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Suffolk Craft Society is home to cream of the county’s crafters

From jewellery to textiles, glass making to furniture, and musical instruments to ceramics ... members of Suffolk Craft Society can turn their talented hands to a treasure trove of skills.

They are among the elite of the county’s craft makers with wood turners, book binders, printmakers, sculptors, and leather workers also in their ranks.

The society was founded in 1970. Aims include championing good design and fine workmanship, advancing the careers of its makers, promoting education and training and spreading the word about the crafts.

Detail from a jacket by Marie Mallen.
Detail from a jacket by Marie Mallen.

It now has around 100 members, from long-established makers with years of experience to those who are only just starting to be known for their skilful and imaginative work.

Their growing number includes Sylvie Fawcett who came to England from France aged 19 to study violin making.

She met her husband James at college. They married the day after she finished her course and came back to his native Suffolk, where they have run a business ever since making and restoring violins, violas and cellos.

Violin makers Sylvie and James Fawcett
Violin makers Sylvie and James Fawcett

One of the first contacts they made when they arrived in the early 1980s was with Suffolk Craft Society, and they are both members.

It took persistence and determination for Sylvie to achieve her goal of becoming a violin maker.

“I have a sister who is a violinist and although I don’t play I grew up with the sound,” she said. “I come from a family of mathematicians but I wanted to make violins. My parents were so supportive.

Violins made by Sylvie and James Fawcett
Violins made by Sylvie and James Fawcett

“There is an international violin making school at Newark on Trent which is where I met James, who was born in Eye. We now live in Thornham Magna.

“The first time I applied I didn’t get in – they only took 12 pupils a year – so I went to work with a joiner for six months.

“Then they refused me again because they decided that year they wouldn’t take girls. They also said I was too small – presumably they thought I was not strong enough to saw the wood.

Detail from a violin by Sylvie Fawcett
Detail from a violin by Sylvie Fawcett

“I got in the next year, two years after I arrived. The only revenge I could get was to win the best pupil cup ... which I did.

“It was good experience because later I could tell the children that if you go through failure you can still succeed,” said Sylvie, who has four daughters.

“With violin making you learn all your life. It’s an ongoing thing. There is loads to discover.

Leather worker Sarah Woodcock in her workshop
Leather worker Sarah Woodcock in her workshop

“We also do a lot of restoration and repairs which mean a few challenges every time. We deal with hundreds of years of bad repairs – criminal repairs. I get so angry.

“DIY people in the 1960s are the worst. They used terrible glue and the damage can be irreversible.

“We work with violins, violas and cellos. and repair for people all over the world.

Sarah Woodcock's turquoise tote bag
Sarah Woodcock's turquoise tote bag
Leather pouches by Sarah Woodcock
Leather pouches by Sarah Woodcock
Marie Mallen at work.
Marie Mallen at work.

“You get quite attached to the instruments you restore. Sometimes you have to be a detective to find what’s wrong with them.”

They employ traditional methods of violin making, sometimes using local wood to craft smaller parts, and are great admirers of the 18th century Venetian violin maker Peter Guarneri.

The craft society holds two exhibitions a year – in the autumn at Bury St Edmunds Guildhall, and a summer show at the Longshed Gallery, in Woodbridge.

It also seeks to promote and encourage the purchase of makers’ work through its website and imaginative use of social media.

Juliet Bowmaker, who used to run an art gallery in Cambridge, became chair of the society in May. “I’m keen to help makers develop their careers.

“That could include business skills courses, taking photos, and getting to grips with social media, she said.

Marie Mallen works with vintage and antique textiles to create new garments or update existing ones.

Exquisite details using beautiful old fabrics turn her jackets into something unique. And she can also be the ultimate up-cycler – when we meet she is wearing a dress made from a door curtain.

Needlework was not the original choice of career for Marie, who did a PhD in biochemistry.

But after her son – now 21 – was born she was bored at home and that was when sewing, which had always been a hobby, became something more.

Giving a new lease of life to something second hand dates back to her university days ... although probably not in a way she would do it now.

“When I used to go clubbing I would go to ‘fancy dress’ shops and buy lovely 1920s dresses and hack them up and go out dancing that night in them,” she confessed.

