View Notting Hill Genesis Properties

Isle Of Dogs: Why Craft Central’s director is reaching out to the local community

Jo McLean says she’s excited to play her part in building the makers charity back up after Covid

Jo McLean has taken over as director of Craft Central
Jo McLean has taken over as director of Craft Central

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

BY LAURA ENFIELD

For the last two years it has been heads down at Craft Central to keep things ticking over.

The creative charity on the Isle of Dogs had to bring in outside funding for the first time as the effects of the pandemic took hold.

But there is a new director at the helm – Jo McLean – who is ready to build the organisation back up and is looking around her to find its future direction.

“I took the job because I was really excited by the idea of a creative hub,” said the former professional musician, who knits and silversmiths in her spare time.

“I’m very much driven by community engagement. I think artists should sit at the heart of communities and be a really great resource for them. I see the potential for that to happen at Craft Central.”

A classically trained French Horn player, Jo spent 12 years touring internationally before packing away her instrument and starting a career in arts organisations.

“My first proper job was at Cove Park, an artist residency centre in Scotland,” said the 52-year-old.

“I was in charge of a capital project bringing in more accommodation and supporting the visual arts and crafts residences. That was when I first got interested in design and craft.”

A graduate of the Royal Northern College Of Music in Manchester, Jo lived in Scotland for 25 years working for organisations such as Uz Arts and The Touring Network and overseeing the creation of her own home, which gave her a new appreciation of architecture and buildings.

“I’ve always been really interested in good design and craft,” she said.

“So that’s kind of where my path into this area has come from.

Craft Central is based at The Forge on Westferry Road
Craft Central is based at The Forge on Westferry Road

“I’ve led organisations across all genres of arts, from performance through to visual arts, theatre, literature and lots of consultancy work as well around organisational development, which is, I suppose, where my real interest lies.

“This job brings together my two passions, which is great.

“It’s been a turbulent few years and the charity wanted somebody who was going to come and build up the organisation again and I have the skills to do that.”

It was love as well as work that brought Jo to the capital as she met her husband, a Londoner, and they tied the knot a few years ago.

“We had a long-distance relationship for quite a long time and decided we needed to come together,” said Jo, who recently dusted off her French horn to play on a new album by The Bluebells’ of Young At Heart fame.

She first moved to London just before the pandemic to work for Clod Ensemble, based on Greenwich Peninsula, but returned to Scotland after a year. When she saw the role at Craft Central she knew it was her chance to move down here for good.

“I was ready for a challenge, said Jo, who now lives in north London. “I’ve done organisation internally in CEO type roles but this role was very much building based, which I’d never done.

“The pandemic has left its financial mark on the organisation. 

“It’s always been self-sustaining, but the next couple of years are slightly trickier in terms of how we make the business model work as well as it used to.

“All the parts are there, it just sort of needed an architect to put them all together and help everybody to make it work, which is what hopefully I’ll do.”

She had never set foot in the area before, but had heard of Craft Central from friends who have studios there.

Formed in 1970, the arts organisation spent 40 years in Clerkenwell, but in 2017 moved to The Forge on the Isle Of Dogs – one of the last buildings from the golden age of shipbuilding in the area. 

Located on Westferry Road, it was built in 1860 for CJ Mare And Company and constructed the keel for battleship HMS Northumberland.

It fell into decline in the 1900s, but was restored and transformed into studios and workspaces used by Craft Central, by the construction of a virtually freestanding two-storey birch plywood structure within the existing Flemish bond brick walls.

“I was blown away – it’s a stunning, incredible building,” said Jo, who is currently hunting for a facilities manager to help take care of the site.

“What I really liked about it is there’s a connection to the west coast of Scotland, which has a really rich shipbuilding heritage and I’ve been told that a lot of Scottish people moved to the Isle Of Dogs for the shipbuilding industry down there. 

“So being in that sort of very heavy industrial building feels quite comforting to me.”

The Forge's studios are home to more than 70 makers
The Forge’s studios are home to more than 70 makers

With around 77 makers based there, the studios are almost full, but Jo is concerned about the effect the cost of living crisis will have this autumn.

