CHILDREN'S FAVOURITE IS CREATED USING TECHNIQUES DATING FROM VICTORIAN TIMES
The smell of wood, fresh leather, paint and glue mingle in the one storey workshop of rocking horse makers Steve and Alison Smith. Shelves containing thick planks of wood line the walls, curly wood shavings and sawdust crunch underfoot, and all around the room are horses in various stages of construction. A box of smoothly carved heads sits atop a cabinet. Hanks of horse hair, which will be used to make manes and tails, hang from a row of hooks. Five unpainted horses are lined up waiting for their transformation into sleek dappled grey steeds with jingling leather bridles and burnished brown leather saddles.
Here in the Shropshire countryside, Steve, Alison and a small team of skilled workers produce approximately 25 rocking horses each year. Steve makes the horses from wood, and Alison, a trained artist, paints them. “We are constantly trying to recreate horses that are as lifelike as the ones made by the Victorians,” says Steve. “We’re replicating a particular style of workmanship to achieve that incredible quality and attention to detail.”
The couple have been making rocking horses since 1985 when a friend asked Steve if he could make one for his first child. “I had trained as an engineer, but wood carving had been a hobby since I was a kid,” explains Steve. “We had an old horse in the family and I copied it. It was falling apart so I took every stick to bits and studied it. That first horse was a success, and other people started to ask for them. We turned the hobby into a business and sales grew quickly.”
Alison and Steve were living on a narrow boat, a 72-foot craft called the Heather Bell, at the time. At first they worked on board. “We had planks of wood delivered to the boat,” recalls Steve. “But after a year and a half, when our baby daughter Heather arrived, demand for the horses was growing and we decided we needed to move to dry land.”
By 1992, they had relocated to Shropshire, where they still live in a lock keeper’s cottage by a canal. The horses are now made in a small workshop six miles away and the couple have a showroom in a converted chapel just a few minutes walk along the lane from their home. “We have up to five staff who help us with painting, carving and office work, depending on demand,” explains Steve. “The busiest time is in the run up to Christmas.”
The couple estimate they have made around 1,500 horses. The design of the horses is based on a traditional pattern. “In Victorian times a company called FH Ayres made the best quality horses. They are regarded by collectors and craftsmen as the ideal,” says Alison. “The company was in production from 1857 to the end of World War II. We try to copy these horses and replicate the craftsmanship as closely as we can. They were beautifully made and had a certain finesse.”
Initially, rocking horses were made as an aid to teach basic equestrian skills and balance to children from privileged families. Traditionally, it was important that the proportions of each horse were accurate and this is something that Alison and Steve strive for today.
From planks of wood
Each horse starts life as a simple plank of rough wood approximately 13ft (4m) long. A mixture of different woods are used to make one animal. Beech, a hardwood, is used for the legs, which need to be strong to take the weight of the rider. The larger horses can bear an adult. Tulip wood, which is easier to carve, is chosen for the heads and sturdy pine or oak is used for the stands. Oak stands are much heavier and stronger than pine. Pine is strong, but lighter to lift. “We do also make rockers, but stands are safer and give a better ride, so they tend to be more popular,” says Steve. The smallest horses they make are 41in (104cm) high and 54in (137cm) long. The largest ones measure 57in (145cm) high and 70in (178cm) long.
Steve usually makes up to five horses at any one time, working in batches. Cardboard templates are cut out in the shapes of the body, neck, front and hind legs. These are traced on to the wooden planks. A band saw with a rotating blade is used to cut around the shapes. Steve now begins to assemble the horse. He first makes a coffee table shape, a flat-topped body with four legs jointed into the wood. The jointing is done by cutting a slot in a plank of wood at ten degrees. A corresponding slot is cut into the top of each of the horse’s legs. The two pieces are then slotted together.
A neck is then fixed to the body, using glue and clamps to secure it. Twelve blocks of wood called muscle blocks are stuck on to the neck and clamped until the glue dries. These give a three-dimensional effect while replicating the powerful curves of a horse’s neck. “The muscle blocks are square shaped, so at this point it does not look much like a horse,” says Steve.
