Traditional craftsmanship in a digital world

PUBLISHED: 10:56 22 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:30 01 June 2017

'The Old Charm collection is one which is distinctive with its nostalgic, romantic and quintessentially English charm' (photo: Wood Bros)

'The Old Charm collection is one which is distinctive with its nostalgic, romantic and quintessentially English charm' (photo: Wood Bros)

Wood Bros

In a throwaway, plastic-moulded age, Heather Harris still finds workshops across Hertfordshire using traditional tools alongside very modern ones to meet a demand for lifetime quality

A luthier's tools. 'No modern technology is involved except in the marketing' (photo: Thwaites)A luthier's tools. 'No modern technology is involved except in the marketing' (photo: Thwaites)

Her look was quizzical. Was it the vocabulary she didn’t understand? Was I turning the pages too fast? Perhaps the book was too hard for a three-year-old? Reading to my niece from my favourite, somewhat dog-eared Fairy Tale book is one of the many joys of babysitting. After all, my own children are all now too old and cynical and only read when a digital device is out of charge. But 15 years earlier they had been transfixed by Rumpelstiltskin and adored The Elves and The Shoemaker. So, what had changed? Following little Molly’s pointing figure, I could see she had absolutely no idea what the ‘daughter spinning straw into gold’ was actually doing or why the little men in pointy hats were bashing pins into the backs of shoes.

In less than two decades these traditional crafts had become mysteries. Molly’s generation are born less with a silver spoon in their mouths, more an iPhone in their hands, and to them an apple is a device not a poisoned fruit eaten by Snow White.

As a recent comprehensive study by the Craft Councils of the UK stated, ‘If technologies such as 3D printing become ubiquitous, and it becomes possible to make distinctive objects at the touch of a button, what does that imply for the whole notion of craft?’

Will traditional skills disappear one mega-byte at a time or, like farmers’ markets, will they have a resurgence as a backlash against all things mass produced.

Opinion is divided. Pat Reynolds, co-ordinator at the Heritage Crafts Association, believes that ‘centuries old crafts will die out unless younger people make a concerted effort to learn them. These skills will only survive if they live in each generation. They provide a link to our roots, and they are part of our shared heritage.’

Chris, one of three luthiers at Thwaites who restore instrumentsChris, one of three luthiers at Thwaites who restore instruments

The Craft Council study was more optimistic, ‘The history of the sector suggests that craft professionals will find ways to re-think and reinvent their practice in order to adapt to a changing world and allow craft to flourish.’

Thankfully, speaking to craftspeople across Hertfordshire this certainly seems to be the case.

Walking into Thwaites Fine String Instruments in Bushey, the shop reeked of history. Jack Pamplin, now 81, started the company in the 1960s. As a jazz bass player he began by specialising in fine double basses.

‘Thwaites has gone from strength to strength and is now run by Jack’s son Bill, dealing with violins, violas, cellos, basses and bows of all qualities,’ shop manager Sam Blade reveals. He is one of the few ‘outsiders’ in this family-run company and joined from university two years ago. ‘I’ve always been interested in the history of an instrument or a bow – who crafted it, when and where it was made, and who has played it since,’ he explains as he guides me around the workshop.

Here, Bill’s sister Caroline and his niece Amy are handcrafting bows while luthiers Chris, Richard and Lance are painstakingly restoring a range of instruments.

Fine antique instruments for sale (photo: Thwaites)Fine antique instruments for sale (photo: Thwaites)

‘Everything is done by hand,’ says Sam. ‘Our luthiers collectively have over 100 years of experience and take great pride in their workmanship. No modern technology is involved except in the marketing!’

Thwaites holds the biggest number of double basses in the country with 250 ranging from instruments for beginners to top professionals. Interestingly, Sam doesn’t see cheaper imports as a threat, ‘Inexpensive Chinese instruments allow aspiring players to get their hands on an instrument and when they progress and want one with greater tone and character then they come to us to choose a finely-crafted new instrument or a very fine antique.’

Government policy, however, does worry him, ‘Music in schools is under threat but we just have to hope that the current strong musical tradition in Hertfordshire and across London continues to support our traditional craft.’

Elly Cornish of manufacturers Wood Bros Furniture in Ware agrees that traditional craftsmen will never compete on cost. ‘We appeal to a different market. Our Old Charm collection is one which is distinctive with its nostalgic, romantic and quintessentially English charm.’

