Belfast Telegraph

Call for more men to get involved in craft-making

Tradesmen 'can respond to decline in construction by using their skills'

By Clare Weir

While gender gaps in most industries often favour men, it's emerged that two-thirds of all craft businesses in Northern Ireland are owned by women.

Craft is part of the creative industries sector, which in Northern Ireland employs 11,640 people and contributes £245m gross value added annually to the economy.

The Northern Ireland craft industry accounts for 16% (1,862) of this workforce and contributes £39m in GVA, according to Craft NI.

With August Craft Month approaching, those working in the industry have called for more men to get involved.

August Craft Month is an annual celebration of contemporary craft and this year, the eighth, is the largest ever, with more than 100 events taking place throughout Northern Ireland.

Alan Kane, chief executive of Craft NI, said that while men have traditionally entered careers like engineering and manufacturing from school, women in Northern Ireland have carried out more creative roles.

However, he said that with the decline in the construction sector, canny tradesmen are now using their skills to diversify and make new careers for themselves.

"I myself was a chartered accountant who set up my own training business in 1998, with just two people in a spare bedroom," said Mr Kane. "I have been in post for two years and I think there are complex reasons as to why there are a majority of women in the craft industries."

Secondary school practice had been to encourage males to look towards traditional technical skills like engineering, he said.

"Females tended to be more drawn to the creative subjects like home economics and art," he said.

He added that some of the more mainstream skills can still be of relevance to the creative industries sector.

"Just because someone has gone down the route of engineering or joinery doesn't mean they cannot get involved," he said.

"We are seeing some tradesmen who are in old or dying trades, or those who have been badly hit by the decline in the construction industry, using their skills to make more decorative objects or items for the home and doing really well out of it."

Another big boost to the craft sector had come from major TV productions being filmed in Northern Ireland, like Game of Thrones. "Game of Thrones has involved a lot of craft-makers from Northern Ireland, from basketweavers to jewellers to woodworkers," he said.

"The show has excited people, it has caught people's imaginations and it has shown people that there are many routes which can be taken via a career in crafting."

Deborah Fraser, associate head of Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster, said that three textiles graduates had just moved into film production roles.

"Arts in general at second-level schools are not seen as a worthy career path," she said.

"In our college intake there is a broad balance of men and women but the 'makers', as we call them, are predominantly women.

"Decorative objects enrich our culture and our lives and if you have the ability to make and that design, then you can become that self-employed maker-designer."

She added: "From the chair we are sitting on to the clothes we are wearing, someone designed them and someone helped make them."

Among the men making their name in the craft world in Northern Ireland are silversmith Stuart Cairns, who makes tableware and domestic pieces, Holywood goldsmith Eddie Doherty and Stephen Farnan, who makes ceramics inspired by Irish landscapes.


Case study: Goldsmith who broke the mould to design great career

Dr Sarah McAleer , a goldsmith and one of the UK's top contemporary jewellers, has embraced the latest computer and digital techniques to make interesting new work.

She holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art in London and has an exhibition at the R Space Gallery in Lisburn as part of August Craft Month.

Having worked in Western Australia for three years, she returned to Northern Ireland in 2012 where she relaunched her brand. With a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, she has now bought a 3D printer to help create designs.

"I originally trained through the Glasgow School of Art, and 20 years ago, those wanting to become goldsmiths were mainly men," she said.

"Now these days you would be lucky to get one or two graduating each year.

"I think the traditional trade was male-dominated, but with more women going to college that has changed." And even the route towards becoming a goldsmith has changed, she said.

"In days gone by to become a goldsmith you had to do an apprenticeship and needed a lot of experience and worked in a workshop.

"Traditionally the women would have stayed home and raised the children but that obviously isn't the case any more."

While most of her work is commission-based, she also has a ready-to-wear collection.

Fortunately, her business has also escaped the worst of the downturn.

"I am always busy and the recession did not really affect me."

And she said the image of creativity industries had changed.

"I think the tide has definitely turned for the creative industries, it is one of our only true growth sectors.

"More and more people are running their own businesses now because if you graduate in the traditional careers like medicine, teaching or finance, you are not guaranteed a job."

She added: "It's extremely hard work, a 24/7 job and you have to do everything yourself until you are in a position to afford to employ staff.

"It's not an easy life but you have to be passionate about what you do. I'm addicted to it, I can't not do this, even with two small children – my jewellery is my other child."


Belfast Telegraph