He now turns his attention to the horse’s body. This is transformed from a set of sharply angled blocks into a smooth torso. He uses five different grades of sandpaper, starting with a coarse one, and then using progressively finer ones. Some of the sanding is done by hand, but he also uses a handheld power sander to refine the wood. Next, the head is glued on with a specialist glue which dries in 20 minutes.
The art of creating heads
Steve takes special care when carving the horse’s heads. “Each is unique. I am always trying to make the next head the best one yet,” he says. He has no precise patterns and instead carves them largely freehand. “There is a template for the basic shape, but you have a picture in your head of how you can create something that is beautiful. It is the most artistic part of the making process.”
Steve uses three differently sized gouges to shape the head, creating flared nostrils, the open mouth and the undulating cheeks of the horse. Concave holes are made for the eyes to be inserted later. “Things do go wrong sometimes,” he says. “You might get the nostril in the wrong place or the head is not symmetrical.” In the situation where, for instance, a nostril is not in symmetry then re-carving can save the head, but if it is too far out, the head will be discarded. On a good day, Steve can carve five heads.
A stand is made using four flat pieces of pine. These are fixed in a cruciform shape, then screwed and glued together. Two holes are drilled at the intersection of the cruciform. On the lathe, two circular posts are shaped or turned and these slot upright into the previously made holes. A piece of flat wood with two holes corresponding to those in the base is made. The horse will eventually rock from this on two swing irons.
Applying the paint
Before this happens the horse must be painted. Alison applies a white, oil-based undercoat which is slightly transparent to bring out the grain of the wood. This is left to dry overnight. She sands the paint and applies a good quality wood filler to correct any small gaps or imperfections. After it has dried, she sands the horse again and paints on a grey undercoat. This process is repeated three times to make it very durable. Now the horse is ready for dappling. Using a black water-based acrylic paint, Alison works with a round stippling brush, around 2/3in (17mm) in diameter, to create the stencilled effect. “I might use a larger brush if I am working on one our bigger horses,” she explains. On a new horse she copies the traditional dappling pattern of the Ayres horses.
She uses a dark red paint to add the nostrils, mouth and inner ears. “It is a three- to four-day process, including the drying times,” says Alison. Once the painting is finished, the horse is ready to be varnished. She applies a polyurethane oil-based varnish, tinted with a yellow hue to give an aged effect. Again, she repeats the process three times, sanding the horse in between to create a super-smooth finish.
Glass eyes are inserted into the pre-made sockets. These are sourced from a family firm that has been making glass eyes for 200 years, originally for the teddy bear industry.
The next stage is to add the distinctive flowing mane and tail. Real horse hair is used for this. Customers can choose from light grey, mixed grey, brown or black. “The manes arrive in our workshop with the hair still on the tanned skin,” explains Steve. One horse’s tail provides sufficient hair for two rocking horse manes. The mane is cleaned, shampooed, brushed and cut to suit the horse’s size. Glue and nails are then used to attach it to the neck.
“Kate, who works with us, really enjoys transforming the manes,” explains Steve. “They feel like silk when she has finished brushing and cleaning them. She often takes them home to give them extra care.”
Ready to ride
Now the horse is ready for its bridle and saddle. These are leather with proper buckles and a steel or brass bit. “Our bridles are made for us by a skilled craftsman from the famous leather-working city of Walsall,” says Alison. “They are removable, and are just like a smaller version of a bridle you’d find on a real horse.”
Two styles of saddle are available. The sewn or padded saddles, traditional on rocking horses from their earliest days, are fixed to the back of the horse with nails. Steve and Kate often make these themselves in the workshop using an industrial-sized sewing machine to shape and stitch the leather. For the deluxe horses, a removable saddle, complete with stirrup leathers and irons, is handmade in Walsall in the West Midlands.
