather stopped his play, he came to the workshop instead, and loved it. “He had a great sense of achievement,” says Holden.
I know just how he felt. I knit a lot, and like sewing, but leatherwork is new. Holden’s students have a week to learn how to make a bag, but we’ve got just a few hours, so he takes me through some more simple projects.