Mastering crafts

 4 February 2011

Momtaz Begum-Hossain reveals what it was like to be a trainee on the BBC series Mastercrafts.

Metalwork requires an advanced level of practical knowledge. Photo courtesy of Lorna Yabsley.
Metalwork requires an advanced level of practical knowledge. Photo courtesy of Lorna Yabsley.

When I heard the BBC was making a TV show about crafts, I was determined to appear on it. I’ve been a crafter for over a decade and I’m always trying to expand my knowledge to become a crafts expert.

For me crafts is a chance to be creative, express myself, use my hands, learn new skills and make something unique.

Crafting as a profession

Crafts fall into two categories: ‘hobbycrafts’ and ‘professional crafts’. Hobbycrafts are done by people who want a creative release in their spare time. Professional crafts are highly skilled disciplines that require years to perfect. I didn’t realise the two worlds were so far apart until now.

The ‘Mastercrafts’ series focuses on professional crafts. Six programmes each uncover the history of an English Heritage craft that requires an advanced level of practical knowledge:

  • Green wood
  • Thatching
  • Metalwork
  • Stone masonry
  • Glass
  • Weaving

Eighteen apprentices are given the chance to try out the crafts. I took on the challenge of completing an intensive apprenticeship in weaving.

Craft apprenticeships

Craft apprenticeships are unheard of today, although alternatives such as modern apprenticeships exist where students can prepare for jobs through practical application.

"Crafts is a chance to be creative, express myself, use my hands, learn new skills and make something unique."

Traditional craft apprentices in the UK date back to the 1300s. Trainees as young as 14 were sent to live and train with ‘mastercrafters’. It was illegal to ‘practice’ their craft until they had completed at least seven years of training.

Whoever passed that law would turn in their grave if they knew we only had seven weeks to become apprentices. Nevertheless, as a girl who loves colourful fabrics and has a genuine passion for textiles, I set off determined to win (this was a competition!) and, of course, to weave beautiful things.

Taught by a master weaver

Partaking in a traditional country craft obviously requires a rural location and my base for the course was a quaint barn, located on a farmhouse in West Sussex. We filmed throughout autumn, my favourite memory of the experience was observing the changing landscape and natural colour palette of the sunset – details I’ve never noticed in London.

Despite being in such picturesque surroundings, the pace of life was definitely not slow. Under the guidance of Master Weaver Margo Selby, myself and two other trainees were required to cram in several years of knowledge and experience into a mere few weeks.

Margo herself completed a degree, MA and postgraduate Fellowship in weaving before she was able to start her own business. It was still several years after that before she could call herself a Mastercrafter. And here we were, none of us having ever used a handloom, expected to weave masterpieces. At degree level, students are not required to know how to set up their loom during their first year of study where as we were asked to do it on our first day.

Learning skills for weaving

Over the weeks we were shown a range of weave structures and given tasks to complete. This included dyeing our own yarn, winding bobbins, warp winding, creating heddle plans, peddle plans and correctly setting up the loom. Around the barn was shelf upon shelf of yarn in every colour and material imaginable to try out including horsehair, copper and paper.

"All the crafts have a technical element that needs to be mastered before there is any room for creativity."

Between tasks our hectic schedule involved research and design work - there was no time to relax and enjoy the country setting. We worked on average 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

My release was heading back to our cottage and having a hot soak at the end of the night. There was no time for a social life and I missed going to the gym.

There was so much to learn. Most of it comes through practice and encountering problems. Yet with such limited time, it wasn’t an option to get things wrong. My abilities were really put to the test.

I’ve never been a perfectionist. The appeal of ‘making’ for me is that there are no rules. But what my episode and the others in the series show is that in ‘real crafting’ there is no room for mistakes. Perfection and the highest levels of skills mean everything, which is why handmade crafts command such a high price.

Completing 'Mastercrafts'

At the end of the seven weeks I came away with a whole new respect and admiration for ‘real crafters’ especially because the romantic notion I’ve held on to about crafts being creative is only one side of the story.

Weaving turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and judging by the episodes that have been screened so far, all the crafts have a technical element that needs to be mastered before there is any room for creativity. Even then, creativity is restricted - a thatched roof has to be made to instruction otherwise it will leak. In greenwood, pieces have to match up perfectly for furniture to be functional.

Commitment, determination, stubbornness, perfectionism and the ability to spot errors and rectify them are all crucial characteristics if you want to learn how to do a craft properly – some of the many lessons I learnt during my Mastercrafts journey.

 

Photos courtesy of Lorna Yabsley, featured in the ‘Mastercrafts’ book which accompanies the series, published by David & Charles.


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