Finally, the horse is ready to be placed on to the stand. A hoof rail, a long piece of wood stretching between the front and back legs, is bolted on. There are two rails for each hoof. Swing irons are inserted and the horse is lifted up and placed on to its stand. A metal bearing strip goes under each swing iron and is held in place with a metal cap and four bolts, to ensure that it is secure. “Kate will trim and comb the hair, and check the leather work for any marks,” says Steve. “We then attach a brass breastplate, which is customised with an inscription for each customer and given an individual registration number.”
The horse can then be delivered to its new home. “We do some of the deliveries ourselves, because it is very satisfying to see people’s reactions when their horse arrives,” says Steve. “Customers who choose a rocking horse are always lovely people with a passion for horses. Some people save up for months, or even years, to buy one. It has often been their childhood dream to own a traditional rocking horse. We also have parents buying them for their children as presents, and bridegrooms purchasing them for brides, and vice versa. Our customers are always 100 per cent thrilled with their horses, and that makes all our hard work and attention to detail worthwhile.”
Words: Fiona Cumberbatch Photography: Clive Doyle
CREATING TRADITIONAL TARTAN GARMENTS
Pale winter light streams in through a glass gable-end of an oak-beamed workroom, overlooking Perthshire’s Strathearn Valley and the River Earn. Publications on tailoring, tartan and Scottish history fill a bookcase on the wall. In front of them, lengths of tartan in a variety of colours are spread out on large tables. Behind them finished kilts hang on a rail, waiting to be fitted. Tall spools of green, red, blue and black thread are ready to be used. On the tables lie pincushions and tailoring scissors.
This light, airy space is home to Marion Foster, who makes traditional kilts by hand. She came to kilt making through a love of textiles. “As a teenager I would make all my own clothes, despite it being the jeans era,” she recalls. She made her first kilt when she was 16, for her uniform as a cub scout. “I had no money to buy one, so I thought I would make it. It must have worked as I wore it for quite a while.”
Marion continued making her own clothes, then four years ago, inspired by a course she attended, she started making kilts in her spare time. At the age of 50, she decided it was time for a change. “I still had the energy and felt it was time to follow my passion,” she says. In 2011 she started making her hand-stitched kilts full time under the name of Askival of Strathearn.
Taking the measurements
“Making a kilt takes a lot of time and effort. I stitch every kilt completely by hand and making one from start to finish takes me five full days,” she says.
“When someone comes to me for a new kilt, we first decide on a tartan.” Marion has books of tartans she uses to find specific ones. Once a tartan has been chosen, she commissions the 100 per cent wool fabric from one of five remaining tartan weavers in Scotland.
Each kilt is made of one single length of fabric with two overlapping aprons at the front and pleats at the back. Because of the many folds of the pleats, approximately 32ft (10m) of fabric is used for each garment.
The kilt is shaped to the individual wearer. It should fit snugly into the small of the wearer’s back and then widen, before falling to the middle of the knee. It sits high on the waist, lying smoothly across the abdomen. If someone has a large build, the kilt should fall from the stomach, not lower down. “I think of the wearer’s shape all the time,” she says.
Accurate measurements are crucial to the final fit and hang of the kilt. Marion measures the wearer’s waist, seat and length to the centre of the knee.
Forming the pleats
A tartan may have many colours, some subtle, some more obvious. The way the pleats are created emphasises particular colours in a tartan. “It’s amazing how many colours there can be within the garment,” she says.
A tartan can be folded so the big squares and original tartan design are clearly visible. This is called sett pleating. It can also be folded so it emphasises lines on the tartan, which are a different colour. This is called pleating to the stripe.
Marion calculates how many pleats the kilt needs and their size. She bases this on the measurements she has taken, the individual tartan and how the fabric is going to be folded. Her kilts have between 27 and 34 pleats for an adult male. This is the same for a woman’s dancing kilt, although a woman’s fashion kilts varies widely. These kilts are more like skirts and often have bigger pleats. Standard kilts have pleats that are on average ¾in (2cm) wide on the outside.
