Scottish knitwear and English jet stone star in UK craft show

LONDON, April 4 Thu Apr 4, 2013 12:39pm EDT

LONDON, April 4 (Reuters) - Jewellery from jet black stone once favoured by bereaved Victorians and hand-knitted sweaters from Scotland's Fair Isle opened a show of British crafts on Thursday, their makers among a handful of people to still practise each trade.

"Crafted - Makers of the Exceptional" at London's Somerset House showcases the work of modern manufacturers and individuals in traditional British crafts who are defying a long-term decline in industries which attract few young people.

The craftsmen work at their stands, hand-stitching leather, printing poetry using a traditional letterpress and knitting intricate Fair Isle fishermen's sweaters.

The master watchmaker from Geneva-based Vacheron Constantin, the world's oldest watchmaker in continuous production since 1755, assembles the tiny components of a timepiece using skills which take years of training to learn.

The global luxury industry's double digit growth every year since 2007 has prompted a reappraisal of the importance of the crafts that underpin it, according to Walpole British Luxury, the association behind the exhibition.

"What has been bubbling under the surface is a renaissance of individuals who decided of their own volition to become a maker, learn that craft and are now at the top of their field," the Walpole Crafted programme's chair Guy Salter told Reuters.

Jewellery designer Jacqueline Cullen is one of only a few crafters to use Whitby jet, a 180 million-year-old black fossil once worn by Victorians as "mourning jewellery" after the death of a family member which often contained locks of hair from the deceased or a photograph.

But Cullen is the only designer to try to shed the rock's association with death, creating instead large pendant earrings or chunky rings encrusted with droplets of gold and crystals.

"Jet has been put in a pigeon hole of death and grief and morbidity rather than appreciated for the raw material," said Cullen, who has been working with the black rock for 10 years.

Named after the northern English fishing town where it was extensively mined more than a century ago, Whitby jet is now rare and Cullen relies on supplies of the stone from an abseiler, who descends old quarries to collect the raw material.

"There are a few people using jet in Whitby but they are using Victorian designs and designs for tourists. I'm the only one that has taken jet to a 21st century audience," Cullen said.

When Mati Ventrillon began knitting on Fair Isle, off Scotland's northern coast, she was one of only three knitters producing Fair Isle woollen sweaters on the windswept island.

Now interest in learning the complicated knitting style is growing on the island of 60 people, Ventrillon said, with three more residents picking up needles in the last year to create the garments.

"When you think about a place that only has 20 houses, the population is ageing and there aren't many jobs, people need to be very creative...(knitting) has always been something extra to do to bring food home," Ventrillon said.

"Crafted - Makers of the Exceptional" runs from April 4. - April 6. at London's Somerset House.