Women keeping an endangered Scottish traditional craft alive


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He is renowned for the intricate patterns of the knits made by his wives, but the unique way of making chairs developed by the men of Fair Isle is in danger of disappearing.

Although similar to the famous Orkney straw-back chairs, the technique adopted by the men of Fair Isle was not traditionally used elsewhere in Britain or northern Europe.

It is now on the Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of Critically Endangered Crafts and is taught to schoolchildren to help preserve and raise awareness of it.

Until recently, only one man, Stewart Thomson, made the chairs, but he passed his skills on to fellow Fair Isle native Eve Eunson, who designed an activity guide for students to teach them the technique. . The guide has been successfully tested and is part of a campaign to introduce craft and crafting skills into the Scottish school curriculum.

Launched by Craft Scotland and MAKE Learn, it follows a report highlighting the benefits of teaching crafts, including protecting Scotland’s unique craft heritage.

The Craft and Making Education in Scotland Today report calls for better resources for teaching crafts in classrooms and a national strategy for the development of material skills in schools to support and

to increase the Scottish workforce for an industry which currently contributes over £ 70million to the Scottish economy.

As part of the campaign, many artisans were recruited to pass on their know-how by designing activity guides for primary school students.

Eunson’s “knotted basket” guide teaches them how to make a basket of rope using the same technique that the men of Fair Isle had used for generations to make straw chairs.

The National:

She said she hoped it would raise the profile of crafts and teach children transferable skills such as planning, designing and using by-products to make beautiful and useful items.

Eunson, who was born and raised on her family’s farm in Fair Isle, trained as an architect but despite having no experience in woodworking and little knowledge of vernacular furniture, decided to lead an ambitious research project to trace, study and recreate the traditional chairs of his native island.

In doing so, she discovered that the knotted straw working technique was completely different from the stitching technique used in other straw back chairs. His discoveries led to the method being officially registered as endangered.

“It’s quite interesting that it has become the weaving technique of choice for the men of Fair Isle – although Fair Isle may seem incredibly isolated in the minds of some people, the opportunity to influence the world. via the sea, was vast, ”she said. underline. “Shipwrecks were common and provided many opportunities for craft and technology from other maritime countries to get to Fair Isle. Some people like to attribute the Fair Isle knitting patterns to the wreck of the Spanish Armada galleon – it’s fun to play with the concept that the knotting technique could have come from there as well.

While knitting was traditionally considered a woman’s job, woodworking and chair making were generally male activities.

“There is a lot of talk about the creativity of the Shetland and Fair Isle women and their cute knitwear, but not a lot about what the men were doing – yet in the winter, if they weren’t fishing, they would turn their hands around. amazing stuff, ”Eunson said. “The Fair Isle chairs were particularly nice and they were very detailed. ”

Eunson hopes that raising the profile of the tradition will create a market for chairs and that chair making, much like the famous knitwear, could make a decent contribution to the economy of the people of Fair Isle, which now number less than 50. people.

CATRIONA Duffy, co-founder of MAKE Learn, said that although traditional craftsmanship in Scotland is celebrated internationally, its future is not secure.

“Recent research published by the Heritage Crafts Association highlights that Scotland’s tangible heritage is critically endangered,” said Duffy.

“The transmission of traditional skills preserves tangible heritage and reflects locally available resources, telling unique stories about people and places. It is through this “transmission” that traditional craftsmanship opens up avenues for learning about culture, identity and the fundamentals of sustainable thought.

“Importantly, learning to make through traditional crafts also builds self-confidence and develops motor skills, problem-solving skills and other essential life-transferable skills.

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