After the calculations have been made, Marion cuts the tartan to the right depth. She leaves cutting the length of the fabric until all the different parts of the kilt are marked out. The aprons, or front parts, are marked out first with white chalk. It does not take long to stitch these parts, and the chalk will rub off easily when it is done.
The individual pleats are marked with special white tailor’s wax, which lasts longer. This is important as stitching the pleats takes time and must be done accurately. The marks are made on the front of the fabric, so they can be seen clearly when sewing. Marion folds and stitches every pleat individually as she goes, measuring the width and pinning it in place constantly.
“Every millimetre counts,” she says. “Twenty-seven times one millimetre makes a big difference.”
Because it is hand sewn, she can make sure every bit of fabric is exactly where it should be. Misalignment is prevented, as she can control the bouncy fabric as she sews. It is a slower process, but gives an excellent final product. “I set the standard high,” she says. “It takes me up to a day to sew the pleats.”
The pleats are stitched from the top to roughly a third of the length of the kilt. To keep them in place before the fabric is pressed, temporary basting is added lower down on each pleat.
Lifting the folds
Marion now turns the kilt over. Working on the back, she spends three hours securing each pleat in place with barely visible, small stitches. This extra stitching ensures the pleats are secured higher up, and keeps them from stretching and sagging.
Further support and shaping is provided by stitching linen canvas across the full aprons and the back pleating. It helps preventing the kilt from distorting when the straps used to fasten it are adjusted.
Once the canvas is in place, a special piece of equipment is used to shape the kilt. Called an iron, it consists of a large table with a foot switch to turn on a vacuum. This sucks the fabric to the table, keeping it flat. A steam iron is then used to flatten the pleats and mould the kilt into shape. The table also heats up to help the shaping.
Adding the buckles
Now the 32ft (10m) of fabric has been successfully concertinaed into the garment, it is time for the first fitting. Marion checks to ensure the kilt is fitting correctly and falling as it should. If she is not happy, she alters the stitching to improve the fit.
One of the final steps is to add three metal buckles, the pieces of tartan that hold the belt buckles known as chapes and belt loops. Made of the same tartan as the kilt, the chapes match up with the pattern when attached. The bar of the buckle sits over the join between the third and fourth pleat on either side. The third buckle is placed over the second and third pleat on
the right-hand side.
Marion takes great care in sewing the chapes, which need to match with precision. “It is hard on your fingers,” she says. “I use a very fine needle, but there is still a lot of fabric to go through. It is one of the most difficult things to do neatly.” She uses no thimble as her fingers have become used to the work over the years. She adds a waistband, again aligning it at the front and creating symmetry with the pattern of the tartan at the back.
The kilts are finalised with a black cotton lining. Marion embroiders Askival of Strathearn onto it. She can also add unique embroidery specified by the client, which usually mentions a name, place and year. “Once I’ve done all this, I press it one last time,” she says. At this point the temporary basting which was added to the pleats is removed. Only the final, barely visible minute stitches remain.
Everything is now ready for the final fitting. “The apron should always lie neatly at the sides without rolling or kicking out. There should be no gap between the apron and the pleats, all of which should sit straight at the bottom.”
A kilt has to be comfortable for many occasions. “You should be able to climb a mountain in it if you want,” says Marion. Her final product has approximately 40 hours of work and a great deal of love and care in it. “It’s a truly beautiful garment that can be passed down through generations.”
Words: Marieke McBean Photography: Mark Mainz
This feature about Marion Foster's kilts appeared in the Jan / Feb 2016 issue of LandScape.
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Beautiful, multi-coloured blankets made from motifs in a range of shapes festoon a North Devon studio
Soft rainbow-coloured blankets, created from a jigsaw of shapes and shades, spill out of bags in the North Devon workroom of crochet-pattern designer Amanda Perkins. Balls of yarn are arranged in clusters around the floor, waiting to be turned into future creations. A few finished motifs sit on a table. Next to them are jars holding an array of hooks.
These beautifully crafted blankets are created from circles, triangles, stars and squares, each motif itself made of myriad colours. "I am not just making a blanket, I am making a piece of art," says Amanda. Her blankets are not for sale. Instead they are used to illustrate what can be achieved with the 100 designs she has created in the past 10 years.