“Artists are going to be really hard pushed to afford the luxury of having a studio,” she said.

“I am anticipating people will have some very difficult decisions to make and I’m thinking about how we can make sure that we have a full space and keep the business model working.

“Our rent review will be due next year and I’m sure the utilities will go up. We are going to have to face some harsh realities about increases to our costs. 

“I’m going to do my very best to make sure we don’t pass those on to our studio holders, but it will largely depend on whether we can find some support to help us.”

The pandemic already saw bosses seek outside funding for the first time, from the Foyle Foundation and Garfield Western Foundation. Jo said more would be needed this year to make the figures work.

“My ambition is that in two years we won’t be relying on any sort of trust, foundation or public funding in order to operate as a centre for craft, but we would be looking for funding to run programmes with the community,” she said.

Jo is hoping to forge relationships with companies in Canary Wharf and beyond to help spread its work further into the Island.

“Craft Central isn’t just about the building – it’s going to be really important to take the brand beyond that,” she said.

“I’m trying to find as many places to connect to as I can, locally and more widely. I’ve inherited a really fantastic team and we’re looking forward to the future.

“For a while its been head-down, let’s hold this together and the team did a fantastic job of that. Going forward, it’s our ambition to be much more embedded in the community. 

“Ways we can work with residents and local groups is going to be a definite focus.”

 Jo already plans to register Craft Central as an Arts Awards venue to help broaden its work with young people.

“I think it’s really important that we engage with children,” she said. 

“Craft isn’t taught so much in schools any more and I think a part of what we can offer is a window into another world for young people.

“We want to work more with older people, because the motor skills associated with craft are a recognized benefit in ageing as well.

“There are so many benefits associated with art of any type, but particularly in craft. It connects you to yourself.”

Craft Central's makers work in a range of different areas
Craft Central’s makers work in a wide range of different areas

Read more: How Canary Wharf’s Junior Board is shaping the estate

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Isle Of Dogs: How Freeweaver Saori Studio runs mindful and productive classes

Craft Central-based maker will also be participating in workshops for London Craft Week in May

Erna Janine of Freeweaver Saori Studio
Erna Janine of Freeweaver Saori Studio – image James Perrin

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

BY LAURA ENFIELD

Decompressing after a hard day at work used to be about sweating at the gym or partying in bars.

But, post-pandemic, people have been seeking out gentler ways of relaxing – sitting at a loom, for example.

Freeweaver Saori Studio at Craft Central is fast becoming a haven for those who want to embrace a slower pace of life, even if only for a few hours.

“Half my students are fashion students and the other half come for the mindful aspect of it,” said Erna Janine, owner of the Isle Of Dogs-based business.

“Stressed out businessmen from Canary Wharf want to do something relaxing that’s totally off the grid with no screens.

“It’s rhythmical and a mindful way of gathering your thoughts while doing something with your hands to create a simple piece of cloth.”

Erna will be hosting two workshops during London Craft Week (May 9-15) – one to introduce the technique of Saori weaving and the other showing how to integrate the cloth it produces into  existing items of clothing. 

Erna at her loom in Craft Central
Erna at her loom in Craft Central – image James Perrin

She is also reinventing the pinstripe for the event and the finished result will be on display at Craft Central in Westferry Road.

The 45-year-old, who grew up in Holland, discovered the Japanese technique of Saori seven years ago.

Instead of following a rigid repeating pattern like traditional weaving, the freestyle method encourages weavers to use their creativity to create  totally unique pieces of cloth every time they weave. For Erna, it was a revelation.

“Weaving is in my family, “ she said. “I always felt an affinity with it through my maternal grandmother, who made all her own clothes and wore traditional costume. Weaving was also part of the curriculum at my schools. 

“When I was 18 I got an apprenticeship in Iceland to be part of a weaving workshop in the remote highlands for a few years, then I did a textile degree in Iceland. 

“It has just always been part of my life. But that was very formal with mega big looms that took days to even set up.

“When I found this Japanese way of weaving, I found myself as a contemporary weaver.”

