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

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.

Holden tells me to place a metal device that looks like a cookie cutter on a piece of leather, which he’s placed on the platform of a machine called a cutting press.

I push down on the top of the press, raise it, and, lo and behold, I’ve cut out an elegant little oblong with a hole in it for a key ring. The cookie cutters are really called press knives, and Holden has them custom made to cut out the pieces for various bag models.

Emboldened by the success of this idiot-proof task, I’m eager to try the next one – a case for my phone. Holden has prepared a cardboard pattern, and shows me how to carefully cut around it. Then, having donned an inky denim smock, I carefully paint around the raw edges of the leather with a brown edge stain. Having embossed the leather with a Holden logo (very satisfying), I take it and my stain-fingered self for my first go at the sewing machine.

I’m no stranger to sewing machines, but sewing leather with an industrial machine is very different. With cotton, if you make a mistake you just get out the seam ripper and undo the damage. With leather, every wonky stitch leaves a permanent, visible hole.

Inevitably, things go wrong – my stitches veer too close to the edge of the leather. Holden fixes things by shaving off the damaged leather and I try again, this time successfully. Some of the stitch lines are a bit wobbly, but it looks pretty good.

The final challenge will be the most complex. I want a narrow belt that will fit around my actual waist, not my hips, but haven’t been able to find a decent-fitting one in the shops. So Conor shows me how to make one. We choose a buckle, then I measure my waist and cut a strip of soft, chocolate-brown leather with a hand-held strap cutter.

I could happily spend the entire day slicing ribbons of leather with the cutter. Pulling the device smoothly through the dense leather is very satisfying – as is bashing in the rivets to fasten the buckle, and even putting in the belt holes with a rotary punch.

I realise that what I love about leather work is that, in comparison to fabric, everything feels so pleasingly chunky and solid, even when the leather itself is fine and as soft as butter.

Sadly, I have neither the cash nor the space for the equipment necessary to do it at home. But Holden is a great teacher, patient and funny, and learning to make things just for a day is enormous fun. Even though my stitching is a bit wonky.

“Just tell yourself it’s a unique handcrafted piece,” he laughs. And that’s what I’ll do.

The next bag-making workshop is on September 10th-14th (€650). Holden Leathergoods, Dingle, Co Kerry., 066-9151796

Craft class: Creating beauty products

QUIETLY TUCKED AWAY in a laneway at the side of the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire, south Co Dublin, the Craft Lounge has a discreet presence. Yet it plays hosts to a wide range of art and craft workshops, from embroidery to ceramics, soap-making to felting.

Today, my daughter and I have come along to learn how to make our own natural cosmetics. Not a big user of beauty products, I have always been drawn towards natural “sounding” products, so I’m keen to find out what ingredients can be sourced to make simple cleansers and moisturisers.

My 16-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has – like most teenagers of her generation – an insatiable appetite for cosmetics, and she’s keen to learn more about what’s good and bad for her skin. Many of the other participants say they’ve come along because they feel they spend too much on cosmetics and they want to learn how to make their own.

First up is an introduction to the workshop by Vanessa Finlow, who as well as leading workshops in natural cosmetics, makes and sells a range of perfumes and soaps. “The word natural is unregulated and really you’d need degrees in botany and chemistry to understand all the different names used in natural cosmetics, but here, you’ll learn how to make your own using plant oils, natural botanical extracts and essential oils,” she says.

“If you like cooking, you’ll like making natural cosmetics and just like cooking, you will learn to adjust the amount of the ingredients according to your personal taste.”

Finlow shows us a range of oils that can be used as base oils or carrier oils for cleansers and moisturisers. There’s everything from Moroccan argan and rosehip oil to safflower oil and jojoba. As we turn our arms into small testing sites for the various oils, we soon begin to decipher the difference between oils that penetrate the skin and those that sit on the skin. The latter are good for protection against wind and rain and have anti-ageing qualities.

