Thoughts on the 2023 edition of the Red List

11th May 2023  |  OUR STORIES

by Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager

WMary Lewishen Heritage Crafts published the first edition of the Red List of Endangered Crafts back in 2017, the hope was that by repeating the research on a two-yearly basis, over time the changes would become less about improving the accuracy of the data, and more about reflecting real-world change… for good or for bad. It is only with this fourth edition (the second to be carried out with the generous support of the Pilgrim Trust), that we begin to see this hope come to fruition.

Six years in, we are able to point much more accurately to concrete examples of crafts that have fared better or worse since the research started, and even attribute some of the positive changes to the influence of the Red List itself. For example, with the publication of the last edition it became apparent that tinsmithing was a clear contender for the most endangered craft in the UK, with just one or two skilled craftspeople working irregularly, if at all.

We were able to award one of our Endangered Crafts Fund grants, with match funding from the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers Alias Wire Workers, to run two week-long masterclasses at The Museum of Making in Derby. As a result, we now have several metalworking practitioners incorporating these skills into their businesses and continuing their own development within the craft; not enough to remove it from the critically endangered category altogether, but enough to prevent the extinction we feared.

Sadly the changes are by no means all positive. The cumulative effect of COVID-19, Brexit, the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, and the ensuing financial troubles have all had a brutal impact on many crafts businesses already struggling to make ends meet. I have spoken to so many craftspeople who are having to make heartbreaking decisions between buying in materials, keeping their workshops powered, and paying themselves even a minimum wage. This is all on top of the pre-existing structural issues such as the lack of training routes and government financial support for training.

We have always talked about the cultural loss that is borne every time a craft is lost, but over the last few years we have begun to notice another phenomenon. We increasingly see how crafts operate with a degree of inter-dependence. They form a complex ecosystem, with associated skills, supply chains and economies of scale that come with the level of specialisation you used to see in cities like Sheffield, Birmingham and Stoke. When one business closes, or one craft becomes extinct, it can have a knock-on effect on other allied crafts. The fear is that if we continue to witness this haemorrhaging of skills we may soon get to a tipping point, beyond which the collapse of heritage crafts in the UK accelerates exponentially.

The updated methodology we have developed for this edition has given me immense pleasure in allowing us to include a new cohort of culturally-significant crafts that would previously have been excluded (such as vardo art and living waggon crafts) and to better serve previous entries such as Shetland lace knitting. This will provide a robust basis upon which to consider a greater number of migrant and diaspora crafts for 2025.

As always, the Red List is an evolving process and we rely on craftspeople and experts to let us know of any omissions and changes that need to be addressed. Once again, a huge thank you to the hundreds of people who assisted with the research collation for this edition of the Red List, without whom this project would not be possible.