It takes approximately two months to create a blanket. It can take even longer to create the initial design. Before Amanda picks up a crochet hook and yard, her designs and colour ways are worked out on graph paper. "the colours and shapes excite me," she says. "I'm always thinking about designs. As I make one blanket, i am thinking about the next one. I love the tactile element, the fact that it keeps people warm and you are putting love into something."
Photography: Clive Doyle
The complete feature about Amanda Perkins appeared in the Mar / April 2016 issue of LandScape.
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Vintage oddments of textiles help evoke childhood memories
The purples and greens of a moorland landscape start to come alive in a patchwork of lace, silk and paper shapes. Artist Louise O'Hara outlines the position of a ramshackle gate in pencil, before threading a needle and starting to sew.
Colour and texture abound in her small studio in the heart of a Cheshire village. Vintage fabrics spill out of boxes, inks and reels of thread cluster on wooden workbenches among pots of paint, glue and brushes. Lengths of cloth hang off chairs, bales of paper are stacked under tables.
This is where Louise portrays the light and textures of the world around her. She crafts paintings and collages that capture the spirit of the countryside and seascape. Many are based on her own memories of childhood holidays. Her designs are tactile but delicate.
Photography: Jeremy Walker
The complete feature about Louise O'Hara's work appeared in the May / June 2016 issue of LandScape.
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A HERTFORDSHIRE CRAFTSWOMAN WITH A PASSION FOR RECYCLING BRINGS NEW LIFE TO DISCARDED PLANKS AND PALLETS
A pile of timber is stacked outside a wooden workshop beneath an evergreen tree. Planks of wood of varying age, condition and length, are all heaped together. A few feet away lie piles of pallets, drying in the Hertfordshire sunshine. It is all castoff wood that has outgrown its original purpose.
In the careful hands of Vicki Brand, it will re-emerge sanded, polished and converted into useful furniture. At her workshop near Hatfield, she specialises in bringing new life to this worn out, unloved wood. Nothing goes to waste. “I use anything I can lay my hands on,” she says. “I’ve developed a good relationship with farmers, workshops and scaffolders who have wood for me.”
New life for wood
Finding new uses for old wood is a passion for Vicki. “Pallets and scrap wood are cut up and burned at building sites. It seems such a horrible waste to discard it,” she says. “It might have come to the end of its original purpose, but it can continue to be useful.”
Her enthusiasm for breathing vitality into unwanted wood began when she moved to a small cottage in Hertford four years ago. There was only a minimal amount of storage and she failed to find furniture that matched the dimensions of the space available. She had never made anything before but believed her practical nature would enable her to produce her own furniture. “I used an old crate to make a trunk that fitted my cottage,” she says. “It was unique and looked good. Next I wanted a corner cupboard for my bathroom. I cut up an old cupboard my parents were about to throw away, and remade it. I now have several of my own pieces at home including shelving units, storage crates, a side table, coffee and kitchen tables.”
The decision to turn her hobby into a business came just over two years ago, after making a coffee table for her mother. “Some friends saw it and wanted one. As people saw what I was making, orders for bespoke furniture started arriving. That’s when I decided to create my own business.”
She has no formal furniture-making training, but has benefitted from her father’s advice. “Dad is good at carpentry. He inspired me, and has been an excellent teacher,” she says. “Now I prefer to learn on the job and figure out solutions to new problems. I started off making trunks, then I moved on to kitchen tables and picture frames. Last year I made a picnic table.”
Building a workshop
For the first 18 months, she was based in her parents’ garage. Then in January this year, she built her own workshop on the site of her family’s horticultural business. “It took me three weeks to build, including re-concreting the floor. Old fence posts were used for the corners. I made the window frames with glass from an old greenhouse.”
The large doors on the wooden structure were built from an eclectic range of planks. When they are tied back, the sun’s rays penetrate the building. They allow her to wheel her machinery outside to use.
