Felicity Irons, 54, Rush Weaver and Merchant
I had a car accident in my early 20s and needed a lot of treatment, which made it difficult for me to get a job or pursue a career – I had a degree in drama. In between treatments, I began to teach myself to work quickly using a book. With the help of a business loan, I set up a Rush Matters workshop and spent the next few years repairing crowded seating.
I bought my stuff from a guy named Tom Arnold. His family had been cutting crowds along the Ouse River since the early 1700s. Tom had no children to pursue the business and when he died, his brother Jack, who had no interest in continuing it himself, suggested that I take over.
The blade I use to cut the rush is 3 feet long on a 6 foot wooden handle. I did all the harvesting myself for the first few years. Now I have a team – my brother who comes from Scotland every summer and my husband, Ivor. We do most of our cutting in late June and throughout July; The aim is to capture the rushes when they are at their full height and in flower. Stems can grow up to 10 feet tall.
I love being out on the river, even though it’s really hard work. We aim to cut about two tonnes every day. Landlords are glad we’re cutting their banks – we even remove garbage from the river as we go.
We cut along the Great Ouse in both Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, and then along the Nene in Northamptonshire. When I gather, I sometimes think, “Oh, this is going to be beautiful to work with,” and then later I’ll recognize that particular bolt in the workshop and remember that when I cut it. Where was I then?
We did rush flooring for Heritage House and we did a lot of work for Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. I have also made props for films. When I talk to people who have to work from home and stare at screens all day, I think, “Cricky, I couldn’t do that.”
Jost Haas, 85, Glass-Eye Maker
Is my work unique? You can say this. I used to be one of three glass-eye makers in the UK, now I’m the only one.
The world’s oldest glass eyes were developed in Germany in the 1830s and one of the first companies dedicated to their production was established in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt, and that’s where I come from. My father did some administrative business for the company and I was fascinated by the work he did there. I completed a four-year apprenticeship in my teens, sitting in front of an experienced ocularist who taught me how to handle glass, how to blow it, how to paint on the iris, and so on.
In 1968, I moved to north London with my wife, Ulla, to be replaced by another German businessman who had died. I’m still working here in the same room in my house where I started more than half a century ago. My clients sit and watch while I work – and I watch them so that I can reproduce their iris, mixing blue, green and gray colors, painting from life, so that I can see the existing I can match my eyes as much as possible. I heat and separate a section of glass tubing using a Bunsen burner, creating a “bubble”, then I blow it into the tube and gently inflate it to the required size.
Artificial eye technology is still ongoing. Last November, an oculist at Moorfields Eye Hospital fitted a patient with a 3D-printed prosthetic eye for the first time, which I gathered was a huge success. But I think there will always be demand for glass – some people are allergic to plastic and others just like the way glass looks or feels.
The whole process takes two or three hours, although sometimes I have to make up a couple of eyes if the first eye doesn’t turn out as well as it should. Some of my clients have been coming for decades – I consider them friends and wait for them to come so we can catch up.
People can be a little uncomfortable the first time they come, but I talk to them and they see what I’m going through and often find the process quite enjoyable. Maybe it’s the sound of the burner – sometimes they even fall asleep.
Steve Overthrow, 35, Sieve
I used to restore classic cars, but when the business moved to Oxfordshire in 2017, I had a young family and didn’t want to go through with it. I was a member of the Heritage Crafts Association and about a week before my redundancy I was reading through their newspaper Red List of Endangered Crafts, which listed sieves and puzzle making as “extinct”. I thought, “I can do with a fine sieve.” I left my metal in the garden over the winter and ruined it. I was wondering if I could figure out how to make my own.
The most useful source I found was a three-minute slideshow online showing Mike Turnock at work. Mike had been running for more than 30 years after he retired in 2010 and learned the craft from his father. I looked at it over and over again, trying to complete the process and what tools were being used. I also tried tracking mic with no success.
I made my first sieve in 2018 and posted a picture of it on Facebook. As a result, Mike Turnnock’s sister approached me and contacted us. It turns out that when he retired, he moved to Bridgeport, which is only an hour’s drive from me. He gave me all the information I needed – stuff that would have taken years to learn the hard way.
