It was lovely for us today to be the people visiting an event, rather than demonstrating at one. Today we visited ‘Craeftiga’ craft show at Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ground. It was our first ever visit to the site. ‘Craeftiga’ is old English and means craftsman. The event is only in its second year but I hope that it will continue to grow year on year as we really enjoyed the day. We arrived as it opened at 10.30am and didn’t leave till 4.30am.
After 11 years working in the history business and 15 years in re-enactment generally, I don’t like to say ‘I’ve seen it all before’ but to a certain extent it’s true, however today we really felt like we learnt a lot. Admittedly it’s not a time period we cover but many elements of life are not dissimilar to medieval.
The most interesting craftsperson I think for Wel and I today was the lady demonstrating linen production from flax. I’d seen medieval pictures before of the process but it was really interesting to have somebody walk you through all the different processes. I’d never realised that there were so many different stages in the process. She explained that the flax was pulled out of the ground, to keep the strands as long as possible. The flax is then dragged through a comb to remove as many of the seed heads as possible, to use to grow next years harvest. This process is called ‘Rippling’. The flax is then ‘retted’, which is a way of rotting away the woody tissue of the plant so that the fibres in inside it can be extracted. This is done either by ‘dew retting’, which seems to be laying it out on the grass for the dew to rot it or in special ponds which I believe she set was called ‘water retting’. Micro organisms cause the rot. I think she said that it was similar to the organism that causes botulism. It has to be checked daily to see how rotted it is. The flax produced from dew wetting is darker in colour than water retted flax. Once this is done it is then dried. Next the flax is pulled through a ‘breaking machine’ which breaks the inner woody stalk up. Bits of the stalk are still left in the flax and these have to be removed by ‘Shiving’. A wooden Scotching knife is used to do this by dragging it down the flax. The pieces of wood fall out. The next stage is ‘Hackling’ where the flax is pulled through nailed combs. The hackle she had was very sharp indeed! Hackles could be various sizes, the first for removing the woody bits and finer toothed combs for smoothing fibres. Next she showed us how the fibres were spun into thread using a distaff and drop spindle. These were the precursor to the spinning wheel and it really showed how when the wheel came along, the great speed of it compared to the drop spindle must have seemed astonishing. In fact I was told that many medieval people feared the spinning wheel when it came, as people always fear new technologies even today! We were astonished to find out that there is a 96% wastage in producing linen like this! She said that left over bits could be used to light fires, make string or for stuffing but the fibres were shorter and not so good for spinning. I must say it was one of the best and most informative re-enactment displays I’ve seen in a very long time and a big thanks to the lady for giving so much of her time to explain it to us.
What was really lovely about the event was that the crafts were grouped into areas together. The potters were all together, so were most of the spinning and weaving people, the calligraphers etc. As with many National Trust events it had a very relaxed, friendly and informal feel to it and we loved the fact that it was not just about purest historical craft but about the crafts that were around at the time and how they have evolved in the modern world too, making them feel like living, breathing crafts, not just ghosts from long ago.
Another craftsperson who must have special mention, is Tillerman beads. I’d seen their stand at the re-enactment markets before but if I’m honest, never really stopped to chat as it wasn’t my time period. It was nice to be free of that restriction, being just a general craft show and chat to people that I might not ordinarily do so. He asked if we’d like to see how a bead was made and we said “We’d love to!”. It was fascinating to see how the little bead was produced and learn about the history of glass beads. He even very kindly gave Wel the glass bead he’d made and explained to us how glass itself, rather than the things made from it, is produced. He uses Murano glass as it’s the closest to the original glass that was used.
We also met a beekeeper from Honey Bee Natural Beauty who very patiently explained a lot of info to us on beekeeping (as it’s something we’d love to do). I purchased some of his beeswax which is much more natural as it has no turps in, which normal recipes do, which he explained could dry out the wood. I have just opened it to have a whiff and it smells absolutely divine. His wife next to him makes and sells natural, herbal cosmetics. The two crafts tie together quite well. I think some of the herbal remedies may find their way into birthday presents for me in a month or two as Wel went off shopping for half an hour.
The Society of Scribes and Illuminators were there and amongst them my own calligraphy teacher Jan. They were demonstrating calligraphy and there was also a stone mason there, who specialised in letter carving. It was fascinating to see him delicately chipping away at the stone. Outside there was a pyrographer, stone mason, black smith, boat builder, jewellery maker, tapestry weaver and children were allowed to enter the sites replica of the Sutton Hoo ship called ‘Sae Wylfing’. We also got chatting to a gentleman, who was telling us about the regeneration of Woodbridge Waterfront where in the future they will be building a full size reconstruction of the ship! They hope he said to run ferries from the Wharf across to the burial site. There will also be a museum and I think he said that courses might be run there. You can read more about it here: www.woodbridgewaterfront.co.uk/
The Anglian Potters association were there, with a large tent full of many wonderful and varied potters, extremely well set out with lots of different styles of potting, all very individual. We had a lovely time chatting to them all. There were also wood turners, re-enactors and much more!
The sites museum is brilliantly set out and explained. The centre piece of it is a recreation of what they think the burial might have looked like, it looked amazing and even had the sound effects to make you feel like you really might have been there on that night in 600 & something AD when King Raedwald was buried! There was also a chance to handle some of the extraordinary high quality replica artefacts that the museum owns. For kids there are also lovely sets of Anglo Saxons clothes and armour for them to try on. A LOT of thought has been put into the museum and I’d recommend other sites looking for a revamp to visit it and see what a great job they’ve done. Even the info boards were well thought out with large bits of text for people who just like to scan and read a little bit and more indepth text for those that like to know a little more. The detail of the craftsmanship of the items found with him were astonishing. An extremely good and modern museum but without losing the feel of the time period it’s portraying.
Thanks to all staff, re-enactors and demonstrators for making it such a great day and for letting me take their photos. We stayed for 6 hours in total.
In short I really hope that the Trust runs the event next year and I hope that you will all take time to visit it. It’s a lovely site and a great event, just don’t forget to take your woolies, it gets a tad drafty at times, especially round the burial site.