Wood Bros Pickering range - traditional meets contemporaryWood Bros Pickering range - traditional meets contemporary

Elly is one of five family members involved in the business which was founded in 1924 by her granddad, Herbert Wood. All the pieces are hand finished including its Old Charm Tudor-style furniture, while two years ago the company made a successful move into upholstery.

‘Although traditional, we do recognise the need to respond to changing tastes and have added different wood colours to suit different interiors. We’ve also introduced contemporary fabrics including Abraham Moon wool sourced from the oldest wool mill in the country.’

For Wood Bros it was important to strike a balance between appealing to a younger audience while staying in touch with its loyal customers, so they brought in a young CEO. The company has also embraced social media and include vibrant lifestyle photography and a blog on its website.

‘We have to use technology to reach new markets but we are also very active in our local community of Ware as we pride ourselves on our heritage and family values’, Elly says.

Since joining the company 15 years ago, she has seen flexibility as a key to competing in a fast-moving world while remaining true to the company’s history. ‘We now do less elaborate hand carving, with customers preferring a simpler style, and also mix and match tables and chairs more.’

Wood Bros has made a successful move into upholsteryWood Bros has made a successful move into upholstery

Customer service is a vital way of standing out from the competitors. Elly’s brother offers a personalised service in the impressive Ware showroom and someone is always at the end of the telephone.

‘There is not a stereotypical customer. It’s more a country/urban divide with products for both markets and we are also seeing growth in our showroom in Shanghai.’

Wood Bros has a history of selling its products globally and five years ago capitalised on the expanding interest in English furniture in China by successfully opening a flagship store in Shanghai and a number of franchisees in both China and Japan where sales continue to grow.

It has survived nearly a century, so what’s the company’s plan for the next one? Elly has no hesitation, ‘Our plans for the future are to stick to what we are good at!’

One of English Caravan Company's bespoke Teardrop modelsOne of English Caravan Company's bespoke Teardrop models

Richard Stark and his fiancée, Lyn, run the wonderfully-named English Caravan Company from their home and workshop in the hamlet of Newnham near Baldock - a ‘commute of 27 paces’.

A joiner by trade, seven years ago, aged 52, Richard decided he wanted a simpler life and Lyn felt the same.

‘It was a big step to give up two steady jobs to follow our dream but it just felt that the time was right – and we haven’t looked back,’ Lyn explains, adding that they have always both loved caravans and still holiday around Europe in their ‘Teardrop’.

The model is so-called because of its traditional sloping shape, and this classic caravan is what this enthusiastic duo specialise in building.

‘Each one is individual and takes 12 weeks to make. It’s like commissioning a piece of art,; Richard says. ‘Average spend is around £14,000 but if cared for they last a lifetime.’

Richard and Lyn in their workshop - 'a 27 pace commute' (English Caravan Company)Richard and Lyn in their workshop - 'a 27 pace commute' (English Caravan Company)

Like their fellow craftsfolk above, Richard and Lyn are well aware of the cheaper competition but again have found that demand is there for a handbuilt, quality product.

Granada TV played a significant part in the company’s success when it borrowed one of Richard’s prototypes for actor and presenter Ade Edmondson to use in his roadtrip TV programme Ade in Britain. Since then customers have come from all over the country – including businesses such as street food sellers and mobile coffee shops. The business has been spurred on by Lyn’s new-found knowledge of social media. ‘I was thrown into the world of Instagram and Facebook and had to learn quickly. We didn’t want to employ anyone so I now do all the tweeting while Richard is in the workshop.’

Ironically, despite wanting a simpler life the couple seem to be working longer hours than ever – seven days a week often from around 7am to 9pm.

‘But we are doing what we love and never plan to retire!’ Lyn declares.

The couple recently launched their ‘ultimate garden accessory’ – a Teardrop caravan fitted with a clay wood burning pizza oven. It costs £18,000 and has already won a major design award.

The caravans have been customised for street food sellers and baristas (English Caravan Co)The caravans have been customised for street food sellers and baristas (English Caravan Co)

It’s this sort of innovation that will keep the English Caravan Company not only on the right road – but well out in front.

These thriving Herts businesses back up the Craft Council’s conclusion that, ‘The future market for UK craft will become increasingly concentrated at the higher end, where originality and aesthetic value count for more than cost and where skills and knowledge can earn a premium.’

For the sake of future generations let’s hope it stays that way.

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