An intrepid trio in a tartan camper van are putting the nation in touch with its untold wealth of arts and crafts, Ruth Walker discovers
A TARTAN-painted 1972 VW camper van that goes by the name of Rhubarb makes its way around Scotland. “Long-distance Vana” Coleman is at the wheel, Fi Scott mans the map and photographer Ross Fraser McLean records the whole trip for posterity.
The purpose? To document the country’s vast network of local industries and manufacturers, connecting them with designers and artists and, ultimately, making it easier for creative professionals to produce high quality work that is Made in Scotland. They are, in essence, a dating service: Match.com for people who make things.
“I was just so frustrated as a designer, thinking, ‘Where can I go to get things made? Who can I work with? Where are the best places to get materials?’ So it started from there,” says the project’s founder, designer Fi Scott.
Along with Vana Coleman, an illustrator she met on a product design course at Glasgow School of Art, the pair set about planning a resource that would put designers like themselves in touch with the materials and skills that are on their doorstep – the problem is that few people even know they’re there.
Textiles, we know about – the cashmere and lambswool, tweed and weaving industries that are recognised as the best in the world. But Scotland also has a wealth of other industries: paper, copper, stonemasons, leatherworkers, jewellers, dyers, engravers, timber workers and furniture makers, upholsterers… many of them small, family-run businesses down single-track roads or in unprepossessing industrial estates, without websites, or with websites so impenetrable as to be pointless.
“The idea grew over the course of our final year,” says Coleman. “We’ve always had a very similar way of working in terms of being hands-on and in the material we use. I saw young designers who didn’t understand materials or why you would choose a certain process over another, so when Fi came back from a work placement in Brooklyn and we started talking about this situation I instantly knew where she was coming from.”
“The core idea was to make a really comprehensive directory of makers in Scotland,” says Scott. “The other was compiling the film and photography and practical information, which can be quite difficult to find. You look up a manufacturer’s website and quite often the worse the website, the better the manufacturer because they’re so technically heavy. You look at it and think, ‘I don’t know what any of that means.’ It takes a while to get your head around that.”
But how to find these diverse makers scattered across Scotland’s mainland and many islands? The team felt a road trip coming on. Scott phoned up an old colleague, begged to use his old camper van for three months, and the Make Works tour was on the road. “Looking back, it was crazy,” says Scott. “We had absolutely no money.”
But armed with a large map, and the intention of getting to every council area in Scotland, they planned a rough route up the east coast, all the way to Shetland, then through the Highlands and back down the west coast to the Borders. The day before they set off, Rhubarb lost a wheel. But, undeterred (and after a thorough service), they were on their way.
Three thousand miles of living, eating and working in the van – as well as hosting eight artists in residence for a week each at a time – it’s remarkable they’re all still friends at the end of it all.
“We tried to swim in the sea every day,” says Coleman. “Some days we were saying, ‘Are we even in Scotland?’ We’ve had such an amazing summer. It was very outdoorsy – I think we became very wild and feral. One of our residents was coming off the ferry to meet us on Skye and he said he saw these wild-eyed jumpers coming towards him. He was bang on – that’s exactly what we were at that point. We got so used to it that when we came back for one week we were desperate to escape again.”
Perhaps even more remarkable is the breadth of skills they uncovered – 112 visits and 130 films documenting the diversity of creative excellence in Scotland.
“Word of mouth becomes so important,” says Coleman. “When a company knows this other company is good because they work with it – that sort of relationship is the stuff you can’t Google. It was wonderful then, as the tour went on, to start making those connections. Scotland is a small place – it’s like a village.
“But the majority of what we produce still gets exported. It doesn’t get shouted about locally because maybe there isn’t a demand or people just don’t know it’s here. I’d love for people to appreciate how much still gets made here and the level of quality is outstanding.”
And there is so much out there. “We kept driving past it; we couldn’t physically visit everywhere,” says Scott. “We’d be driving round industrial estates taking note of names and addresses. There are so many gaps. I want to find a glass factory – there are a lot of individual glass makers but there’s not a factory; at least we haven’t found one yet. Paper we’re still on the hunt for. And in fashion, there’s a lot of textiles, but it’s really hard to find pattern cutters, hand finishers and seamstresses to work with. That’s the gold dust of Scotland.”
“Plastics and rubber are the most difficult to convince,” says Coleman. “We couldn’t get past reception. We emailed, we phoned, we sent videos – they weren’t having any of it. In the end we were seeing someone else on the same industrial estate so knocked on the door begging to come in, and they were just, ‘No.’
“At that stage we had to accept that, OK, if they don’t want to work with us they don’t want to work with other artists.”
The project, they insist, is not an elitist one restricted to the artistic community. It’s about the simple, hands-on process of making things. And making them in Scotland. “If I’m making something, that’s when I’m happiest,” says Scott, “it makes me feel human. But it’s so important to local culture too. You can see the effect of a business on a community: on a practical side, skills are jobs.”
