The Making of Transitional Thatch
A Project By Via Vaudeville!
(As published in Guild News, No.37, Autumn 2007)

What would you choose to be the quintessential British craft? What craft when encountered would make a dweller of our fair isle think instantly of Britain and all that sail within her?

Home for us is the Midlands, known universally for Robin Hood, Nottingham Castle, Lace, Caves and one very old oak tree. Undeniably wondrous images of our Midlandic heritage, they are all however too specific to our locality to be generically recognised. Therefore what craft transcends all our local borders and can be seen in many counties in some manner or form? One chocolate box image comes to mind...

We are two visual artists who work collectively and importantly with others to realise our projects under the name, Via Vaudeville! Formed in Nottingham in 2005, Via Vaudeville! began as a reflection of the lack of multi-disciplinary events that unite the traditional and the contemporary and a genuine interest in experience and engaging a wider audience for artistic activities.
A lingering interest of ours into the more obscure and quirky tendencies of British heritage has allowed us to indulge into research of a wide range of curiosities, from traditional customs and architectural follies to pub signs and burning straw effigies. However when braced with the concept of ‘Extreme Crafts’, an exhibition that was to take place in the highly regarded Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania, it seemed a bold task to try to decipher a quintessential British craft.

For us, after much deliberation, it was thatch and the technique of thatching that took the stage. Although quite a twee and romantic vision, this modus operandi of sheltering our humble dwellings seemed an integral common denominator to an image of rural, traditional and familiar Britain. An image that travellers come to Britain to see, one we have all received on a postcard and perhaps an image of a dying craft? But how would this image translate if placed within a gallery in another country –in a city built by a man who dreamt of its creation on instruction from an iron wolf?

We developed our new project further and felt that the translation of taking British thatching techniques to another country, especially one as steeped in folklore and tradition as Lithuania, to be then translated and further explored through a local thatcher, would help extend knowledge of the craft and those involved with it. A marriage of the different thatching techniques from Britain and Lithuania would highlight our cultural differences whilst creating a new hybrid familiar to us all.
The basis of the project was our wish to construct a thatched, lean-to roof above one of the gallery’s windows, framing an image of the old town of Vilnius, whilst being comically devoid of any function. We needed to fill some gaps in our little knowledge of the process and started a quest for a band of thatchers who could help us with our pursuit. Luckily fortune shone upon us and presented us with our chivalrous guides, farther and son- Brian and Tom Mizon in Cambridge; the Aldred brothers, Stephen and Michael in Norfolk and the distinguished Eric Edwards MBE from the Norfolk Broads Authority.
By visiting this likely band of thatchers and marshmen whilst roaming the surrounding countryside like maddened thatch “twitchers”, we soon became accustomed to the varying techniques, styles and folklore that accompany the craft (spending various hours searching for different straw effigies and admiring the skill of this beautiful trade).

From these visits we felt able to draw up a roof design that reflected our newly enlightened minds- now full of wondrous thatching knowledge- and an amalgam was then sent forth to the Baltic where it was presented to a native thatcher with whom we would work with on our arrival.
Apt it was that our stay in Vilnius, Lithuania coincided with the Baltic folklore festival, ‘Skamba Skamba Kankliai’ whose aim is to faithfully and consistently preserve traditional culture in the cities. We were hardly alone in our rejoicing of traditional culture and craft.

After a few days assimilation, we were driving through magnificent forests and past beautiful lakes to meet our roof-makers. Three hours north of Vilnius was Ramygala. Translated as ‘quiet end’ this accurately named town was home to our new associate- Kestutis Kraujalis and his team, who had already started on the roof (from our design) when we arrived. Through a mixture of pigeon Russian, Lithuanian and a plethora of hand gestures, our thatched roof came to light in all its glory. However many thousands of miles from home (1,462 I think), like weary bodies of some charmed art crusade, our treasure was right before our very eyes… and the journey was worth it.
As we left Ramygala a crimson sun set on a green aura of unceasing forest and meadowland as thick fog began to swirl a handful of feet above the ground, forging an undeniable mystical presence to the country.

Once within the gallery the roof looked greatly absurd, whilst being ridiculously familiar. What would usually be a straw or sedge ridge design in Britain was constructed out of a lush green moss, freshly plucked from the lake and teething with small pest inhabitants. This ridge was nestled sweetly upon a more rugged approach to thatching than the British would be accustomed to, generating a very earthy, perhaps Tolkeinesque feel to the work.

Our cultural fusion of thatching techniques, highlighted many similarities between the trades of home and away, bizarrely retaining a similarity and honesty to both. Perhaps since the dawn of time and the movement of people through continents, our ancestors have handed down a collective consciousness that makes this all-quite familiar to us. A connection with the past, which forever sparkles, allows us to appreciate our origins and heritage nationally, whilst bowing and honouring the similarities we share with our neighbours.

Extreme Crafts (25th May – 12th August, 2007) at the Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius takes the form of an international exhibition, events and a ‘things-to-make-and-do‘ catalogue containing essays, patterns and ideas. It was in the catalogue where Gillian Nott kindly gave us permission to use her ‘Four-Straw Compass Plait’ -instructional drawings.