Employment

How traditional crafts like clog making and sign-writing are providing an alternative to the 9 to 5

Looking for something beyond the computer screen? Consider clog making

REBECCA STRUTHERS, Watchmaker &; historian, STAFFORDSHIRE

Rebecca Struthers, watchmaker and historian, Staffordshire. Image: Andy Pilsbury

The government wants to give you a job. In a bid to compete with global players, the UK’s strategy has emphasised certain professions over others, particularly those in maths, tech and finance. Whether encouraging workers in the arts to retrain in cyber, or Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to cap the number of “low-value” degrees, the government’s aim seems clear: get out of the arts and into the office.  

It’s estimated that one-third of us are unhappy with our jobs, according to data from job site Indeed. Mix that with a desire for slower, more traditional ways of living, you wonder if some of us would prefer our next job to be low-tech rather than high-tech. 

So what can be done for workers seeking something beyond the computer screen? We asked five heritage craft professionals on the risks and rewards of carving out your own path through traditional crafts, and for their advice on seeking out a job from the past. 

Rebecca Struthers  watchmaker and historian, Staffordshire

I love making stuff. My love is getting my hands dirty. It’s such a pleasure to be able to come up with ideas and bring them to a reality. I love how diverse the subject is; it brings together so many disciplines. You get to be an engineer, a designer, an artist. It always keeps you on your toes. 

I started my training back in 2003 doing a diploma silversmith course. I dropped out of school halfway through my A levels and ran off to art school – that’s where I found watchmaking. 

It’s very hand-skill based, and I was lucky that the courses I did were very practical. None of the courses that I took exist today in the same form. 

Horology – the study of time and the art of measuring it – is something we take for granted. Most people don’t need a wristwatch anymore, but why do we need fashion? Really, we could all just go around in a bin sack. 

I love how diverse our clients’ interests are. We have some who are collectors of watches, they maybe have a particular interest in independent watchmakers, but we also have many who are collectors more generally.  

We’ve recently completed our very first completely in-house watch for which we’ve made virtually every component ourselves (except the jewels, mainspring and hairspring). The project took over six years to complete. We’ve also restored some incredibly rare watches that looked like they were recovered from the Titanic, some of which took a few years of on-and-off work. 

The best course at the moment is in Manchester at the British School of Watchmaking, which is a 3,000-hour course. Apprenticeships used to be more than seven years. Some courses are even sponsored by brands so you can be paid to learn and leave without debt.  

That said, it takes a long time and a lot of patience. One of our ex-apprentices complained how there was no handbook to go to – so it’s a lot to ask of someone! It’s a calling. 

Words of advice: You need patience as a watchmaker. Try one of the few short courses. You should find out quickly if you have the hand skills – and the patience – you need! 

Dr Amy Goodwin, traditional signwriter, fairground artist, Cornwall.
Dr Amy Goodwin at work at Giffords Circus. Image: Julian Calder

Dr Amy Goodwin  traditional signwriter and fairground artist, Cornwall 

I grew up travelling in the West Country. I started in signwriting when I learned from a signwriter called Joby Carter – the community of letterheads is very tight-knit and supportive! I did some of his courses and gave myself time to practise the craft and develop a niche. I always loved art at school. But in the ’90s and 2000s signwriting was going through something of a spiral, I didn’t think it was a viable career. I studied architecture, did an MA in illustration, and I also did a PhD which looked into using signwriting to reflect the stories of travelling fairground women from the 20th century. 

I do everything by hand. Everything is traditional, as it would have been done. I love playing a part in history – I’m often working on old vehicles and historic objects. I really enjoy that at the end of the day I can stand back and see what I’ve been working on. 

There are no formal apprenticeships, but there are a lot of courses and funding avenues. I had funding from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which funds people who want to become excellent in signwriting. There are so many strands you can go into: high-end reverse gold leaf glass we associate with Victorian shop fronts; more contemporary and commercial sign writing; and heritage styles. 

Words of advice: It does take a huge amount of investment and time. You won’t be taking on jobs within a week. But if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed, home in on one speciality – really perfect it. 

Rachel Frost specialises in the making of hand-felted hats using a 'hatter's bow'.
Rachel Frost specialises in the making of hand-felted hats using a ‘hatter’s bow’. Image: Mark Leslie

Rachel Frost  hatter and historian, South of Scotland

I’ve been making hats for about 25 years. I trained in model making for film, but I didn’t want to live in a city, and was interested in self-sufficiency. So I came up with a lifestyle that suited me. 

I focus on historical hats and I’ve learned so much more than if I didn’t have those restrictions. The narrower your freedom is, the more inventive your creations are. My work encompasses so many different skills: maths, woodwork, science. I’ve got this desire to always be learning new things, and this allows me to do that. 

There’s a big growth of people wanting to learn crafts, but people want a quick fix. A lot of the skills I use don’t really transfer into a short course, so I tend to teach particular skills that leave people feeling satisfied. There is a course in millinery at Morley College, London, but there aren’t many around. I chose to teach myself, and a lot of my skills are basically extinct, so I’ve had to rediscover how they were done. 

