Pictured below are some of our old flower maker's hand tools. Some or all of those pictured will be on show at The Romance of Flowers exhibition, at Kingsgate Project Space from 17th November to 16th December 2018. The exhibition will feature the work of contemporary artists Victoria Adam, Aaron Angell, Holly Graham, May Hands, and Sean Roy Parker. And a selection of our flower making tools will be displayed alongside the artists' work.
The tools used in the workshop of W.F. Johnson, which shut down at the end of the1990s, were already part of the firm when my father took over the business in the late 1940s. It's hard to put a date on them. I would guess they are of late nineteenth century vintage, perhaps even older.
Read on for further information about the tools selected for the exhibition.
In the caption to the photo above I refer to the top two veining moulds as "rose leaf veiners". In fact, we would also have used them for any generic oval-shaped leaves, such as apple etc. These two veiners look about the same size, so two of us could have worked at the veining at the same time (leaves had to be veined by hand, one at a time). But usually it was a one-person job because we only had one veiner for every cutter (the tool that cut out the basic shape of leaf or petal).
The rose petal veining mould is quite a different shape to the leaf veiners. It was designed to shape the fabric petal rather than impress a strong vein onto it. We would always use a hot iron for this sort of work, because it helped the fabric (usually lawn or rayon) to retain the cupped shape of a the petal.
In the photograph below there is a cutter. It would have been used to cut out the basic petal or leaf shape, after we had first dyed the fabric the required colour, and fire-proofed it if it was for use in the theatre. The cutters were made of solid iron because the shaft had to withstand repeated hammering, either with the old ox-hide mallets they used back before the second world war, or from the machine hammer my father bought to speed up the process (and to make cutting out a less back-breakingly physical job).
The large brass flower veiner in the middle is a beautiful object, but as far as I know it was never used by us for any actual veining work. In fact, it doen't really look as if it's been used by anyone. There's no felt glued to the upper part of the mould - essential to avoid splitting the fabric petal during the veining process. This was just one of many tools in the W.F. Johnson workshop, a part of the firm's equipment that we never found a use for. Just as well really. Being so large and heavy that vener would have been very uncomfortable to use for any length of time.
By contrast, the ivy leaf veiner saw a great deal of use. The bulk of the firm's orders, at one time, were for trails of ivy or vine leaf. We made up sprays a yard long a-piece, each of which had around 25 leaves of various sizes. We would make these trails, sometimes by the hundred, for the props department of the Royal Opera House and other prop makers supplying major theatres around the country.
More about the experience of veining artificial flowers in this blog post, All in Vein
More about our recent one-woman play, set in a flower maker's workshop in 1914, The Flower Maker's Tale.
More about the old flower making firm W.F. Johnson in this film The Last of the Flower Makers.
More about the Kingsgate Project Space exhibition The Romance of Flowers