Today I read an article about one of the last three traditional thatchers in Wales. Now, thatching, as you may or may not know, is the process of creating a thatched roof, or one made from dried vegetation (traditionally straw in Wales, but today Chinese water reed is taking over). The gentleman who was interviewed was interested in finding new apprentices to keep the trade alive. This wasn’t merely a “Hey, we’re short staffed” kind of call for applicants, but a sincere announcement that when this man retires there will be two traditional thatchers left in Wales and that isn’t going to cut it.
The thought that a trade could simply vanish was an interesting one. It speaks to this entire idea of lost knowledge, be it a trade, words that fall out of use, or entire languages that have or are on the verge of dying out.
Public history institutions attempt to protect against this loss, though. For example, my husband and I watched indigo dying at a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina recently. They, however, weren’t using a completely traditional method of work, in part, because traditional indigo dying was actually quite dangerous, or at least smelly, due to the chemicals used in the process. But we could watch a blacksmith, a cooper, and a potter. This same plantation had heritage breeds of animals. Now, I’m not sure the difference between the goats my friend is currently raising and the goats they had onsite, but I trust them.
At the Whaley House we have begun a quilting bee program to not only introduce people to the art of hand quilting, using the English paper piecing method, but also to share the significance of quilting bees for women throughout history. You can find museums and historical societies sharing trades like this across the world. Not only does this work to share historical knowledge, but also to keep these trades alive and connect people with those who came before them. This thatcher could simply adopt modern methods, but he undoubtedly feels a connection to those who proceeded him when he works on a traditionally thatched roof. And that’s what history is about, isn’t it? We are trying to build a connection between the present and the past to absorb the experiences of our ancestors, to learn from them, and to apply those lessons to our lives to build a better future.