‘The last of our kind’: Pre­serv­ing the world’s an­cient crafts


At a time when al­most ev­ery­thing is done at top speed, and cell­phones and com­put­ers are ubiq­ui­tous, Paul Wright stands out as a throw­back to an an­cient era.

Mr. Wright is one of only two peo­ple in Bri­tain who know how to make parch­ment and vel­lum, writ­ing ma­te­rial made from an­i­mal skins that was used for cen­turies to record texts such as the Domes­day Book, the Magna Carta and the Dead Sea scrolls. He runs a small busi­ness north­west of Lon­don called Wil­liam Cow­ley Ltd., which em­ploys the coun­try’s only other parch­ment maker, and sup­plies the rare prod­uct to royal house­holds, govern­ments, uni­ver­si­ties and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions around the world that still use it for im­por­tant doc­u­ments.

“We’re the last of our kind in the U.K., and we’re prob­a­bly the last of our kind in the world,” Mr. Wright said from his shop, where mak­ing just one sheet of parch­ment can take three months.

His skills are so rare they are among dozens of an­cient crafts that are on the verge of ex­tinc­tion, ac­cord­ing to a new study by Bri­tain’s Her­itage Crafts As­so­ci­a­tion (HCA). The re­port has raised con­cern about the grow­ing loss of what is known as non-tan­gi­ble her­itage – rit­u­als, fes­ti­vals and craft skills, for ex­am­ple. And it comes as the United Na­tions and other or­ga­ni­za­tions are call­ing on govern­ments to do more to pro­tect in­tan­gi­ble her­itage in the same way they pre­serve his­toric build­ings and ar­ti­facts.

Bri­tain has some of the old­est craft in­dus­tries in the world. Many, such as hel­met mak­ing, bell found­ing and sword smithing date back cen­turies. The HCA re­port found that of the 169 her­itage crafts iden­ti­fied in the coun­try, four have dis­ap­peared and 62 are on the verge of ex­tinc­tion or en­dan­gered.

The four that have gone are tra­di­tional cricket-ball mak­ing; “gold beat­ing,” which in­volves pound­ing the metal into thin strips for gild­ing; lacrosse-stick mak­ing; and man­u­fac­tur­ing sieves or rid­dles, which are a type of sifter. Among the skills close to ex­tinc­tion are mak­ing parch­ment, saws and hat blocks for use in de­sign­ing hats. The re­port noted that Bri­tain has just two skilled clog mak­ers, one fan maker, two busi­nesses that make coaches and wag­ons and only one pi­ano man­u­fac­turer.

“It’s re­ally sad find­ing out that things don’t ex­ist,” said Greta Ber­tram, an HCA re­searcher who con­ducted the study. She said the as­so­ci­a­tion will use the list as a base­line for fu­ture sur­veys on the state of craft skills.

The re­port found a va­ri­ety of rea­sons for the de­cline, in­clud­ing a lack of train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, an aging work force, com­pe­ti­tion from mass-made prod­ucts and a lack of gov­ern­ment sup­port. It also re­jected sug­ges­tions these skills are not worth pre­serv­ing be­cause they are not vi­able.

“Of­ten peo­ple say that peo­ple can’t earn a liv­ing from [these skills] or we don’t use these prod­ucts any more, so why should we keep those skills go­ing? That’s a bit ridicu­lous,” Ms. Ber­tram said. “We don’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect all of our her­itage build­ings to jus­tify them­selves fi­nan­cially, but we sup­port them and value them as part of our her­itage be­cause that’s how we view them. We rec­og­nize bio­di­ver­sity as part of our nat­u­ral her­itage and we are con­cerned about it for that rea­son. And we’re think­ing of these craft skills as part of our in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.”

Global fo­cus on in­tan­gi­ble as­sets is in­creas­ing. More than 170 coun­tries have signed UNESCO’s Con­ven­tion for the Safe­guard­ing of In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage, which was adopted in 2003 and fo­cuses on pro­tect­ing non-phys­i­cal as­pects of her­itage such as per­form­ing arts, fes­ti­vals, rit­u­als and craft skills. Sev­eral coun­tries, in­clud­ing Nor­way, In­dia and Gu­atemala, have also launched pro­grams to iden­tify and pre­serve in­tan­gi­ble her­itage.

Bri­tain, Canada and the United States are among the few coun­tries that have not rat­i­fied the con­ven­tion. Those govern­ments have gen­er­ally ar­gued that the def­i­ni­tion of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage is vague and that the con­ven­tion cre­ates oner­ous obli­ga­tions. But that is com­ing un­der fire from many or­ga­ni­za­tions. The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment has faced in­creas­ing calls to rat­ify the con­ven­tion, and pro­vin­cial govern­ments in Que­bec and New­found­land and Labrador have in­tro­duced laws to pro­tect in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage. Last year, 200 rep­re­sen­ta­tives from a range of her­itage groups, gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions, mu­se­ums and First Na­tions called on the gov­ern­ment to rat­ify the UNESCO con­ven­tion. Bri­tain is un­der sim­i­lar pres­sure from the HCA and oth­ers.

There are hope­ful signs. Crafts such as knit­ting and carv­ing have soared in pop­u­lar­ity in re­cent years, along with a surge in spe­cialty craft prod­ucts. That is what got Shane Skel­ton into saw mak­ing.

He had worked as a black­smith and a gun­smith in Bri­tain and was never im­pressed with the tools he used. Three years ago, he and his wife, Jac­que­line, started Skel­ton Saws from their house in Scar­bor­ough, North York­shire. They make saws based on tech­niques used 300 years ago, pro­duc­ing ev­ery­thing by hand. “A per­son can send us the size of their hand and we can pro­duce them a saw that fits them per­fectly,” Mr. Skel­ton, 39, said from the work­shop. It takes up to 25 hours to make one saw, at a cost of about £245 ($398), and more spe­cial­ized prod­ucts can take nearly three times as long and cost up to £1,500 (about $2,500).

The Skel­tons are the only tra­di­tional saw mak­ers in Bri­tain, some­thing Mr. Skel­ton laments. “There are a lot of peo­ple do­ing all types of very cre­ative things, very old tra­di­tional things that prob­a­bly in an­other gen­er­a­tion won’t ex­ist. We’re the only saw mak­ers to have set up in over 100 years in Eng­land as a tra­di­tional maker,” he said.

Mr. Wright, 51, is also try­ing to re­vive parch­ment mak­ing. He has just launched an in­tern­ship pro­gram at Wil­liam Cow­ley and hopes to train some­one to take over the busi­ness even­tu­ally. “It takes so long for some­one to be taught the ins and outs of parch­ment and vel­lum mak­ing. It’s a seven-year process,” he said, adding that he learned the craft from the pre­vi­ous man­ager. “It may take a while, but I’ll find some­one.”

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