Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter Gathering and canal crafts

One of the attractions of visiting the National Waterways Museum for the annual Easter Gathering is the number of traditional canal crafts demonstrated and displayed, as well as the bringing together of dozens of boats, many restored working boats, from all over the UK.

The first demonstration we saw today was rope making, by Ken Nelson. He had built this rope making himself, inspired by traditional rope makers' works. It is basically a spinning mechanism, just on a larger scale. The main difference was in the length of ropes he was making, several metres long, as he told us about the old manufacturers who made ropes 100 yards long, which would require the 'traveller' to be much further away from the spinning part of the system. Ken, who says his middle name must be Heath Robinson, described how he makes the cones of multi stranded cotton to feed into the spinner - by setting out up to 52 separate cones of Egyptian cotton thread on his garage floor, feeding each thread up through a system of rings hanging from the garage roof and winding them onto larger cones.

The threads he uses are 100% Egyptian cotton, which he gets from Quarry Bank Mill. Here's a some of it plied up for spinning.

Ken pointed out the International Guild of Knot Tyers, who had a demo stand next door. Like the Quilters' Guild of the British Isles, the IGKT is a registered Educational Charity, for people with an interest in knots and knotting techniques of all kinds. Of course rope knotwork has many uses on traditional canal boats, particularly the knot known as Turk's Head, used in it's tubular form to make grips on tillers, and elaborate ropework fenders. I found out that the hatamusubi (loom knot) we use to join threads in sashiko is called a weaver's knot in the UK.

Knots and fender-making are two of the traditional canal crafts covered by the Waterways Craft Guild - others include rag rugs, crochet, blacksmithing, sign writing and painting canal ware ('Roses and Castles'). Jes Inglis, a Waterways Craft Guild Accredited Journeyman, demonstrated how to paint a rose on a water scoop -

He explained that the blank space around the petals is as important as the petal strokes themselves, painted with a signwriters pencil (a long-haired sable brush), with the viewer's eye helping to fill in the detail - adding too much detail to the flowers is a common mistake among beginners. The designs are bold, with confident brushstrokes. The painter needs to be able to work from all angles (he is holding the pail upside down here), as not everything can be turned around the way you want it, 'like boats!' The castle motif is visible on the base.

Maintaining and passing on skills like these is important if the canal heritage is going to be preserved and continued. The Heritage Boatyard has been set up to conserve the boats at the museum, while teaching boatbuilding skills to young people. Many boats have been rebuilt and restored already at the museum, while others wait their turn. Restoration includes fitting out the cabins and there is a crochet group meeting most Tuesday mornings, 10.15 - 12.30, in the museum cafe, recreating the crochet lace that used to decorate the cabins, as well as the more solid restoration work carried out on site. From this -

To these - various restored boats visiting for the weekend.

'Ilkeston' is currently being restored and the boatman's cabin (the tiny living accommodation on most canal boats) rebuilt -

'Ferret' -

The decorative paintwork on the boats shows a great variety, within certain design parameters.

Seeing, hearing and smelling the old engines powering the boats is part of the enjoyment of events like today's.

Not everyone has been working hard on their boats!

Adding to the atmosphere has been a sea shanty festival plus a lot of traditional music. The weather was perfect - warm & sunny - no need for a jumper or a warm coat, even on the edge of the upper basin. Hope next year is as good!

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