Felicity Irons, 54, Rush Weaver and Merchant
I had a car accident in my early 20’s and needed a lot of treatment, which made it difficult for me to quit my job or pursue the career I wanted – I had a degree in drama. In the middle of the treatment, I started teaching myself how to work in a hurry using the book I found. With the help of a business loan, I set up a Rush Matters workshop and spent the next two years repairing crowded seats.
I bought my stuff from a chap named Tom Arnold. His family had been flocking to the banks of the Us River since the early 1700s. Tom had no children to take over 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 used to cut the rush is 3 feet long with a 6 foot wooden handle. For the first few years, I harvested everything myself. Now I have a team – my brother who comes from Scotland every summer and my husband Ivory. We make most of our cuts towards the end of June and throughout July; The goal is to catch the rush when they are at their full height and in flower. The stalks can grow up to 10 feet tall.
I love going out in the river, although it’s really hard work. We aim to cut about two tons each day we are out. The landowners are happy to have us cut their shores – we also take out the garbage from the river when we go.
We sailed to Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire and then to Northampton, Northampton. When I get together, I sometimes think, “Oh, that would be nice to work with,” and later I’ll recognize that special bolt in the workshop and remember exactly where I was when I cut.
We built rush flooring for heritage houses and we did a lot of work for Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. I have also made props for the film. When I talk to people who work from home and look at the screen all day, I just think, “Cricky, I couldn’t do that.”
Jost Haas, 85, glass-eye maker
Is my work unique? You can say I used to be one of three glass-eye makers in the UK, now I’m the only one.
The world’s earliest glass eyes were developed in Germany in the 1830s and one of the first companies dedicated to their production was founded in Wisbaden near Frankfurt, and that’s where I came from. My father did some administrative work for the company and I was fascinated by the work there. I completed a four-year apprenticeship in my teens, sitting opposite an experienced ophthalmologist who taught me how to handle glass, how to blow, how to paint on the iris and so on.
In 1968, I went to North London with my wife, Ulla, and another German doctor died. I still work in the same room in the house that I started more than half a century ago. My clients sit and watch while I work – and I watch them so I can reproduce their iris, mixing colors like blue, green and gray, painting from life, so I can match the existing eye as closely as possible. I heat a piece of glass tubing using a bunsen burner and separate, creating a “bubble”, then I slowly blow it into the tube and inflate it to the required size.
Artificial eye technology is still on the rise. Last November, an ophthalmologist at Morfields Eye Hospital introduced the patient to a 3D printed artificial eye for the first time, which was a huge success for me. But I think there will always be a demand for glass – some people are allergic to plastic and others just prefer the way glass looks or feels.
The whole process takes two or three hours, although sometimes I have to make two eyes if the first one doesn’t work well. Some of my clients have been coming for decades – I consider them friends and look forward to visiting them so we can meet.
The first time they come, people may be a little embarrassed, but I talk to them and they see what I’m doing and often the process seems quite soothing. Maybe it’s the sound of burners – sometimes they fall asleep.
Steve Overthrow, 35, Severite
I used to restore classic cars, but when the business moved to Oxfordshire in 2017, I had a young family and I didn’t want to go with it. I was a member of the Heritage Crafts Association and about a week before my redundancy I was reading a red list of endangered crafts in their newsletter, listing them as “extinct” making tricks and puzzles. I thought, “I can do a good trick.” I left my metal in the garden one winter and ruined it. I wondered if I could figure out how to make it myself.
The most useful resource I found was a three-minute slide show online, which featured Mike Turnak at work. When he retired in 2010, Mike worked as a sitter for more than 30 years and learned the craft from his father. I looked at it over and over again, trying to work out the process and what tools were being used. I even tried to track Mike, without success.
I made my first sneak peek in 2018 and posted a photo of it on Facebook. As a result, Mike Turnak’s sister contacted me and kept us in touch. It turned out that when he retired, he would move to Bridport, just an hour’s drive from me. He gave me all the information I needed – stuff would take years to learn the hard way.