I have worked on some fabulous projects over the years – I made a crazy herb-gathering basket hat for Sky’s fantasy period drama Britannia. Recently, I made several hats for the forthcoming film Firebrand, including one for Jude Law. I was very pleased to be asked to make a rather swanky hat for Peter Dinklage in The Thicket, due out next year.  

My hats are rooted in the styles and techniques used by hatters of past centuries. In the beginning the majority of my customers were from the heritage industry; museums and reenactors who were interested in clothing made in a specific period of history – a very niche market! But more recently, as traditional crafts and sustainable fashion are enjoying a growth in interest, my work has appealed to a wider audience in fashion, film and those who have appreciation of sustainability and handmade traditional things.  

Words of advice: If you’re thinking you want to make money then I can’t give much advice! I’ve chosen to live in a way where I’m happy to not earn too much, but I’ve never compromised artistically and have enjoyed the process. If you enjoy what you’re doing, create something that’s unique, then you’ll hopefully carve a path for yourself. 

Richard Wheater working on his installation for Turner Prize winning artist Martin Creed at Braemar Castle
Richard Wheater working on his installation for Turner Prize winning artist Martin Creed at Braemar Castle

Richard Wheater  neon maker, Wakefield

Neon lighting is a British invention. The first tubes still exist and light up and you can still see them. But it has a place today – it’s the most efficient lighting per lumen output, and it’s 100% recyclable and biodegradable. 

I’ve always been creative and liked using my hands. I got the opportunity to go to New York through university and it was there that I found neon. It was like playing God, being able to create your own light. You’re basically exciting the gases in the air in a tube. 

There was nowhere in the UK that you could take courses in neon, so I set up Neon Workshops to tap into that. Then we started making a name for ourselves and making bespoke neons, everything from designing, manufacturing and installing. We’ve built up a resource library of books and publications with over 350 entries.  

I even worked with the homeless community in Wakefield when I got them to think of signs they’d like the public to see. They came in and had a go at neon bending and we put the signs up in empty shops around the town. Some of the signs were 3D cartoons, some said things like “I slept here,” and they were quite poignant. We wanted to break down that ‘them versus us’ scenario. 

For someone to learn the trade it takes up to two to three years, which is one of the reasons why there’s only 20 neon shops left in the UK.  

Words of advice: Try a couple-hour sessions as an intro to see if you’re really interested. You can set up a neon shop for under £1,000, if you’re careful. You can hire out facilities to make your own work if you don’t want to throw loads of money into your own setup. It’s a beautiful thing to do.  

Simon Brock, clog maker and leatherworker
Simon Brock in his workshop. Image: Catherine Williams

Simon Brock – clog maker and leatherworker, Sheffield 

Clogs are a lot more comfortable than you might think, given that your foot is resting on a piece of wood. The top surface of the sole is hand-carved to match the contours of the foot, so it’s ergonomic, and sometimes I’m asked to do custom carving for people with complex orthopaedic needs. 

I’ve been working with wood for nearly 20 years, 12 with leather. I’ve been in my workshop full time since 2018. Old-fashioned apprenticeships are possible but that wasn’t going to work for me, so I did ad hoc training with active and retired clog makers. 

What a lot of people don’t get from their work is that at the end of the day they have an object; it’s not just a string of answered emails. Personally, I’ve never had an office job. What’s interesting is that my way of unwinding isn’t to do creative things, since I do that all day. 

I’m always trying to push the boundaries of the craft by using unusual leathers and eye-catching styles. So far, people have bought clogs in every weird and wonderful colour I’ve put forward. A recent order was for three matching pairs of brogues in black patent leather and metallic gold mock snakeskin.  

Most of my non-dancing customers are keen to express their individuality and enjoy the fact that clogs look a bit different from shoes. Or they love the amount of customisation and their hand-crafted nature. I get the odd historical reenactor, and people who wear them for special occasions – I know that at least two of my customers have been married in clogs I’ve made (not to each other!). 

Simon recently received an order for three matching pairs of brogue clogs in black patent leather and metallic gold mock snakeskin
Simon recently received an order for three matching pairs of brogue clogs in black patent leather and metallic gold mock snakeskin. Image: Simon Brock

But you can’t learn clog making unless you have the drive to hunt down makers. You’ve got to be serious about it. I occasionally hear from people, but they often don’t have pre-existing skills. The equivalent is ringing up a brain surgeon and saying, “I’d love to be a brain surgeon – but I don’t have any medical experience!” 

I was fortunate to have those foundational skills through my Higher National Diploma in furniture making at what’s now called Leeds Arts University, but that course doesn’t exist now. If people don’t have those basic skills, they can’t get into more obscure craft. 

Words of advice: It’s hard for young people regardless of what they do, particularly those choosing to go into craft occupations. You’d have to be a bold 18-year-old to jump into something like that head-first

George Francis Lee is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough Programme 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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