Future of craftsmanship on a knife edge as skills nearing extinction

Trevor Ablett is one of the last remaining pen- and pocket-knife makers in the country and at the age of 67, he's close to hanging up his tools and retiring – but who will take his place?

From the last few scissor-makers to the last sieve or riddle maker to the last broom and basket producer, skills that have been passed down through generations are on the edge of extinction.

According to the Heritage Crafts Association, set up a few weeks ago to help revive the fortunes of the master craftsman, many British crafts are in danger of dying out. Some of the smaller heritage crafts have declined to such an extent that only one person is still working in them.

The chairman of the Heritage Crafts Association, Robin Wood, from Edale in the Peak District, says: "Many of the skills that form part of our living heritage are endangered because there is no way for makers to pass their knowledge on."

Mr Wood, 45, who is the last professional pole lathe bowl turner in the country, said despite the resurgence of public interest in real crafts, many are teetering on the brink of extinction due to lack of training schemes.

Trevor Ablett, from Sheffield, shares his workshop with 78-year-old, Reg Cooper, another city knife-maker who first cut his skills as a cutler at the age of just 14. After 64 years in the trade, he still has no plans to retire.

The workshop on the outskirts of the industrial heartland of Sheffield thrums with the sound of their 50-year-old machines, lathes, presses and drills.

Known as the Little Mesters, the city once thronged with these self-employed craftsmen who forged and ground the knives, razors and surgical instruments. Now only a handful are still trading.

"At one time there were about 30,000 people working in cutlery and steel in Sheffield," says Mr Cooper.

"We've just hit a niche in the market now where people want these old-fashioned knives," adds Trevor. "Older people like the old British pocket knives. There's nobody hand-making them like this – driving and polishing the blades. Swiss Army knives are stainless steel, this is all carbon. "

The cutlers create and assemble all of the pieces of the knives by hand, using carbon steel for the blades and horn for the handles.

But both craftsmen say they are unsure if the steel they use for their blades even comes from Sheffield anymore.

Mr Ablett makes Bowie knives to order. Much of his trade is for collectors around the world.

His crafted folding pen-knives, popular with gardeners, mostly sell for less than 20 a piece.

"We don't make a vast profit," he says. "But we enjoy doing what we're doing and we do get a living out of it.

"I work from seven until seven at night, a bit less on a Sunday. In the 1980s I could turn out over a 100 knives a week, I'd sometimes work until nine at night from seven in the morning."

Yet while there is a growing interest in learning a craft, helped by TV programmes such as Monty Don's Mastercrafts, there is very little support or training.

Mr Wood says one solution would be for a Government agency to fund master craftsmen to teach others.

"The major problem with traditional crafts at the moment is we fall outside the remit of all current Government agencies."

The Craft and Arts Councils only cover the cutting edge and modern arts, while English Heritage supports crafts connected to buildings and monuments.

"They don't do any of the smaller, domestic crafts. No one can explain why," says Mr Wood.

British crafts also missed a chance in 2003 when UNESCO passed a convention that recognised traditional crafts as a key part of national heritage. The Convention was signed by 117 countries, but the not the UK.

"Almost every country in the world is doing more to support these crafts than we are," says Mr Wood. "Knife-making in Sheffield should so clearly be part of Sheffield's heritage."