Patti Niemann, Latheron, Caithness
“For me, the nicest surprise was Patti Niemann,” says Coleman. “She’s a goldsmith who also does glass blowing and bits and pieces of textiles – she’s a very prolific maker, and her work is based around the landscape and surrounds the idea of the body as a sculpture.
“We had met at the Go North event in Inverness and she’d invited us to stay with her when we were up that way. We went to visit her studio and thought she might not be the most appropriate for the directory because she’s an individual maker – we didn’t know how much she does collaborations or commissions – and I just had the biggest smile when we walked out of that place. Her openness to wanting to do collaborations and work with other people and how much she feeds off that kind of creative enterprise, I cannot praise her enough. I went in with a certain idea and came out with the complete opposite.”
Johnstons of Elgin
“You can definitely see the companies that understand they have to change because the times are different,” says Coleman. “They’ve embraced it and are doing really well out of it. Then there are the others who are really struggling, that would rather go back to the old ways.”
Scott adds: “The guys at Johnstons of Elgin said to us, ‘If you’re left, you’re good and you’re strong and you’ve adapted to the changes.”
“It’s so exciting to see products coming out of the machines from the world’s top fashion houses,” says Coleman. “There’s a reason they get made here: it’s amazing quality.”
Montrose Rope and Sail, Angus
“You usually associate sewing with women,” says Scott. “At Montrose Rope and Sail, their bread and butter is tarpaulins and offshore bags but you can send them a sketch and they’ll make you anything out of tarpaulin; anything bespoke.”
“What surprises you,” adds Coleman, “is that there are rows and rows of sewing machines and these massive guys with burly shoulders and tattooed sleeves all sewing away. It was surreal.
“It’s a family-run company that takes in young lads from the local community and trains them up and there’s just a fantastic vibe in there.”
Fyfe Glenrock, Old Meldrum, Aberdeenshire
“I hadn’t appreciated stone at all before we went on this trip,” says Scott. “This was one of these places where we looked at their website and couldn’t decide whether to go or not – it was terrible. Some of the traditional manufacturers are quite sceptical of what we’re doing – ‘Why do you want to come? Do we owe you anything? Is it going to cost us?’ – but we went anyway, and the guys were brilliant. They have all these amazingly skilled stonemasons. Then we walked into this massive factory floor and there’s a three-metre diamond saw slicing boulders in half; massive scale stuff you could use for beautiful sculptures. For artists, that’s amazing.
“We were encouraged by the fact that a company traditionally associated with large-scale architectural work [such as the Scottish Parliament] will work on bespoke one-offs for artists and designers. They said they love these projects – even if it’s not necessarily cost-effective for them – because rather than cutting straight lines the guys have something more interesting to work on.”
Jamieson’s of Shetland, Sandness
“An hour down a single-track road into this tiny village, we found this facility,” says Coleman, “a fifth generation family business. The sheep go in at one end, the jumpers come out the other. It’s crazy.”
“I guess what we found interesting there was that most of their jumpers go to Japan,” adds Scott. “That’s their main market, to the point that their own shop is struggling to keep up stock. They’re booked up for two or three years. We liked their jumpers so much we bought one each – it became team apparel.”
Elgin Marble Company, Moray
“When you see the father and son working together, it’s something else,” says Coleman. “The Elgin Marble Company supplies stone fireplaces, worktops and headstones and we were fascinated not only by the workmanship and skill of the family running it, but in the realisation that each piece was bespoke, and there is an opportunity in that for designers to take advantage of that.”
Journeyman Leather, Shetland
“I don’t think we’d really appreciated the leather industry,” says Scott, “the fact you can buy one hide – or thousands – from Andrew Muirhead in the city centre of Glasgow [which also supplies the automotive industry with bespoke interiors], and you can do absolutely any colour. That’s a huge thing.
“Journeyman does saddles, belts, dog leads – it’ll also do bags, and offcuts for students. It’s just a really interesting industry.”
Halley Stevensons, Dundee
“It’s in the city centre of Dundee,” says Scott. “Ross lives up the street from there, he’s lived there all his life, and he didn’t realise the factory was there. They make all the waxed cotton for Barbour, across the world, for Trakke and Brooks Brothers. Loads of local designers also go there – people we went to art school with who have set up their own labels, and they get their fabric in the same place. Yet no one knows about it.”
“There are a lot of craftspeople who have been commissioned to produce really beautiful, bespoke packaging for the whisky industry,” says Scott.
Letterpress printing, Glasgow
“They are a fantastic, family-run business,” says Scott. “The guys there produce the best quality products.”
The Make Works directory is due to launch in spring (www.makeworks.co.uk)