Woven cloth can be used to men clothes
Woven cloth can be used to men clothes – image James Perrin

Erna travelled to Japan to study Saori – invented by Misao Jo 50 years ago as a reaction to the country’s technological boom.

“There was this throwback where people started questioning their relationship with technology,” said Erna.

“She was one of the people who made a stance against it by weaving her own clothes in a way that you could see they were handmade. 

“She was 99 when I met her and died aged 104, as something of a cult figure in Japan.

“She said the human being was full of creativity and playfulness and that should be visible in the things we surround ourselves with. They should be based on the innovation around us, but also the joy of making things. 

“I thought she captured that so well in the design of her equipment, which allows everyone to express themselves uniquely.

“With a traditional weave, you follow instructions, but this is the opposite. It’s about fun, making something new and trying things out. It is a vehicle for creativity. 

“I immediately loved it and found it very liberating because I had spent so many hours at school weaving samples and, if a small mistake showed, the cloth would be cut off and thrown away.” 

Erna said Saori was much more welcoming for beginners and she knew straight away she wanted to teach it.

“I could be a regular weaver in London and make scarves, but you can only make so many,” she said. “It’s so much more interesting to teach people how to make these simple things themselves.”

In 2017, Erna landed at Craft Central, a charity set up 50 years ago to support makers, after getting permission to teach Saori in London.

“I liked the area and its proximity to Canary Wharf and Greenwich and the maritime history,” she said. “It’s enveloped in the history of this area and it’s nice to be by the river. 

“Every time I’m a bit tired I can walk there and have a stretch – there’s so much space and it has so many textures – I always come back inspired.”

Saori is about free expression
Saori is about free expression – image James Perrin

She has about 40 regular students who she has taught to weave who now visit the studio for sessions on a loom.

“They come in by the hour – a bit like a gym – and make what they want to make,” said Erna.

“They just want some time with other people doing something creative in a beautiful setting. 

“It’s not too heavy on the technical and is really more about enjoying the colours and textures and just coming to terms with these simple techniques that surround us from birth. 

“Everything we wear is textiles and most of it is woven, so it’s a good way to connect with our distant ancestors as well, who had to create them by hand.”

Classes are held most weekdays and one weekend a month. She also organises the biannual Japanese Textile And Craft Festival with other makers and the Festival Of Natural Fibres (May 28-29)  in conjunction with the Gandhi Foundation. This year, silk spinners will be over from India to talk about their techniques.

“People are looking at objects and the things around them in a different way,” said Erna. “We see it with food – people being more picky – and I think fashion will be the next thing where people start to choose with more care.

“People should see fast fashion as pollution. I have travelled to India extensively as I work with organic cotton farms and silk spinners.

“It’s horrible to see the river bright pink because it’s in this season. I don’t think severe change is necessary, though – just slow progress because people need employment.”

Erna does her bit by avoiding acrylic yarns and using recycled materials saved from landfill.

She splits her time between Deptford and Stroud, where she has a home studio in an old textile mill.

She also weaves outside and forages in the forest. 

“I created my first clothing collection there in lockdown,” she said.

“People often ask if I go home and weave after teaching a whole day. I answer: ‘Yes of course, it’s so relaxing’.”

Craft Central has a number of workshops taking place for London Craft Week 2022

LONDON CRAFT WEEK WORKSHOPS AT CRAFT CENTRAL IN 2022

  • May 10 – Rework Your Garment Using Creative Sewing And Saori Weaving
  • May 11 – Saori Weaving With Natural Fibres + Bengala Dye 
  • May 11 –  Sewing A Japanese Komebukuro Rice Bag
  • May 13 – Ikebana Japanese Flower Arrangement
  • May 14 – Make Your Own Botanical Illustration Inspired 3D Paper Rose 
  • May 14 – Paint Your Own Ceramic
  • May 14 – Pyrography Fire Drawing Workshop
  • May 14 – Makers Market 10.30am-5.30pm. A wide range of items will be on sale at Craft Central including interior products, jewellery, prints, textiles, fashion, ceramics, and woodwork
  • May 15 – Jesmonite Casting

Find our more about these workshops here

Read more: How one couple are bringing Brazilian street food to Wapping

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

Subscribe To Wharf Life