Next up is an introduction to the rich and exotic smells of essential oils. Mandarin, geranium, lemon verbena and lavender are passed around so everyone can have a sniff and see what they like. Then, the blending begins. Finlow mixes a quantity of base and blending oil, heating the one that has the highest melting point first and later adding a few drops of essential oils. And, that’s it – a simple oil-based cleanser ready for bottling.

After that, Finlow demonstrates how to make a soothing protective skin balm, carefully measuring out the quantities (recipes are supplied) of shea butter, beeswax, almond oil, jojoba, rosehip and evening primose oil before carefully adding a few drops of the chosen essential oils.

The workshop lasts about three hours. Finlow and Ruth Igoe, who runs the Craft Lounge, create a relaxed mood with plenty of time for questions, cups of tea and coffee and a sense of escape from the zealous marketing that propels the cosmetic industry. The only thing lacking is advice on what to avoid in the cosmetic products, but that might require a workshop of its own.

“The natural cosmetics courses are very popular. We have started doing girls’ parties (over eights) where they get to make lip balms and bath bombs. And we run courses for guide leaders who bring the information back to their cubs and brownies,” says Igoe.

At the end of the workshop, there’s a chance to purchase some of the ingredients in quantities suitable for home use. Then everyone leaves with a cute little box filled with bottles and tubs of balms, cleansers and moisturisers – happy to be a part of this quiet, satisfying sub-culture of making things for your own use.

Have a crafty summer with these course suggestions


Irish Seedsavers in Scarriff, Co Clare runs one-day courses every Saturday and Sunday in July and August. Choose from wild food foraging (€40), garden craft for children and parents (€60), organic gardening (€60), or bee-keeping (€60)., 061-921866

The Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim offers a put your flowers to work course on July 22nd (€75), or foraging for wild herbs and plants on September 1st (€75).,


Sonairte in Laytown, Co Meath will help you with summer pruning on August 11th (€60) or show you how to walk with bats on August 26th (€15)., 041-9827572

The Centre – Environmental Living Training in Scarriff, Co Clare runs introductory agroforestry courses every Saturday in July, starting with creating a forest garden (€25-40)., 061-640765


The Craft Lounge in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin offers a three-hour baby-blanket workshop on July 12th (€40), or you can make your own luxury cosmetics on July 28th (€55). It also has a knicker workshop on July 31st (€45)., 086-3309443

The Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim will show you how to make natural cosmetics this Saturday or Sunday (€75). Or you could make soap on July 21st (€75).

Sonairte in Laytown, Co Meath has a candle-making day on July 28th (€60), or a two-day course on basket-making with willow in August (€160).


Potter Marcus O’Mahony runs two-day courses at his pottery in Lismore, Co Waterford. The next beginners’ course is on July 14th-15th (€120)., 058-56694

Glass-maker Linda Mulloy teaches glass courses at the Blue Glasshouse in Westport, Co Mayo (right) throughout the summer. A three-day course runs from July 13th to 15th (€295)., 087-7981123

Craftsman Glenn Lucas runs woodturning courses at his study centre near Garryhill in Co Carlow. His courses are full for July but private classes are available. A one-day beginners’ class runs on August 4th (€130)., 059-9727070


You can learn how to make your own cheese with Irish Seedsavers on Sunday (€60).

Cheese-making is also on offer at Sonairte in Laytown, Co Meath on Saturday (€85).

Build your own clay oven with The Centre – Environmental Living Training on July 29th (€60) at its centre in Clarecastle, Co Clare.


You can learn dry stonewall construction at The Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim. It’s a two-day course (€150).

Irish Seedsavers is running a herbal beer-making workshop on July 21st (€60).


Send them to a summer eco-camp starting July 17th for four days at the Irish Seedsavers (€80). Places are limited.

Sonairte has a free family holistic day on September 16th in Laytown, Co Meath.

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