Over the coming months it is hoped to add to this section, celebrating the skills of various Islanders who still practise traditional Island crafts. Since I rarely leave the farm, this will be a slow process! But worth waiting for, I think. There are some wonderfully talented people whose skills should be celebrated.
I'll begin by introducing you to Willie May, but check back regularly to meet other interesting craftspeople too.
[note at 1st August 2006: We now have our own woolcraft centre on farm so I will not be updating this page in the foreseeable future due to lack of time, sorry...]
Willie May is now retired and living in Stanley. He has made fleece rugs most of his life, and loves his craft. I visited him and his wife Heather recently, and asked them about their background. Here's what I discovered...
Born in 1927, in the Dirty Ditch shepherd's house (or 'outside house'), belonging to Roy Cove, Willie began his working life early, as was the custom then. He 'turned to' himself as a shepherd for the farm's owners, remaining in this job from 1940 to 1948. A shepherd's life then was tougher than it is now. Horses were the only transport and being sometimes half-tamed these made for a lively few minutes at the start of each day... Each shepherd had his own troop of horses, often leading a spare one on a gather or drive of sheep, in order to swap over and rest each in turn.
Shepherding meant long tiring hours and reliance on one's own inner and physcial strengths to survive the isolation and hardships involved. A shepherd's wife had to be resourceful, manage on very little and work long hours herself to cope with all the daily chores.
From Roy Cove Willie moved to Hill Cove, again as shepherd, until 1952. During this period he met and married Heather, who was at that time in service at the 'Big House' or manager's house. They moved to take up employment on Carcass Island, then in 1953 moved again to Chartres, back on West Falkland itself. Here they stayed for five years, moving once again in 1958 - this time to West Point Island, where they remained until 1965. (The rug shown in this article depicts the West Point bull, which Willie tells me did have four legs in real life - it's just that the slide he took made it look three-legged! This is my favourite rug...)
In 1965 Heather and Willie moved to Stanley, where Willie was employed first by BAS (the British Antarctic Survey) as a storekeeper, later working for the Falkland Islands Company, then the Agricultural Research Centre (nowadays the Department of Agriculture), then Falkland Farmers - which is the Islands' farmers' co-operative agricultural supplies store. He finally retired in 1993.
Once he had called it a day with work, Willie found more time to make his rugs. Since he likes to use lichen, or 'moss' as it is known locally, he and Heather often go on gathering expeditions in the Camp around Stanley. Willie gets all shades from pale gold through to dark chocolate from this moss, depending on the length of cooking time, the ratio of moss to fleece wool, etc. He has also experimented with macrocarpa, though he finds he can only get quite a pale green from this. He uses vinegar as the only additive in his dyeing. For other colours such as reds and blues, he uses Dylon dyes, since this is the only available dye in local shops, to achieve other shades when required - but it's amazing what he can do with the range of lichen-dyed shades in conjunction with natural white, grey, brown and black fleece.
For design inspiration, Willie often uses slides. He projects these onto a wall, so he can draw round the basic outlines on the backing material. He is modest about his work, saying he isn't good at designing, but I found his rugs have a wonderful primitive quality. Other rugs come straight out of his head - he's presently working on a typical scene, of a Falkland Islands home with vegetable garden.
Willie's rugs are worked with a sturdy sprung rugger tool, on a background of wool bagging or sacking - material easily obtainable in Camp and also in town. He uses no frame. I envy his ease with a rugger, but it is still a time-consuming process even for him to complete a large rug and it is easy to see just how many hours he has put into making his current collection. (He has been persuaded to sell - reluctantly - various rugs over the years, but likes to keep some for his and Heather's pleasure too, so I was able to take several pictures.)
Willie estimates that it takes him at least 100 hours per item. Considering he is starting from basic greasy fleece, I suspect this is a conservative estimate. He has won many prizes for his work in the annual Craft Fair, and as well as squirrelling some away he and Heather use some of the rugs themselves. As with rag rugs, the fleece rugs get moved or demoted gradually as they wear, starting their career in the sittingroom and progressing to the backdoor - though I have to say, it seems a shame to walk on all those splendid pictures...
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting this wonderful character, and look forward to more visits in the future to the May household - to see what new ideas Willie has dreamt up for his beloved rugs.