In an interview with Amber Bailey from Silverlining Furniture (http://www.silverliningfurniture.co.uk) earlier this year, she stated, “History still impacts male influence in today’s craft industry, the majority of renowned furniture companies were started by men. This is because only a few decades ago, schools taught boys woodwork whilst girls were taught home economics. Women of this generation that enter the craft industry are far more likely to do so as a second career choice”.

This statement got me thinking, and I turned my attention to the demographic of my fellow female students at Rycotewood Furniture Centre (Oxford). With a smaller ratio of women to men studying on the furniture design and making higher education courses, there is a relatively high proportion of mature female students, which therefore leads me to ask, is the future of the furniture industry only dependent on young women? I decided to discuss this with two of the mature students who started at Rycotewood this year, Claire Dalton and Rae Sellen, over a cup of coffee during one of our breaks.

Rae studied on an access course at City of Oxford College, and was considering a degree in Fine Art at Oxford Brookes University, prior to enrolling at Rycotewood. She said, “it was time to do something for me”, and that on reflection, the access course didn’t give her enough focus on one discipline. Her attraction to the furniture course came from seeing the quality of work that was being produced by the students; and with the feeling that she had enough transferable skills from her studies, Rae was persuaded by course leader, Joe Bray, that the program would be flexible enough for her to continue her studies.

This ability to study part-time was a necessity for Rae, as she is the single parent to a young son with autism. And whilst this allows her to balance her time between education and responsibilities at home, she has found that the reduced amount of contact time has had an impact on her work, stating, “you always feel like you’re handing something in half done”. Relying on help from her parents, Rae believes that the change into industry hours will prove difficult at the current level of childcare. This is a relevant issue for mothers across all industries, as the responsibility of childcare falls, in the majority of cases, to women.

Claire, who christens herself the “mistress of reinvention”, as her decision to train as a furniture maker comes relatively late in her career. She was able to add to this discussion on motherhood within craft, as she previously ran her own patchwork quilt business, alongside caring for her daughter. Claire explained that craft is a therapeutic, flexible career option with relatively low set-up costs, offering a creative escape, whilst also allowing children to be involved.

Claire came to be at Rycotewood following a career in the public health sector, and a period of time volunteering on the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) scheme, where she witnessed craftspeople and making within the context of other cultures. However, following a change in family circumstances and a desire to escape from the commuting lifestyle, she considered applying to Westdene College, following a taster course in furniture making with Tom Kealy. She explained that once she touched the material (wood), she was hooked. This was especially due to the tools associated with the processing of timber, which she finds a lot more interesting, in comparison to those associated with textiles. However, Rycotewood was a more local option, and following the enthusiasm of the tutors, she decided it was the right place for her.

Claire and Rae spoke of how they had no specific expectations when enrolling on the course at Rycotewood, or particularly any feeling of exclusivity being both female and mature students, however they did find themselves surprised by the youth population on the course. Despite this, they has been impressed by the kindness and maturity shown to them, which they suspect can be explained by the collective drives shared by those who pursue careers in craft, in contrast to other industries. The course perhaps attracts students with certain interests or personalities, and therefore strengthens the culture of peer help and mentoring. Claire explained that the confidence she has shown, to pursue her studies in furniture design and making is now the subject of envy and surprise of many of her friends, as the scope of work covered in the curriculum, is very impressive.

Both ladies spoke of their enjoyment of the creative process, it being an extension of their previous work. And both share an excitement to begin projects of increased complexity, where they hope to build on the connection between thought processes and making, as this is integral to their understanding of furniture, particularly as they both joined the course with no previous, specific experience. This lack of making experience has not deterred them, however it is an aspect that they both struggle with, when the piece is not their own design. This disconnection between the head and the hand that they describe, I have also struggled to come to terms with, as the feeling you have for the piece that evolves through the design process, is absent.

Another difficulty that we discussed was the importance of eyesight, which one may only think to be a concern for a mature student, however it wasn’t until I started fine woodwork that I realised that I- myself- needed glasses! The ability to deal with your own mistakes is an important one to master. Craft can be an exercise in discovering a lot about yourself, as Claire described it: “I am confronted by my own hopelessness!”

Despite this, there were definite positive messages that I took from our conversation, which were to remember to focus on the successes of the learning process, as this is the key way of ensuring that you enjoy it, which they highlighted to me, is the main aim of every life changing decision. Also, education is not a means for comparing yourself to other students, but for understanding your own challenges, and how to overcome them.

The opportunity to have a workshop space at home would be the ideal solution for Rae, and her ambition- at present- is to establish an artisan shop for crafted objects made by a collective of makers, which would work on a commission basis. This idea stemmed from retailers in Oxford that showcase independent makers’ work, such as the Old Fire Station Shop (https://oldfirestation.org.uk/shop-cafe/shop/), but as Rae highlighted there is scope for a more developed shop front specifically for students’ work.

Claire is enjoying having no pressure to start a career, but focusing on the skills she is learning and the enjoyment of the experience. She feels very lucky to have the opportunity of this freedom of lifestyle, and be able to benefit from the high standard of teaching that doesn’t only make the course accessible, but pushes all the students to achieve.