how old crafts die out

It is a common misconception that crafts die out when they become outdated and uneconomic in the modern world. The reality is always more complex and I want to share an example to show what typically happens when an old craft finally dies.

Simple wooden hay rakes have been a part of British life for 1000 years or more. This Roman one has metal tines.

These medieval images are French but this shows how little the design has changed over the centuries.

As with most crafts there were regional variations but after 1000 years of refinement the basic form of a hay rake is fairly well sorted.

Now we are going to fast forward to 2005 and meet Trevor Austen outside his rake workshop at Smeeth in Kent the earliest record of the rake workshop there is 1871 and it had been in continuous production since. What made Trevor unique was that he was the last rakemaker who was using locally sourced timber. He used coppiced ash for all parts of the rakes and cut the trees up and made all parts of the rakes in a one man business.

Trevor took over the business and saved it from closing in 1966. He has seen the ups and downs typical of many a rural craft over the years but kept going. I used to demonstrate out at craft shows with him where he would make rakes and sell them direct to the public, he could make 100 a week which is impressive. He had more recently been exporting rakes to the USA, Germany and Japan, it was a viable business working without any subsidy, contributing to the economy, but not strong enough to take on staff, train apprentices and expand. Here he is using a rounder to make the handle smooth.

Trevor had hoped to continue working as long as possible and finally to attempt to pass the business on as a going concern but sadly after several years of illness Trevor was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Whilst there is no support network for rare craft businesses when they are running there is money to record them when they close down so two short films have been made of Trevor’s rake workshop one by the Museum of English Rural life here and another funded by a £16,95o HLF grant to the Agricultural museum at Brook

I have been coresponding with Trevor recently. He has lost power and co-ordination of his body yet his mind is active a difficult position for a craftsman.

Here is Trevor explaining how the rake works came to close down.

“l am afraid there were a number of problems associated with the Rake Works that l was not able to solve given the circumstances of mobility and the inability of no voice to talk to people , l first of all had a load of large business orders to deal with including having a new export order from Japan for over £2000, but with this news l had to tell them l was unable to go ahead.

l had hoped that my brother would take on the workshop but my landlord died making his son the new landlord who sees the site as development alongside with redundant farm yard next door so has not been keen to have tenancy changed names. The workshop it has been suggested that H & S would not allow it to operate..because people see it being powered by flat belts and engines that are not electric..they condem anything old as unsafe ??

So our machinery is finding new homes with people who will use it at shows etc, hand tools are finding homes for use when barters are offered , a few pieces will enter a local museum.

Little room was left for us to maneuver into saving it (other than for others to pick the bones clean) then to try an break it all up giving my family a bit of money for their efforts, little that it will bring.

Sorry l have a bitter tone with me l will get more amenable as disappointments wear off.”

It seems sad to me that this viable business should close its doors at a time when many folk would love to work in such a fulfilling job. There are many more businesses like this that will go in the next 10 years. Our aim with the Heritage Crafts Association is to highlight their plight and creat conditions that enable the skills to be passed on before they are lost forever.

2001 article from the Telegraph

5 Responses to how old crafts die out

  1. Clarke Green April 4, 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    Sad story indeed. I agree that craft is often embodied in one person’s work or approach but I don’t know that it all dies with them. It is distressing to see such a long established business end but surely someone will reinvent it, perhaps your spreading the word will bring them forward.I am heartened, although, to know that there is a continuum of interest that keeps these things alive and respects good handwork. How often we learn that ‘traditional’ practices are more efficient, sustainable and produce superior products. Perhaps the present economic troubles will reinvigorate the idea of value for money.One of the greatest responsibilities craftspeople owe is the perpetuation of their knowledge. I hope Trevor will memorialize his skill by somehow recording all the knowledge he possesses. I wish him better days ahead.

  2. MrsL April 5, 2009 at 6:04 am #

    SAd, but interesting story, one that should galvanise us all into action to promote crafts wherever and whenever possible, stresing their continued importance in today’s world. Will take up the cudgel and do my bit where I can.MrsLxx

  3. David April 6, 2009 at 3:44 am #

    There’s a wooden rake company in Michigan, USA which also dates to the 1870’s. Rakes are still made in the 1876 factory using the old equipment. I understand that since everyone who works in the factory are members of the owner’s family they are exempt for many of the current safety regulations. A while back they conducted tours of the operation but had to stop doing so due to safety regulations, etc. Today they seem to be doing okay by going after the golf market – rakes for bunkers, etc.

  4. Sir Richard April 6, 2009 at 5:48 am #

    A very interesting story. Though to say story is to imply that it all fits into a simple outline and I am sure that it does not. It is craftspeople like him that are the artisans and the inventors who drive our cultures forward. When I hear about situations like this, I think, “I could learn to do that. I’d do it. I would want to learn and continue the line.” But I am in a different place and have no means to create that reality.I have heard of similar situations that are equally sad, topiary gardeners, apple press builders, and cobblers, to name a few. I can only hope that someone steps up to carry the torch. If not, then I have to rest my thoughts in the hope that we are a resilient people who can learn and grow and recreate lost crafts, or establish new ones.

  5. pwlsax April 11, 2009 at 5:04 pm #

    At least rural crafts have the benefit of using simple materials and relatively simple machinery. Small industrial crafts can die out with their market – and often the craftsmen, trained on strict guild or union terms, refuse to pass on the skills. I talked recently to a gent in Canada who has it in mind to become a hatter. He bought blocks, flanges, and tools from a closed hat shop and sought a retired hatter’s advice. The old man was friendly about it at first, even offering a few lessons for free. Then he came over and saw the equipment. “You have nothing for Western hats here,” he said. “This is all for fedoras. There’s nothing marketable here. If you don’t want to sell hats, I don’t want to talk to you. If you want my help, throw these blocks away.”Sadly, the gent I spoke to wanted to make fedoras – which sell well as a high-end niche hat. But now no one will teach him. That’s the downside of the craft ethic.