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In Conversation With Fireside Bellows Artisan Anne Mills | Artisans Stories

In Conversation With Fireside Bellows Artisan Anne Mills | Artisans Stories

Anne Mills is one of the few people in the UK using her unique set of skills (including leather craft and woodwork) to create fireside bellows.

Bellows have been used around the world for centuries as a way of expelling air into a fireplace. You may recognise the shape or maybe you have seen a bellow propped against a fireplace when exploring a stately home. However a bellow is not a commonly used household item today and Anne acknowledges that it is an intriguing and unusual craft to settle upon. 

“Bellows making is a rather unusual occupation with extremely few of us in the UK, so there was no real opportunity to learn my chosen craft locally in a traditional way. There was minimal information on the internet at that time so there was a lot of thinking to be done following lessons learnt from those first bellows.

Size, shape, type of leather, the nozzle, suitable quality tacks, finishing... Then, how to sell them?

Experimentation and practice, like in any craft, seems to be the secret.”

Why Bellow Making?

It was in fact out of a practical need that Anne decided to try building her first bellow after feeling weary from blowing on her own fire at home. 

“Experiencing how effective those first bellows were, watching the beauty of the wood revealed and people’s positive reactions when they touch and feel my bellows has validated my desire to explore fireside bellows making as a craft.

Fortunately, later in life, I discovered the means to express myself in making practical but attractive fireside accessories that appeal to others that allows me to take the time to enjoy an absorbing process of creation…"

Living in Australia as a child, Anne was taught many practical skills and the value of the creative process by her parents from a young age. She grew up with a “typical farmer’s mind-set of make do and mend.”

“However, my mother despaired that I showed absolutely no interest in her award-winning handicrafts of sewing, knitting, embroidery and baking her much-loved cakes while happily following my father around with a pocketful of wire and string.”

How Bellows Are Made

Materials have always been a highlight of Anne’s creative practice. Her favourite parts of the bellow-making process are the material-focused first two steps.

“Firstly, I get to visit the wonderful array of beautiful hardwoods at the Vastern Timber Mill in Royal Wootton Bassett. That is an exciting day out for me! I predominantly choose timber with character be it interesting grain, spectacular knots or a rare ripple.

Secondly, it is the final step of using my own blend of oil and wax to finish the bellows bringing the wood to life. Sometimes this involves a little surprise in tones or richness that are quite unexpected.

Once I have selected the wood, I draw out the shape of the bellows to try and capture the best characteristics within each piece of wood. The plank is then sawn into rough bellows shapes which are the ‘blanks’. Shaving and shaping with traditional tools and lots and lots of, mainly, hand sanding follows. Valves are built into the back piece and checked that they will not emit rude noises during air intake!"

“Leather is attached with metal tacks to form the lung of the bellows. My distinctive nozzle comes next, with a leather decoration to cover the ‘nose’ and finish.

For me, one bellows at a time is the way that works best. A connection with the individual pieces of wood is important to me.

I visit British sustainable wood sources and largely use ‘rescued’ leather that might have ended up in land-fill, usually from upholstery businesses. I complete the process with life-giving layers of my own wax mix.”

Rewards and Challenges Of Being An Artisan

Anne enjoys seeing the reactions to her bellows. From the surprise that someone is still making this ancient tool, to people sharing stories of this curious but useful item from their own lives.

Another highlight has been collecting a couple of SME ‘British Made’ awards, which represent more to Anne than just a great achievement for herself.

"The awards have been satisfying in the sense that a tiny heritage craft enterprise can be recognised for contributing to our country’s crafting community. Raising the profile of ancient crafts that are still being practised hopefully prompts greater interest in purchasing quality, handcrafted items that can be valued for their uniqueness.”

On the flip side, one of the most difficult challenges of being an artisan, Anne explains, is the need to be everything at once and not just in the bellow making process. You need to be a craftsperson and business person, managing marketing and sales on “minuscule budgets”.

It is worth the juggling act however, for the thrill of every sale.

“…not just because I have achieved a sale but because I know that my bellows are going to be part of life for an individual or family!”

Learning A New Craft

For those hoping to pick up a heritage craft or become an artisan themselves, Anne has plenty of wonderful advice and inspiration to share.

“Finding a craftsperson that is willing to guide you can be helpful. Sometimes it can be difficult to find just the right skills combination to suit your projects. However having someone to talk through your thoughts can often sort out things before you embark on the next item. There is nothing like an interested sounding-board. 

The first thing you try may not be where you finish up. But all the steps along the way are part of finding and developing your own niche skills.

Just do it! Until you try you will always wonder about what you may have achieved. Take joy in producing something that is your very own creation. You may not achieve perfection the first time but keep practising and learning each time. Don’t be too hard on yourself!”

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