Community reporter Laura Hillier and videographer Olivia Plato went along to a session at the Bristol Women’s Workshop to find out more about what they do. We interviewed founder Anne and tutor Siu-ming about how the workshop operates, and the benefits for women of getting involved in woodwork.
What’s Bristol Women’s Workshop all about?
The Bristol Women’s Workshop is based in the Totterdown centre, and provides a space for women to learn woodwork skills. As it operates on the basis of a rolling entry, participants in the workshops are all at different stages of developing their woodwork skills. The workshop’s founder, Anne, explains everyone starts at the same point, and the tutors are here to coach women through the process step-by step. By the end of the first session, all participants will see visible improvements in their sawing technique!
The basic woodwork course that participants follow involves three modules, and these teach women the basic joints they’ll need to make nearly anything! The sessions involve teaching women woodwork using a range of hand tools and a portable workmate – this is because these are a ‘more realistic set of tools for women to have and keep in their homes’, as tutor Siu-ming explains.
How did you both get into woodwork?
Anne previously worked as an English teacher, before working as a personal assistant for a repairs and maintenance manager. It was then she realised she ‘had more of an engineering kind of mind’, and decided to retrain to be a teacher of Craft and Design. Anne then joined a woodwork evening class – in which she was the only woman, largely ignored by the teacher – and so she went to the library, got a book and learnt the skills for herself.
Siu-ming was interesting in doing woodwork at school, and spoke of ‘looking longingly’ at the workshops, but unfortunately girls were not allowed. She first got to try some woodwork in India, before coming along to the Bristol Women’s Workshop nearly 30 years ago. She found it was a place where she could do woodwork without being patronised at the same time, and really got into it from there.
How did the Bristol Women’s Workshop get started?
Anne is the founder of the workshop, and had the idea for an all-women’s workshop as she’d been to a girl’s school. The university women’s group at Bristol then provided her with £100, which she used to purchase her first set of tools on Gloucester Road to get the workshop started! Anne was later informed about the space available in the Totterdown Centre, so she moved her workshop to there. In February 1981, the first Bristol Women’s Workshop courses were launched!
What’s your favourite thing about woodwork? What are the benefits for women?
For Siu-ming, it’s firstly ‘about shaping my own environment; there’s a sense of agency in that’. The empowerment that comes from gaining these skills, being able to fix her own things, and building her confidence in trying other practical skills was also really important. Learning woodwork helped her to feel that ‘I don’t feel that I can’t do it, I don’t know how to do it yet. This goes against the general discourse that says I can’t do it’.
Anne explains that woodwork is so enjoyable for her because of the degree of mental engagement involved – you have to focus on what your hands are doing, and it gives you the ability to realise a concept in 3D. Having something that they’ve made themselves in their own homes is extremely beneficial for women – and Anne feels that ideally, the educational structure should be teaching people how to use tools.
Have you got some words of advice for someone who’s just started doing woodwork?
Siu-ming: ‘You can do it – just keep at it!’
Anne: ‘Don’t rush – you need patience and perseverance. Mistakes are your friend, and mistakes are your teacher’.
Would you like to find out more?
The tutors at the workshop are extremely positive and friendly, and as Siu-ming points out, it’s fun to do an evening course full of women!
You can find out more information about the Bristol Women’s Workshop – including how to register your interest for a space – on their website at www.bristolwomensworkshop.org.uk/ You can also find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BristolWomensWorkshop/ The workshop is based at the Totterdown Centre.
Our International Women’s Day event taking place on Saturday 2nd March also includes a talk about Women in Trade at 2pm, featuring Anne from the Bristol Women’s Workshop as a panel member. Hope to see you there!