On a grey misty day I visit Wentworth Pewter up in Sheffield. The company was started by a Mr Wentworth in 1946, and was bought by the Abdy family in 1982. It's now run by Mrs Abdy and her daughter Jayne and son Richard. In the showroom traditional tankards and contemporary pewter vessels gleam in the light.
Jayne shows me around the factory. There are twenty people employed here with possibly the most highly skilled being the spinners. Circular discs of pewter sheet are put on a lathe and – by the application of pressure with a specially designed tool (or 'spoon') – the metal is forced into shape over a metal or nylon former. 'Many of the people here have been with us for a very long time,' Jayne tells me. 'A couple have been here fifty years!' 'Are you taking on apprentices?' I ask. 'No,' she says, 'they don't want to know. They've just been taught these days to apply to university.' Jayne is not the first person to tell me this; I'm beginning to think that it's our education system that's the problem for craft.
In the far corner I speak to John Stone who is busy washing pewter tankards, and drying them over a gas flame. It's hot work and he's got the nearby fire door open. 'How long have you been working here?' I ask. 'I'm 61,' he says, 'and I've been here all my life. I had ten year off – I was selling doner kebabs outside a nightclub – but I came back. They're a nice family, it's not a bad firm to work for.' It seems that many people here came as a school-leaver and have never worked anywhere else.
On the other side of the works are two of the metal spinners; Brian Swift and Bill Kerry. I watch Brian put a flat disc on the lathe and start the spinning process. It's amazing how it takes the form. 'It's the only metal you can work like this without annealing it,' says Brian. 'If it was copper or silver or nickel, then you've got to have a furnace at the side of you – work it so far and anneal it down.' I'm beginning to realise why pewter was so popular for domestic ware years ago. Brian has been here forty-three years. 'You don't stop all these years for nothing, he says, 'they look after us – they're smashing – that's how you want it.' But on the subject of young people coming into the business he's less optimistic. 'It's hard physical work and it's dirty,' he says. 'Kids now – they can go straight to Tesco, straight to Asda - and get £8 an hour. They don't want to come here and do a five or six year apprenticeship.'
Further along the row of spinning-lathes is Bill Kerry. 'Bill's the best spinner in Sheffield,' Brian tells me. Craft skill still generates respect in these parts. Strictly speaking Bill should be retired. 'I retired years ago, but I'm still here!' he says. Behind his bench is his collection of spinning tools; long metal spoon- or bar-shaped implements with wooden handles. All these have been made by Bill over the years; exactly the right tool for each particular job. He also makes the nylon formers ('chucks I call them,' he says) which spin on the lathe and over which the pewter is shaped. Pulling open a drawer he shows me a loose-leaf folder – 'all these are Miranda's stuff' he says (meaning the designer Miranda Watkins). 'A lot of designers come, and they give me a drawing, and I work with it and turn it into reality.' Also in the drawer is an old photo someone took of him doing the same task many years ago. 'Still here!' he says.
Later I ask Richard Abdy about the importance to the company of working with designers. 'We need designers and design to continue to trade,' he says. 'The designers can create products that keep pewter and the skills involved in working it relevant. Fashions change, but the material and skills move much slower in their development.'
I think he's hit the nail on the head.