Saturday, 12 February 2011

Review: Mastercrafts

Mastercrafts series 1
BBC 2, 2010

Reviewed by John Roued-Cunliffe

“Mastercrafts” is a new show on BBC 2 that celebrates the traditional crafts that molded the Britain of today. From the little that I read about the first show beforehand I wasn’t sure what to expect. In each episode three keen volunteers are brought in to learn a new technique. During the show they are taught and then towards the end they have a competition to see who has learnt the most. I was really looking forward to learning about these ‘lost’ crafts but the prospect of competition within each episode was a bit confusing.

Episode 1: Greenwood Craft
Three volunteers spent a considerable amount of time learning the craft of greenwood carpentry from an expert – Guy Mallinson. Guy knew his stuff and I can only imagine how much fun it was to learn from him. He taught them a number of basic principles which they needed to be competent at before moving onto a project; making a chair.

The competition element raised its head when the three volunteers were asked to design and make a greenwood chair using the techniques they had been shown. After seeing the show I’m still not sure about this aspect of it. As far I’m concerned, learning a craft isn’t a competition or a sprint, but more like a marathon of learning. Surely to learn a craft it takes time and practice, and to ask three novices to compete against each other, maybe does more harm than good for their technique.

If you can look past the presenter (Monty Don) and the competition element of the show I’ve no doubt you will enjoy it. I learnt a lot about the craft and maybe it will inspire me to try my hand.

Episode 2: Thatching
I wasn’t aware that the process of thatching involves using previous thatch on the roof, and simply layering new thatch on top of existing thatch (assuming that the existing thatch is suitable of course). This fact was emphasised when the presenter, Monty Don, was shown Medieval thatch in the roof of a cottage. It was amazing to see the blackened straw dating back hundreds of years!
This weeks mastercrafters were Matt Williams and Dave Bragg from Rumpelstiltskin Thatching Company. These guys do everything themselves when it comes to long straw thatching and they introduced this weeks three volunteers to thatching from the very beginning – making yealms (the roof tiles of straw). Although the volunteers didn’t seem to enjoy this part, I think they all realised how important it is to the process. The volunteers were taken through their paces in all elements of thatching during the six weeks that followed. They were taught how to lay the yealms, how to blend them and how to twist a Hazel spar. There was even time for a ‘waterproof’ test, were Matt and Dave illustrated where rainwater would flow on the volunteer’s practice roofs.

Throughout the episode the volunteers were working towards thatching someone’s house. Fortunately for the home owner, if it wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be left on the roof. I won’t tell you how it ended, but the volunteer who laid the best thatch was given the opportunity to help thatch National Trust properties. I’m sure they’ll relish the chance.

In this episode you got a sense that these guys were not ready to thatch a roof by themselves, but instead, a real idea as to why it takes 4 years to learn this craft to a point where you would be able to put a roof on a house.

Episode 3: Blacksmithing
Once again, Monty Don opened the show by saying that blacksmithing had always interested him; that he always wanted to do more; and that he was really excited by this craft. This week’s volunteers were put straight to work in the forge by the master blacksmith, Don Barker. They were set the task of making ten nails in an hour. At its height, a blacksmith would have been expected to make around 60 nails an hour (that’s one every minute...ouch!). Don made one nail as a demo for them and set them to work. Early on the volunteers were told how to look after the forge and the temperature of the metal. They were put through their paces making various shapes and practicing different techniques, offering varying results. They also had the chance to work on a restoration project that Don and his team were working on.
Towards the end of the episode the volunteers were set the task of designing and making an iron gate for local homeowners. The skill that the volunteers achieved on their gates was amazing. They all designed the gates and made them in the forge after collaboration with the ‘client’. On completion, the gates were judged by Bob Hobbes; the only living Gold Medal holder of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in Great Britain As well as learning these new skills, the volunteers were witness to an experiment to obtain iron from iron ore. The stone was heated to create iron ore, and then the ore was heated and worked in the smithy to create iron. Quite an incredible process and so old too.

After watching this episode I realised just how detailed and artistic the process of blacksmithing can be. Yes, it is hard work, but with practice, novices can achieve beautiful results.

