Neon, kilts, cricket bats: artisans gather to shine a light on Britain’s endangered crafts

Nick Malyon was seduced by neon lighting at the end of the 1980s while travelling in America. He left home after failing his A-levels and doing a disastrous four-year stint as a vintage car salesman in London.

“I was introduced to a sign painter and a neon signmaker, and it seemed like an alternative lifestyle to the one I’d left behind. On my return to the UK, I was probably attempting to carry on some American dream by training, but I loved the weird alchemy of illuminating a piece of bent glass tubing – the change from nothing to something.”

Malyon’s art is on display this month, during London Craft Week (LCW), at the Vintage Supermarket, a Soho pop-up shop by Merchant & Found that specialises in 20th-century and industrial furniture. His work will represent one of the many endangered crafts on show this year.

“Over the centuries, crafts have ebbed and flowed; some die out but others grow to replace them,” says Daniel Carpenter, executive director of Heritage Crafts, the charity that produces the annual red list of endangered skills. “But what we’re seeing now is something different – it’s like an extinction-level event.”

Kilt maker Graeme Bone. Photograph: Iain Brown

Heritage Crafts’ red list includes gloomy news for British culture. Cricket ball manufacture is extinct in the UK, while cricket bats are on the endangered list alongside kilt- and bagpipe-making. Construction of currach boats and the sporran are also on the critical list.

Carpenter says that competition from low-wage economies overseas is a key factor. “And just the ease of being able to buy things from anywhere in the world without even noticing – with no awareness of who’s made it or what conditions they work in. Just with a click of a mouse.”

He says the situation is worse in the UK than in other European countries, but Heritage Crafts has just established a worldwide organisation to monitor the situation. “There’s less support for training, and government-funded apprenticeships are very hard to access in the UK. They’re not set up for our sector – which is ironic, as apprenticeships were developed by craft guilds in medieval times.”

Scottish kiltmaker Graeme Bone’s work will appear at LCW’s Craftworks. He retrained with a programme offered by the Prince’s Foundation. Previously he was a steelworker: “Surprisingly, there are many cross-transferable skills from construction to patternmaking – it’s all grids and measurements.”

Bone was shocked to discover traditional kiltmaking was endangered. “I feel an obligation to carry on these skills and pass them on to the next generation of crafters in Scotland.”

Rush weaver Felicity Irons, who is also exhibiting at LCW, received a British Empire medal in 2017 for saving the UK’s rush-cutting industry. She was focused on making seating when her rush supplier, Tom Arnold, died. Arnold’s brother was in his 70s and didn’t want to take over the trade, though it had been in his family since the 1500s. He gave Irons a two-hour training session before she took over.

Harvesting reeds for rush weaving. Photograph: Andrew Montgomery

“But I still get asked if this is my hobby. Though it’s better than it was when I set up – customers would be really rude to me about the prices and I had to stop myself from justifying it. I think it’s staggering that those plants growing in the river are being sent all around the world – our exports are really strong.”

In June 2024, the UK will ratify Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which means the government commits to protect local crafts, social practices, festive events and rituals. A public register opened in January 2024 for British people to nominate local traditions for our national list.

skip past newsletter promotion

“It’s a step forward,” said Carpenter, “but it’s largely symbolic. We’ve yet to see how safeguarding crafts will be done in the UK. I don’t think there’s going to be huge amounts of money – it’ll be reallocating existing funds.”

While grants are hard to come by, some awards offer money prizes as well as recognition. The latest winner of the Loewe Foundation Craft prize, an international award, will be announced in the same week as LCW. The prize was inaugurated by Jonathan Anderson, the creative director of the Loewe fashion house.

He is a long-time supporter of craft and believes that these specialised skills are vital to human life and an important part of the history of our civilisation. “Humans make things: it’s not a second job, it’s an impulse,” said Anderson at last year’s prize ceremony.

Abraham Thomas, curator of modern architecture, design and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the Loewe Prize judges this year. He feels some crafts people are adapting to the modern world.

He says: “It’s interesting to note that several artists on this year’s shortlist have subverted traditional techniques and incorporated unexpected, recycled or industrial materials. They appear where other materials might be expected – all with the purpose of challenging craft traditions, legacies and expectations.”

Carpenter also thinks craft is an innate human trait, and the loss of these skills goes beyond being a problem for our manufacturing sector or a waste of talent. “We’ve evolved as human beings to be makers,” he said. “So for us to be living 24/7 in the digital world isn’t natural and it could be contributing to the mental health crisis.”

Malyon, though, has resigned himself to the death of his craft in the UK. “Since the advent of LED in the 2000s, neon trade worldwide has crashed. Brexit caused a price rise in our materials, all imported from Europe. I’ve never earned much and I work very long hours, but I really enjoy what I do.

“I just wanted to make neon signs, commercially, for whatever weird reason, so I feel I’ve been lucky. But as far as the UK craft is concerned, I don’t think anyone can stop it from dying.”

The Guardian