Tag Archives: Craft

‘Cræft’ by Alex Langlands

images-1Many in the UK and elsewhere will be familiar with Dr Alex Langlands through his TV presenting skills and archæological and historical knowledge on BBC programmes such as Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Full Steam Ahead and so on. However his interest, knowledge, expertise and skills in traditional crafts are perhaps less well known, but recognised by the Heritage Crafts Association – he is one of our Founder Patrons, and one of our most supportive.



imagesHis new book – Cræft – How Traditional Crafts are About More Than Just Making – shows this fascination with craft to excellent effect. However, it is not ‘just’ craft, Alex brings into consideration  landscape, geology, archæology, hand skills, tools, communities and so much more in this book which is both informative and a really good read.




eb5063a773f0f95b8b0be22c88b875deIn the fourteen chapters, after defining craft, Alex considers a range of linked crafts from weaving and baskets, to shoes and harnesses, from making golf clubs to preserving eating apples – this book is a mine of fascinating information. However, it is not just information presented here in a dry and erudite way, but information that is linked to our heritage countryside and considered in terms of what we may lose, what we have now and what would be of benefit in the future. On the right Alex is making a cable tie from a bramble using initially a sparhook. Who knew that those pesky brambles that catch and scratch your legs and trip you up if you’re not careful, could be so useful, and in this clip here, Alex uses one of the ties to make a faggot for his fire.

images-3We all know that there are different types of sheep, those for wool and those for meat, but Alex explains that actually the wool on those sheep very handily matches the climate conditions locally – not a coincidence! Devon Longwool, for example produces cloth that is suitable for wet and often bleak parts of the UK, such as in Devon. And mountain breeds produce coarse cloth suitable for tough trench coats and the very durable cloth, serge. This consideration leads Alex on to look at the most efficient way of cleaning sheep wool for shearing – wash the sheep in a nearby stream where the dirt is then dealt with by the water and drains away naturally, and the wool dries most efficiently, without any artificial means, on the sheep’s back! And then on to carding, spinning (which Ruth Goodman, fellow presenter shown here also with Peter Ginn, taught Alex to do using a simple wooden spoon) and weaving. Alex then focuses on the advantages of woollen clothing, for him (and all of us!), and his predilection for tweed suits and fair isle jumpers as worn here. But the story doesn’t stop in the past – as with many crafts – the link between Harris Tweed and Nike is also included. And to this could be added the high-end fashion houses fascination with beautiful woollen cloth mainly from Scotland. And then there is the link to hurdles – but here you will need to get the book yourself to find out what that is.

alexI tried dipping in to this book for speed to write this review, but would then find myself half and hour later absolutely hooked on the craft and Alex’s explanation. It is a book that you can read in small sections, but far better to read at a stretch, and what a rewarding stretch that would be. As Chair of the Heritage Crafts Association of course I would say that this is a book everyone should read, but even without that, this is a book that everyone should read! It brings together so much about our past, about the skills and techniques, about why the craft is there in the first place in terms of the landscape, about the links with our ancestors and about how much we can learn by marvelling at the skills, techniques and traditions that have shaped us as a nation, and including also the important part crafts can well play in our future. I cannot recommend this book more highly.

Work, my workroom and ‘Landlove’ magazine, December 2016

Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

I was very pleasantly surprised and delighted when brilliant journalist Kerry Fowler contacted me about being featured in the popular lifestyle magazine Landlove. This was not the first time that I’ve been in a magazine, but that was usually just half a page or a page. This time it was 6 pages, a whole 3 double spreads. I had bought the magazine before and was most impressed by their focus on crafts and makers – not at all ‘token’ treatment as in some other publications. However, the other makers they had featured usually had large workshops, and often more than one person making the craft. Here, it’s just me and my workshop is not much wider than a large cupboard! (when we had this part of the house built, I wanted the width of the room to be where I could sit at my sloping board and simply swivel round to wash my pens out in the sink behind without getting up – it all just fits, but it’s a squash for more than one person at a time!)

Layout 1Kerry said that the editor had particularly requested ‘a festive piece’ as the feature was due to be in the December issue. This was September, and Christmas wasn’t exactly front of mind. However, a walk in the woods gave me inspiration, and you can read more about the piece I produced shown on the right here.






Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

And here is the photograph Sussie Bell, the wonderful photographer, took of me putting the finishing touches to this piece.








Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

My workroom is a bit of a squeeze and so everything is crammed in. I didn’t have anywhere to remove all the stuff to, but before Kerry and Sussie came, I did have a bit of a tidy round and blew the dust off the tools and surfaces (and just for clarification, I make a lot of dust because I sand vellum skins!). I have an artist’s trolley (now well over 30 years old!) on my left-hand side which has paints, pen rests, the pens in current use, ink and sharpening stones on the top, and then other tools and materials in the drawers below. I’ve looked online for something similar, as I know that some of you may contact me and ask where I got it from, but it seems that ones exactly like this aren’t now available. There are others, though, so put ‘artist’s trolley’ into a search engine for the range. This trolley really has been invaluable for me and the way in which I work. Feathers for quills and then cut quills are also to hand in pots, and for those of you who are interested, the very first Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache set is on the window sill. There is a special offer for subscribers to my newsletter on this, so if you want a set for £60 instead of the usual £96, subscribe to my newsletter (home page of this website) and then look here.

Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

This is the part of the trolley top closest to where I work with pens ready to use; Arkansas stones are piled up to sharpen nibs (never done this? The difference it makes to the sharpness of your letters will probably amaze you. Look here at the free Calligraphy Clip on sharpening nibs). I use small crucibles a lot for paints as these are perfect for the amount of paint needed by calligraphers. Again for the free Calligraphy Clip on inks and paints for calligraphers, click here. Find crucibles by putting ‘small white porcelain science crucibles’ into a search engine. Look around because some are very much more expensive than others!




Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Other tubes of Schmincke paint are in the drawer in the trolley. There is no system here, so I rummage round to find particular colours if I’m being lazy about mixing them! If you are interested in how to mix the paints of the Schmincke Calligraphy set to create no end of colours, again I have a free Calligraphy Clip here.







Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Tools are all in jars on the right hand side. In my tidying up, I hadn’t noticed that I was cramming pens into the pen pot and one was sticking up rather a lot! I use pen holders that are quite small as my hands aren’t large; they are also a bit like using quills. I found these old wooden pen holders being chucked out by a school many years ago.








Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

The rest of the tools I use most often are also in pots – erasers and sets of dividers, odd pens and a heavy duty knife nearest, brushes, ‘weird’ pens, brushes, quill knives etc further back.








Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

I was photographed finishing off polishing some shell gold on a vellum piece I had written using an agate dog tooth burnisher. Shell gold is in the crucible and in the little glass jar, and the green felt burnisher’s sleeve is at the top.







Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Kerry and Sussie seemed to love the copies of animals I had done from the Ashmolean Bestiary – using the traditional tools, materials and processes of mediæval manuscript miniatures. We shall be creating these and similar ones on the three-day intensive course I’m teaching in Kent, UK, on Saturday 27th May, Sunday 28th May and Monday 29th May 2017. Contact me through my website for more details. There is more about the previous course I ran here.






Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

This is the little miniature that I took with me when I went to teach and talk at Harvard in October 2016 to show the various stages in creating a mediæval miniature. Here I’m about to apply a piece of loose gold to the pink raised gesso. More on how I did this here.







Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

I use quills a lot, and also demonstrate how they are cut to conferences and at talks, so I have quite a few! There are goose and swans’ feathers here.







Calligrapher_008I also have rolls of vellum in store ready to be used. For the difference between parchment and vellum and lots more information, and another special offer on vellum and parchment for subscribers to my newsletter, click here.







Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

Although I don’t teach egg tempera painting in classes any more, I do still demonstrate how to change the powdered pigment as here into usable paints with egg as the adhesive. Cornelissen in London stock traditional powdered pigments in cute little jars. The colours are amazingly strong! If you want to know how to make egg tempera paint from pigments then it is shown and written about in my DVD on Illumination and also in my book Illumination – Gold and Colour. More details here. The one at the front right is orpiment. For more on a pigment that glisters but isn’t gold, see this blogpost.





Photograph © Sussie Bell 2016

I was about to teach a course at the Fitzwilliam Museum when Kerry and Sussie visited, and always aim to take with me the names of the people on the course written out calligraphically so they have a memento to take home with them from the day as well as the work they’ve done. As I was writing out the names for the course, I included one for Kerry and Sussie too as a thank you to Sussie for making what I do look so wonderful, and to Kerry for writing such a fantastic piece on me. And Hurray for Landlove and their inspired editor!