Episode 4: Stained Glass
It's not something that I ever really looked at and thought 'how do they do that?' Yet I found it fascinating. The level of detail that the mastercrafter could achieve is incredible. From the distance you see them in situ, but you never really have any idea of the intricate nature of each piece of glass. Some are painted, many are coloured, and all along, the pieces of glass are handcut in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
This weeks mastercrafter was a woman called Sophie Lister-Hussain. Some of her own work was in the studio where the volunteer would be working, and it was clear that she was a very skilled artist. She put this weeks three volunteers to work cutting glass; first in straight lines, and then in curves. After grasping the technique they were given a small project of their own to reproduce a set pattern.
During the later stages of the course the volunteers were asked to design and make a stained glass window for a school. They were given a brief and a time-frame and left to it. The results were amazing, but I won't spoil it for anyone...let's just say that there were three excellent windows to choose from.

Episode 5: Weaving
I've seen looms before, but I had never seen a finished piece of cloth still attached to one, so I found it difficult to imagine how it all worked to get the finished object. It was interesting to see just how complex these hand looms are to set up. I can't be sure that this is the case, but one of the volunteers appeared to really struggle to get their loom set up ready to start weaving.
Margo Selby took charge of the volunteers this week. She is one of only 200 people in Great Britain today that are making a career out of hand weaving. Margo showed the volunteers how to set up a loom, use the loom and some of the different patterns you can easily make with one. After getting to grips with the techniques, the volunteers were asked to make something to sell. The idea being that they would gain an insight into what the market was like. Each one of them struggled to make a sale.
The volunteers were then set a task to weave a 3 meter length of fabric that they had to design themselves. While the weavers designed their fabrics (one even using their mac to help them out), Monty Don ventured to Hampton Court to look at the tapestries there. Looking back, it was pretty stupid of me, but I always thought that tapestries were made in a similar fashion to cross-stitch. It never dawned on me that they were actually hand woven. Now I think about it though it makes perfect sense; of course they were woven. The intricate details that they achieved on the tapestries is a testament to the skill of these practitioners of such a complicated craft.

Episode 6: Stonemasonry

The final episode of the series exploring traditional crafts was all about the work of a stone mason. The buildings of the past were predominantly built of stone. Each piece of stone had to be crafted to suit the purpose they were designed for. On building projects in the medieval period there would have been many stonemasons carving and placing the stones to build the structure.

Andy Oldfield has been working with stone for years, and now is responsible for the upkeep of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Hardwick Hall is an Elizabethan Stately Home that now needs constant care to maintain it's stature. All of the stone used on the building is taken from the quarry within the grounds. The first job for the volunteers is to see where the stone comes from and use a freshly quarried slab to create a flat surface. Although that sounds relatively simple, if they can't get this right, they won't be able to do any of the more complex stuff.

It's obvious from the start that with stonemasonry you can't hold back, but at the same time you don't want to be too bold and break the stone. There is a middle ground, that with practice, becomes second nature. As the volunteers progressed, the carvings became more difficult as the level of detail increased.

The project this episode was to design and make a sun-dial that would sit in the grounds of Hardwick Hall. All three volunteers developed very different designs. Ranging from the large and bold, right through to the more traditional style. As usual, I'm not going to spoil it for you, but my favourite won.

The series

In each episode we watched three volunteers developing skills in each of their chosen fields. Some were better than others, but I think that they all got something out of the experience and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they are all trying to keep their 'hand in' with their craft. I found it refreshing to see people from all walks of life taking an interest in some of the crafts that used to be such a big part of our society.

All in all, the series propelled the six crafts into the public domain. We've all seen the success of 'Time Team' and the effect that it has had on the public perception of archaeology. Time will tell if 'Mastercrafts' can have a similar effect of crafts. I hope that the BBC decide to follow up this series with a second series. There are many more crafts out there that are not as well known but that play or at least used to play a major part in everyday life. Crafts such as Cobblers, Basket Weavers and Dry Stone Walling are all being left on the shore as we carry on our human voyage.

The series chose six crafts that people would instantly know and be able to associate with something from their everyday life. Although people may have recognised the crafts, they may be less likely to recognise the time and effort that masters of these crafts commit to it. Recently there has been a trend to knit or make more and more things for the home, rather than buying newly made items. The growing interest in all things crafty has been reflected in this BBC series. They investigated the crafts just to the point where peoples interest may have been kindled and I would be willing to bet that Google searches, course applications, book and magazine sales relating to the crafts have all increased substantially. Congratulations BBC for an excellent series, and I hope to see a new series on our TV's in the near future...although, maybe you could wait till after summer so that I can get outside for a bit whilst the sun shines.

If you saw any of the series, please let me know what you thought of it. You can use the comments box below and I'll get to see what you thought. Who knows, maybe you disagree with me...

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