Liz Samways meets Andrew Clark, Leeds-based maker of Reproduction Accoutrements, Regalia & Headdress.
Please tell us about yourself and how you got started.
I fell into this career path more by accident than design. While returning to college, I was introduced to historical re-enactment and learned to make items that were then unavailable for myself. My future wife was a costume maker and I ended up making reproductions of the buttons, metalwork and leatherwork required for military uniforms. Eventually it became a full time business.
What is the story and ethos behind your work?
I look at how the item was originally made and the materials and techniques employed. The aim is to replicate this as far as possible to make a reconstruction that matches, within costs, the original. It is not just leather or metal, but the methods, the dyes, the finishing. It is going beyond appearance to master the whole item for itself.
Your work involves a lot of different technical processes and techniques - what training did you have?
I had a background in antique restoration, which taught me to understand the materials and methods used by previous craftsmen. They were creating exquisite workmanship that would challenge many, without many of the tools that we take for granted today.
I then moved on to working as a designer pattern maker for a costume jewellery company, but soon realised that design was not my forte, and instead specialised in creating the final pattern masters from other designers. The company was old school training, in that they made you work through every department, learning all the skills and methods used in jewellery construction, so you would understand that design is only one half of jewellery. Learning how to work around designs to ease and reduce complications in manufacturing is equally as important.
Describe your work setting for us.
I have a small workshop hidden in the centre of Leeds that I share with two other designer makers because I found that working on my own leads to an insular practise and creativity. Working alongside others you get their perspective and creative input and often realise you can be wrong.
What do you love most about what you do and what do you find the most frustrating?
I love the challenges of discovering how an item was made and trying to match the skills and workmanship of previous centuries. Few today really learn how to do something properly and much that you see at craft fairs can actually be of a lower standard than the cheap, massed produced items that it is supposed to be challenging.
Your work is based on historical artefacts. Which is your favourite historical period and why?
To me the 18th and 19th century is the epitome of true workmanship. The care and attention to detail and the finesse of the hand skills stands in contrast to the modern, design-led ethos of today. We think innovation is king, but rarely do we take the time to truly master a skill.
How do you see your work and business developing in the future?
That is very difficult. As a business, I have to learn to balance my own desire to create the perfect item with the reality of earning a living. Because it is my own labour skills I’m selling indirectly, it is a finite resource of time that ultimately constrains my income. I now spend much more of my time either teaching people in classes some of my skills, or else helping others to develop their own craft-based business through Fabrication.
What advice would you give someone starting a creative business?
There are two sides to this that are equally important. Firstly, learn how to do your work properly and to a good standard. Always push yourself to become better and better in your skills and craftsmanship. Too much craft work is ‘home-made’ than truly ‘handmade’.
The second side is more about business. Few in handmade crafts will become rich or affluent. You can earn a reasonable living but realistically in business, you only make money selling something. It is equally no good making the very best if nobody actually wants to buy it. So in some ways these two things are opposites and your motivations will propel you into one direction or the other.
How do you get the word out about your work and where can we buy your work?
I rarely advertise as much of my work is to commission and comes from word of mouth between customers and clients. Perhaps because I focus more on the making than the selling I rarely devote myself to marketing or sales pitches. I can be found online at www.militarymetalwork.co.uk.
If you had time what new craft would you like to learn?
Everything would be my answer, but if I had to pick one, then I would love to master the art of steel die cutting by hand. It’s an entire mixture of sculpture, engraving and engineering metallurgy combined into one art. If I have one other passion to learn a new craft, I would go into cabinet making. There is some inner wonder to transforming plain wood into beautiful polished furniture.
You have had some really interesting customers and commissions - can you tell us about some of them?
Very often my work is a small part of a bigger creation by other skilled crafts people. I have supplied buttons and metalwork to Buckingham Palace, or smaller parts in larger restoration projects. I have supplied elements to catwalk shows by several top designers. Few people realise how much small artisan workshops contribute towards the final creations of big names or organisations. Indirectly, I have worked on most of the major costume and historical films over the last 20 years. Sometimes I am surprised to see items in a film without realising that I was working on it.
What would be your dream commission?
This one I have actually achieved. As a 10 year old, Star Wars was a major influence on my life. 20 years later I got the opportunity to actually work on the second round of the films. I made all the elements to Queen Amidala’s headdresses. It is an amazing feeling seeing your work on the big screen.
For more information on Andre Clark and his work, please visit:
Workshops & Teaching: www.fabric-ation.co.uk/