Before finally settling in the ashes, I experimented with beech, oak and psychmor – I like the tendency to bend it and have overcome the tendency to split it by carefully oiling it.
In the old days, the best puzzles had an eight-inch net. I haven’t arranged that yet, but I’m down a quarter of an inch. It’s incredibly fiddly work. Clearly, Mike can make a puzzle in 23 minutes – I still don’t know how he did it.
People buy my chisels and puzzles for all sorts of reasons. I have bakers, flies, cockerels and mussel-pickers, potters and ceramicists and some foundries have ordered them. I bought some of the textile workers to dry and dry their clothes, fruit-pressers, pasta-makers and coffee-rosters.
Bringing traditional craft back from the brink of extinction feels a bit of a responsibility – I am now the only civitor in the UK and perhaps in the world to do so. But when the time comes, I plan to pass the business. My boys are still only five and three, so it’s too early to know if they’re interested – if not, I should look for someone else.
Matt Robinson, 25, sail maker
I grew up in London, next to the Thames, and my family moved to the Isle of Wight about seven years old. I had been working as a watersports instructor for a few years when I saw a job advertisement for Ratsey & Lapthorn. I knew something about my way around the boat and how to get them together, but had no experience making tents. Fortunately, my enthusiasm was enough to train me under the leadership of Master Cellmaker Gary Pragnel.
The scaffolding we work on is an unusual place – we either work on benches or stand in a hole in the ground, so we can pull our work towards us. My first week was a big eye opener. At that time I did not even use a sewing machine. But from day one I always had new vocabulary and concepts flying, which I had to learn and understand. I started with the smallest machine and gradually worked in heavy-duty industries using compressed air, learning all the different types of stitching I needed to know. Before I started learning traditional hand-sewing, it took the first two months, which I am still proficient at.
Ratsey is the world’s oldest tent maker and has been operating on the Isle of Wight since 1790, handing down generations from master to trainee. At one time it was the single largest employer on the island and also had lofts in GoSport and New York.
While I’m sewing, I’m imagining myself finishing my tent in the water. At events like Cowz Classics Week, I get to see them in action. I will find Ratsey tents everywhere and be able to identify what my job is and Gary’s. I’ve worked in tents for everything from baby dinghies to 100 foot scooters, so the variety helps keep me on my toes.
One of my favorite parts of the job is to sew the leather around the corner of the tent by hand. It’s nice to sit on my bench and watch all the hard work I’ve done in that tent come together at the end – everyone’s last job is always to sew on the Ratsey logo, so I get a great sense of satisfaction even when I do that. .
Joe Collis, 24, papermaker
Paper making is confusingly complicated – something can go wrong at each stage of the process. I joined as a trainee at the age of 19 and have been learning everything from making paper recipes to making pulp and making sheets ever since.
When I first joined the Two Reverse Paper as a trainee, it was based on Exmore’s old watermill. It was my job to open the sluice gate every morning to start running the waterwheel for a while – a really fun way to start the day.
Our paper is made from cotton and linen rags using the power of water. Ingredients such as hemp, esparto grass and flower seeds can be added to the mix to give the paper a range of features. Seed and petal paper are currently popular. After using it – often RSVPs or tags for bouquets – it can be planted, allowing the seeds to germinate and give the paper a second life.
Until a few years ago, this ancient craft was not far off my radar. After school, I did a foundation diploma in art, media and design and I knew I wanted a hands-on, unconventional job, but I didn’t know what to do – until someone put me in touch with Two Rivers.
Early in my apprenticeship, I helped develop a type of paper for a client who went swimming with turtles in the Galapagos Islands, and she wanted to draw underwater. It was quite challenging, but I came up with something that works well for her – essentially a type of waterproof paper. Although I do not know how she managed to paint in scuba gear.