Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Heritage Skill Workshops

With Christmas a mere 20 days away we say goodbye to our first round of Heritage Skills Workshops. Over the past five weeks I have witnessed the creation of beautiful baskets, fabulous felt hats, and nigh on perfect pottery. Before my eyes, novices have made really rather lovely proggy and hooked mats and whiled away hours on the peg loom to make gorgeous samplers. And then there was the dowsing- I watched a group of people put their trust in metal rods and hazel sticks to find water. I imagine that some of the creations that have been lovingly put together over 10hours in free taster workshops will be appearing wrapped and ribboned under the tree to be given as unique and cherished gifts.
Part of my role has been to document the success of our learners and this task has been a pleasure to execute. Not only have all our learners been enthusiastic and friendly, many of them keen to find out more about the Epiacum Heritage Project as well as their chosen heritage skill, they have worked hard to produce fantastic objects. Be sure to check out our photo albums on Facebook and videos of workshops on the Epiacum website
It is rather shamefaced that I admit that over the course of the past few weeks my vocabulary and knowledge of techniques relating to heritage skills has improved vastly. The first class I observed was Rag Rug making. They worked with hessian, which my only prior experience was as sacks, as in a sack race. So this for one was new to me. They worked with the hessian stretched over the frame and then prodded bits of material through. With a prodder. This, I believe is its technical term. To the untrained eye it looks like an ancient bit of tat you’d find in that box in the garage containing miscellaneous nondescript items. Now my eyes have been trained I can see that this prodder has been specially designed. Likewise, the hook. Not, as I first thought a piece of the dentist display from Beamish, but a tool created for hooking. It all became much clearer once I was familiar with these objects. I’d got the gist of Rag Rug Making- making rugs from rags- easy, even my MTV addled brain can compute that. Hooky and proggy or proddy or whatever however, had been a rather perplexing concept until now. Rag Rug making is a traditional Northumbrian craft and was one of our most popular courses.

The ceramics workshop launched the same day and was also a huge success. Left to create pretty much whatever they wanted, the learners diligently cut up clay and, using the freedom they’d been given made all sorts of objects. This was especially impressive as they made something almost straight away. While next door the learners sat casually chatting, poking rags into sacks for hours before they were anywhere near close to finishing, these learners knocked up pots, vases and sculptures in almost no time at all. Well, at least they made them in no time at all, it would be a while until they were useable, after all, they all had to whacked in the kiln and stuff before they were finished. So not as much instant gratification as I’d first thought.

One workshop that did offer instant gratification was the basketry. Willow weaving means you can make something quickly. The learners made a basket in the first session alone. It was impressive stuff. It was also fairly dangerous. Those willow sticks are lethal in the hands of determined learners. I almost lost an eye more than once as I angled my camera to get a good shot of the action. The learners produced great stuff.

The next workshop I attended was the peg loom weaving. Already the concept of ‘peg’ and ‘loom’, and ‘weaving’ had me pretty much thrown. The concept was simple though. Weave material through a row of dowling until you had enough for a rug, or a wall hanging. The workshop was going well, all the learners using the wool or threads the tutor had brought along. It all changed when they started cutting up clothes. Cutting them up! Into tiny strips. This was unfamiliar territory for me, I can barely handle the grief that comes with donating clothes to the charity shop let alone partake in them being sliced and diced. As one learner pulled out a collection of clothes she’d brought from home I leapt up to the defence of a gorgeous bright orange skirt. Thinking I could perhaps prolong its life even further I reeled off a list of its qualities; “the colour, it’s so fresh”, “it’s fab, you’re really going to cut it up?” and as my outcry’s reached her ears she evidently felt sympathy and bestowed the garment on me, “you take it then” she reasoned, “if you’d rather wear it than see it shredded”. After much pleading (‘oh, I couldn’t, you keep it’) I realised that if I didn’t take it, the skirt would be made into a rug. So I took it. This is just one of the many positive outcomes from attending Heritage Skill Workshops.

I split my day between the peg loom weaving and the felting workshop. I left the peg loomers weaving steadily. It was at a fairly calm relaxed pace that their creations began to take shape. I was struck by a very different picture as I walked into Alston town hall where the felt making was taking place. Discarded clothing was strewn around the room, bodies rocking furiously as they worked up a sweat creating friction between the sheets of wool. With sleeves rolled up these women were really going for it, dowsing the wool with soapy water and scrubbing at it like their life depended on it. They produced felt out of wool (batting?), and then turned the felt into a hat. It came together within minutes. At the start you just have a pile of fluff. Then you have a soggy mess of fluff. Then you have a hat. I was more than impressed. And I felt useful, standing in the toilets advising learners on the angle of their brim, I was in my element. The pride on the faces of our learners was easy to see, as they walked away into the bitterly cold northern night wearing their handcrafted, totally unique hats. They looked great.

I won’t say much about dowsing here, but will refer you to my earlier blog on the subject. Needless to say, I am a convert. I profess profusely to people about the wonders of dowsing whenever I get the chance. I carry dowsing rods in my car. It’s amazing. I encourage everyone to give it a go, and if you’re not sure where to start keep an eye on Epiacum and the future of our very own dowsing society.

All in all the courses were a success. If you took part we would love to hear from you. If you didn’t take part, but think you would like to get involved, keep an eye on Facebook and our website for future events.

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