I experimented with beech, oak, and sycamore before finally settling on the ashes—I love the leeway and overcome their tendency to split by carefully oiling it.
In the old days, the best puzzles had a mesh measuring one-eighth of an inch. I haven’t completely managed it yet, but I’m under a quarter of an inch. This is incredibly wasteful work. Obviously, Mike can make a puzzle in 23 minutes – I still don’t know how he did it.
People buy my sieves and puzzles for all kinds of reasons. I have bakers, shrimpers, cocklers and mussel-pickers, potters and ceramicists and some foundries have them ordered as well. I had some textile workers buy their clothes, fruit-pressers, pasta-makers and coffee-roasters to filter and dry…
Bringing a traditional craft back from extinction feels like a responsibility – I am now the only cinematographer in the UK and probably the only cinematographer in the world to work like this. But when the time comes, I plan to move the business forward. My boys are only five and three years old now, so it’s too early to know if they might be interested – if not, I’ll just have to find someone else.
Matt Robinson, 25, sailmaker
I grew up in London, right next to the Thames, and was about seven years old when my family moved to the Isle of Wight. I had been working as a watersports instructor for a few years when I saw a job advertisement for Ratsey & Lapthorne, a sailmaking company in Cowes. I knew my way around a boat and knew a bit about fixing them, but had no experience making sails. Happily, my enthusiasm was enough to get me an apprenticeship under master sailmaker Gary Pragnell.
The loft we work in is an unusual place – we either work on a bench or stand in a pit submerged in the floor to pull our work around. My first week was a big eye opener. At that time I had never even used a sewing machine. But from day one I had new jargon and concepts flying around all the time that I had to learn and understand. I started out on the smallest machine and learned all the different types of sewing I would need to know, slowly working my way up to the heavy-duty industrial ones that work using compressed air. It took the first few months before I started learning the traditional hand-stitch, which I’m still mastering.
Ratsey is the world’s oldest sailor and has been operating on the Isle of Wight since 1790, passing the craft from master to apprentice over generations. At one time it was the island’s largest employer and also had lofts in Gosport and New York.
When I’m sewing, I imagine myself as my finished sail out on the water. During events like Cowes Classics Week, I get to see them in action. I would look at Ratsay Pals everywhere and be able to identify which ones belong to mine and which ones belong to Gary. I’ve worked on sails for everything from a baby canoe the size of a bathtub to a 100-foot schooner, so the variety also helps keep me on my toes.
One of my favorite parts of the job is hand-sewing the leather around the corners of the sail. It’s great to just sit on my bench and watch the hard work I’ve put on that sail finally put together – the last job of everyone is always sewing on the Ratsy logo, so I find great satisfaction doing that, too.
Zoe Collis, 24, Papermaker
Papermaking is deceptively complicated – something can go wrong at every step of the process. I joined as an apprentice at the age of 19 and I’ve been learning the craft ever since, doing everything from paper making to mixing pulp and making sheets.
When I first joined the Two Rivers paper as an apprentice it was based on an ancient watermill at Exmoor. For a while it was my job to open the sluicegate every morning to run the water wheel – a very tempting way to start the day.
Our paper is made from cotton and linen fabrics using the power of water. Ingredients such as hemp, esparto grass and flower seeds can be added to the mix to provide the paper with a variety of characteristics. Seed and petal paper has been popular recently. After its use—often for RSVPs or tags for bouquets—it can be applied, allowing the seeds to germinate and give the paper a second life.
Until a few years ago, this ancient craft was not remotely on my radar. After school, I did a foundation diploma in art, media and design and knew I wanted a practical, unconventional job, but I wasn’t sure—until someone put me in touch with Two Rivers.
Early in my apprenticeship, I helped develop a type of paper for a client who was going to the Galapagos Islands to swim with turtles and wanted to paint underwater. It was challenging enough, but I came up with something that worked well for that – essentially a type of waterproof paper. Although how she managed to paint in scuba gear, I will never know.