Light shining through windows in the roof illuminates the work surfaces within the L-shaped workshop. Curled wood shavings line the floor, while layers of wood dust coat every surface. Dried-out wood awaiting reinvention is piled up against one wall. Nearby, a dustpan and brush are propped up next to wall-mounted storage boxes housing nails and screws. Next to them are rows of ordered and readily-accessible hand tools. “I have extremely sharp chisels for fine work and an extremely good router for picture frames. This creates an indent for the glass to sit in,” she says. Many of her tools are recycled, including her router which came from a builder, and a mitre saw from the family nursery. Her most expensive tool is a bench saw that cost £500. This motorised circular saw is mounted beneath a worktable, with the blade protruding through an opening.
Cleaning the wood
When the wood first arrives, it needs a considerable amount of work before it is usable. Much of it has come from building sites. Old screws must be ground off, tar and spray paint purged by a sanding process. The nails and screws are recycled, and used to hold the furniture together. The pallets are pulled apart with a long-handled implement her father made. “I use leverage with the tool and my body weight to break them up. By the time I have finished, they are not recognisable as pallets,” she says. Pallets that come from building sites have hardened patches of cement on them, which is removed by sanding. Vicki repeatedly sands and polishes the wood, until it is unrecognisable from its origins. The scaffold boards are used for the large pieces of furniture such as tables. The pallets become signs and legs.
Old scaffold wood, usually pine but occasionally oak, is durable. Ageing and being exposed to the elements causes the planks to turn grey. Uneven recycled wood requires sanding by machine to level it out and create a flat surface. Despite splits and knots, by investing sufficient effort, she restores them to a standard indistinguishable from new wood.
Working by instinct
One of her pieces is a coffee table with crossed legs, built with scaffold planks. “I select flat sections for the table top then leave them outside for two weeks so the sun dries them out. This is essential as wet wood shrinks when put together,” she says.
“Tar and cement are removed with a grinder, followed by three stages of sanding. To start with, I use 80 grit sanding paper. This has the roughest finish so removes more. It is followed by the finer grades, 120 then 240. After each stage, the wood becomes smoother and more suitable.”
Vicki often relies on her intuition when creating her pieces. For the coffee table, she works by instinct to create the angles for the legs. “I know the angle I need because I’ve been taught to do this by eye.”
However, before she cuts the plank which is to be used for the top of the table she takes careful measurements. She does this twice to ensure they are accurate.
“Once the plank is cut, I screw the top into the legs. Once finished, the table needs a final re-sand because of the holes drilled for the screws. I use a fine 250 grit for this. Then I apply two layers of beeswax by hand. It takes two days to complete a table like this.”
Vicki’s growing knowledge and experience help her solve more complex problems. “Before I would have wondered how a crate was put together,” she says. “Now I can look at a big piece of furniture and know what I need to do. I won’t make something that I wouldn’t want in my own home. If I make a mistake, I learn from it.
“Usually I just go ahead and make the furniture. Sometimes, however, more precision is needed. Intricate pieces have to have the angles and dimensions right so I might sketch them out first.”
Experimentation is crucial in generating the right image for her furniture. Vicki makes paler pieces for customers who favour a driftwood appearance. Her darker, stained, waxed wood has a rustic look. Unable to obtain large, black bolts for dark furniture, and to match the ironmongery, she found a way of ageing new ones by dipping them in gun blue. This liquid is used to protect steel against rust, and results in a blackening appearance. “The darkening effect is instant,” she says.
“I design everything and make it from scratch to order. Using new wood would be quicker, but I can renew something old, giving people furniture that is unique,” she says. “The wood is so interesting and no two pieces are the same. The grain and worn areas enhance each item.
“The wood is harder to make things with because it has been thoroughly exposed to the elements. But it is very fulfilling to be able to turn something that is knotty and no longer used into functional, bespoke furniture, giving it a new lease of life.”
Words: Sandra Smith Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Vicki Brand's woodwork originally appeared in the Nov / Dec 2015 issue of LandScape.
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