“I’d always sewn as a hobby, doing embroidery, patchwork, and had taught myself to dress make, so then I went to evening classes, did a number of City and Guilds, and studied pattern construction with the Belfast Institute of Excellence.

“I was very fortunate to have a really wonderful mentor, Jenny Whitehead, who was a pattern constructor for leading fashion houses in the 1970s, who had retired to Norfolk.

“I was self employed as a dress maker for a number of years, then joined Designermakers21 in Diss, and have been a member there for eight years.

“I do Bury Makers’ Market on the first Sunday of every month, and have quite a lot of customers who bring garments to me to change.

“They may be quite sentimental clothes that belonged to their mother or father. We can repurpose the fabric. There are beautiful memories in fabric.

“One lady had a lovely collection of silk ties that belonged to her dad and I made a jacket out of two of his jackets, with detailing from the silk.

“I now make a lot of gents’ clothing as well, and I have had a really positive response. Men want something not too bright, but different.”

All her clothes are hand finished. “I do make from scratch as well. I make coats from blankets, textile art. and corsage brooches with backings from left over wool.

“ I don’t produce much waste at all. Bits of fabric go into covered buttons that I then sell,” said Marie, who joined the society two years ago and also teaches.

She said she was proud to follow in a long line of nimble-fingered Suffolk women in a county that has a long history with the textile industry.

Leather worker Sarah Woodcock, who is one of the society’s newest members and also its secretary, was inspired to begin after finding a set of tools that belonged to her grandfather.

“I started in lockdown so I’m a very recent convert. I started to learn techniques after I cleared my mum’s house. Her dad was a saddler and I found all his tools and kept them.

“We moved to Suffolk and I came across a traditional leather worker –Mark Papworth, of White Buffalo Crafts, from Stanton – at a show and asked him what the various tools were for.

“He said I can show you, or teach you how to use them He taught me. He’s my mentor still, he’s brilliant.”

She works with traditional hand techniques. “I don’t use any machines, and use vegetable-tanned leather, with tannin made from oak bark.

“The more common chrome tanning which uses chemicals doesn’t feel so nice, or smell the same.”

Sarah grew up in Yorkshire and worked in building conservation for the National Trust for 24 years.

“In lockdown I decided to take voluntary redundancy and was really enjoying the leather work and making things, so thought I would take a leap and try to do it as a career.

“I had enough redundancy money to get my business, Hopton Leather, going.

“What I love most of all is designing. I come to the Bury Makers’ Market, and get regular customers coming back to me.

“When I make bags I make a template first with cloth, and work out my mistakes. I also do bespoke work that people can help design themselves.

“A bag will get better with use, they develop a patina. They last a lifetime and can become an heirloom. I use linen thread, except for dog collars when I use nylon because it’s stronger.”

Sometimes she looks back hundreds of years for inspiration. “There are some wonderful purses and belt pouches that were found on the Mary Rose, and the National Trust has some medieval pouches,” she said.

She also repairs bags and belts. “Sometimes leather dries out and needs nourishing and loving. There are different treatments you can buy, and I’m now starting to make my own polishes, looking at old recipes.

“It can also go mouldy. If things need to go to a conservator I know people I can send them to.”

Sarah is also learning book binding, and plans to study embossing, where patterns are stamped onto the surface. “As I’m fairly new and starting out I have a lot more to learn.

“I joined Suffolk Craft Society last year when I felt I was good enough. It has a reputation for quality and I wanted to be part of that.

“Now I’m secretary as well ...it’s a brilliant way to get to know the members and how the society works. I’m so impressed with the quality of work and the friendliness and supportiveness of members.”

Society chair Juliet, who moved to Bury in 2022, said: “It’s early days for me so it’s a steep learning curve. Sarah and I are exploring together and we also have a new treasurer and web person.

“I’m anticipating we might have to work on consolidating, meeting more members of the community and having more fun,” said Juliet, who has studied silversmithing and hopes to soon have more time to devote to her own craftwork.

Other ambitions include recruiting more younger members. “I would like there to be a staggered membership with an entry level so they need not be daunted by the fact they have only been in practice for two or three years.

“I would like to see us doing more workshops, getting our name out a little more, promoting the value of art therapy, introducing people to crafts, and doing a lot more teaching.”

The society also hopes to expand its Friends group, which has benefits including price reductions.

For more information go to suffolkcraftsociety.org