Many 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.
His 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.
In 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.
We 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.
I 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.