Fabulous female furniture-makers

PUBLISHED: 17:55 16 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:42 20 February 2013

Susan Tranter with University Challenge Cup.

Susan Tranter with University Challenge Cup.

The world of furniture-making has been traditionally a male one. Step forward three women from Warwickshire who have taken on the men!

If you were asked to name a famous furniture maker the chances are he would be male. Thomas Chippendale, Gordon Russell, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Morris . . . the world of furniture-making isnt really populated with famous women. But there are signs that the male-domination of the world of furniture is changing. At Warwickshire Colleges Furniture Crafts Department a quarter of the students on the City & Guilds courses in cabinet-making and wood machining are women.
Curriculum leader, Jamie Ward, says: We have more women enrolled this year than the last five years put together. I dont know why that is but its refreshing to know that women have the confidence to make choices that may not have occurred to them a generation ago.
They share a real enthusiasm for the subject which makes my job much easier. Four have already started taking on commissions, Susan Tranter recently collaborated on a bench for the Chelsea Flower Show which was a real coup!

Susan, aged 37, enrolled as a full-time student at the college after working in the flooring industry which led to her developing an interest in interiors and furniture. Ive always wanted to create
things but I just assumed I wasnt very creative.
Ive never been through higher education before so its really important to me to learn the right way to do things and its great having the enthusiasm from Jamie, Ollie and Armando. Its fantastic because theyre so into it.
Ive been really cautious on this course because its the first thing I really care about, I feel like Im just getting into my stride and wish there was more time. Im very impatient in every other aspect of my life and it really surprises me that I can say, Right! Dont just go diving in.
Susans ambition is to work for herself. That will inevitably lead to long hours but working at something that you have a passion for stops it from feeling like hard work.
Ive worked in predominately male trades since I left school and some people did go out of their way to make you feel awkward. Its been completely different with furniture-making, a great unburdening really.
Im still conscious of the fact that Im female in a male trade and I wondered whether it would be fine in college then completely different when you get into the workplace. It was no different, they were great.

Maddy Forth, age 60, is in the first year of a full-time course and arrived at the college after a lifetime of working on canal boats.
I married a Fen-man. When we came to the Midlands, John said: Ive always fancied a go on one of them narrow boats. We had this canal holiday and it felt like a magnet pulling us. We didnt know what we were stepping into but we werent frightened of hard work and talking to people. It was hard graft because we became boating coal merchants.
We coaled in the summer while prices were low but you cant really coal in the winter because of the stoppages and ice. John started buying and fitting boats and thats how we went about until he suddenly died in March 2008. I think you get out of this world what you put in, and Ive got it back. I couldnt even start to explain what we got back out of those 30 years.

Without her husband Maddy was at a loss. I thought what am I going to do now? You cant coal on your own but I decided to keep Johns boat.
Maddy had a full woodworking shop but no woodworking skills. She was put in touch with Moira Nally, who was already at Warwickshire College and loved it.
I left school 44 years ago without any qualifications but I came for the interview after speaking to Moi and a year later Im still here. At first I felt like the knowledge was dripping out through my ear-holes but eventually things kept sticking to the side.
One friend said: Why dont you get some earplugs?
I do love it. It gives you confidence to do things. Im going to build myself a home, I think that will take quite a while because you cant just pick up a chisel and a bit of wood and pare it. Youve got to work it, youve got to feel it. Moi said it took over her life, its going that way
with me.

For Melanie Hare, 44, the college offered something that was a bit more hands on. While living in New York Melanie was involved in courses at the Art Students League. Its a non-profit art school which is by artists, for artists. They offered an amazing variety of courses and Ill give anything a go so I did a number of them. I eventually ended up getting into clay and I absolutely loved that. It was fabulous!
When I came back here I wanted to continue with the sculpture but couldnt really find anything. I tried a three day upholstery course but wanted something a bit more hands on so I spoke to Armando.

There is something sculptural about furniture and, as well as learning how to work in another medium. You dont just learn about working with machinery and wood, its teaching you many other things as well.
Like patience, as Melanie has found. I dive into projects then bob up for air now and then thinking oh my God what have I done!? You have to learn patience otherwise you end up creating so much more work for yourself. There is an old saying, measure twice, cut once, I learned that the hard way.
Melanie made an occasional table for her end of year project. It seems like for weeks all you have is just a pile of sticks but all of a sudden things start coming together. That was hugely satisfying.
Im not entirely sure how things will develop once the course is finished but Im really interested in more sculptural pieces like garden furniture. Its all part of a continual journey and its a very nice journey.

Want to have a go?
Warwickshire Colleges cabinet-making courses are taught by three highly experienced makers: Jamie Ward, Armando Magnino and Ollie Renison.
As well as offering full-time and part-time courses at City & Guilds Levels I, II and III, the workshop is available for evening leisure courses.
Contact curriculum course leader Jamie Ward for more details on 01926 318233 or visit www.warkscol.ac.uk

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