A sea of red poppies

poppy 1Bright red poppies have become synonymous in the UK by marking the sacrifice given by those who have lost their lives in conflict. Many of us wear a poppy on Armistice Day (November 11th) having made a contribution to military charities to remember this.


poppies 2A stunning display of brilliant red poppies is being installed in the 16-acre moat at the Tower of London to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Each poppy represents one of the 888, 246 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the conflict. The first poppy was ‘planted’ on the day that the UK took part in the war, and the last poppy will be placed on 11th November this year, filling the moat. On that day, too, William the Conqueror’s White Tower will be encircled by a sea of red looking like a huge poppy from above, with its round black roof forming the centre.


poppies 3The inspiration for this display came from the poem Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red written by an anonymous soldier in the First World War, and this was coupled with the idea of creating poppies by the ceramicist Paul Cummins and the inspiration of theatre designer Tom Piper.


poppies 4The poppies are made at a warehouse in Derby. Led by Paul Cummins, a team of 52 people are working for 23 hours a day in shifts. The clay has to be cut, rolled to the correct thickness, the petals stamped out by hand using the correct pressure, then assembled and finally shaped into poppies by a team of three skilled craftspeople. The poppies have a central hole cut in the soft clay before they are fired. This is how the poppies are made.

Once they have been fired and glazed, they are sent to the Tower. Here teams of volunteers assemble the poppies and plant them. The stalks are individual black metal rods, and washers have to be pushed on to them so that the poppy heads don’t slide down once assembled. The ceramic poppies are then carefully placed on the top of the stalks, and the round black centre pushed on the top so that the poppies are held securely and they look like the real flowers. Above: the volunteers are assembling the stalks.

poppies 5Finally the poppies are carefully pushed into the soil of the moat. It is an amazing spectacle, and although it will be dismantled by the end of the year, there will be a lasting legacy. The poppies are being sold for £25 each (to buy, click here), and all the profits will go to military charities.

In addition it is possible to sponsor the name of a British or Commonwealth service man or woman so that it is announced at sunset at the Tower. This list of up to 180 names is then followed by The Last Post. This will stop on November 11th 2014 when the installation is complete. (Click here for details.)

All Party Parliamentary Group for Art, Craft and Design Education

westminster hallVisiting the Houses of Parliament is always a privilege. It is not all as originally mediæval as I would like, in that only Westminster Hall, begun in 1097 by William II (William Rufus), and ready two years later, has original features. But the work by the architects Barry and particularly Pugin in the nineteenth century, after the fire that destroyed much of the original building, means that it definitely all has a very Gothic slant, and it is always a joy to be surrounded by such history and such rich design.

photo copy 10I was delighted, when I went to my first meeting of the APPG for Art, Craft and Design Education to see hand-craft at work. Just at the top of the main steps from Westminster Hall (the top of the picture above) they were re-laying the tiles to the pavement. This showed great craftsmanship in that the right mix of mortar, the right amount to be laid, and the correct pressure in tapping a wooden mallet all needed great skill. The designs reminded me when I was learning heraldry of the ways in which we had to fit lions and other heraldic beasts into particular shapes without losing the character of the animal (this was when I learned calligraphy and illumination as well). Notice that the lions in the square tiles above have four legs, swirling tails, heads etc etc but still fit into the shape.

photo copy 11I arrived very early for the meeting because of train times, and noticed a piece of M C Oliver’s calligraphy in the Central Lobby explaining the designs in the mosaic situated in the wall above this text. The lettering style is very typical for the period and written in a strong hand on stretched vellum. I am not sure whether we would find his very closely textured lettering with potential clashes of ascenders and descenders and tiny margins acceptable nowadays!


But I was there to represent craft and the Heritage Crafts Association at this committee and so had this to focus on. Chaired by dynamic Sharon Hodgson MP, Shadow Minister for Women and Equality, and supported by NSEAD, the agenda was wide-ranging. After the first item I was able to give a brief introduction to heritage crafts and the Heritage Crafts Association, mentioning some of our challenges. Other items covered were the Art Party Conference, and a fascinating insight into art, craft and design education by HMI Ian Middleton who mentioned two reports: Making a Mark, and Drawing together: art, craft and design in schools. Ian is also Ofsted’s National Lead for Art, Craft and Design in Education. The problems of Discount Codes for children choosing subjects to study for GCSE were also raised and it seems that subjects in the arts and crafts were most hit. A student could take Maths and Stats for example, with both subjects counting for school published statistics, but taking photography as well as design, or graphics and design, would count as only one subject when schools added up their GCSE successes. This is not likely to encourage take up of art, craft and design subjects! Yet these subjects involve different disciplines and were usually taught by different specialists (unlike Maths and Stats). The UK has some of the best innovators in the world in terms of designs and craft. Encouragement at all levels should be happening, not discouragement for reasons of statistics! The NSEAD proposed Day of Action was also raised. This is likely to be on June 14th and is an opportunity for art, craft and design teachers and amateur and professional practitioners to take their skills to the community and to schools to give everyone a chance to experience the skills involved.

It looks like a group keen to raise issues and get answers, and will certainly add to the excellent work being done by the Craft Industry Board.