Subscribe to our regular 'What's on in Victoria' newsletter

Preserving Rare and Lost Crafts from Cultural Extinction

Words by Richard Cornish 
Images Supplied

Across the road from Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill, is another extremely important cultural organisation. The Rare Trades Centre was established in 2022 to protect, preserve, and promote the traditional arts, crafts, trades, and skills that once made everything we touch. Today the world faces a real and growing threat to the ongoing viability and existence of the knowledge held by the skilled artisan tradespeople who once made everyday items such as our clothes, cups and saucers, door handles, knives, shoes, and furnishings.

“They were all once handmade by highly skilled artisans,” says Erin Santamaria, General Manager of The Rare Trades Centre. It’s a vibrant series of well-designed learning spaces and studios spread across a modern complex. “This centre ensures that those artisan skills embedded in the heads, hearts, and hands of living artisans are passed on to future generations,” adds Erin.

The Rare Trades Centre opened to much acclaim in 2022 under the Sovereign Hill umbrella but does not follow the historical park’s gold rush timeline. Instead, it celebrates the skills practised by people that, in the case of some artisans, extend back tens of thousands of years.

Tammy Gilson is a proud Wadawurrung woman practising traditional weaving and hand making textiles. “My people have been making string bags from natural fibres such as the layer of stringy bark trees for millennia,” she says. “The act of making the artefact is a method of storytelling. By making them here (The Rare Trades Centre) we are re-awakening the sleeping knowledge that was discarded during colonisation,” says Tammy, who learned the ancient skill from her aunties. “The old people would use them to carry shellfish, tie fishhooks to them, carry animal skins. By making them here today, people learn about my family’s journey and country,” she says.

natural dyer Jude Craig


Practising the ancient art of hand dyeing textiles is Jude Craig’s life. She sources dyes from plants and has learned the techniques to process them to make beautiful, colourfast compounds that transform the colour and hue of fabrics. “A very large part of me is dedicated to preserving and passing on the tradition,” she says. “There is indescribable beauty in the process of making beautifully coloured cloth and garments that will last a lifetime.”

This season at The Rare Trades Centre, she is leading a one-day course introducing the world of natural dyes. She explains that ‘master dyes’, such as red and yellow, have been naturally extracted from plants like madder, which produces red. Yellow often comes from a big yellow flower called weld, while pink-red is made from a bug called cochineal that thrives on cactus plants. Master dyes are colourfast and don’t fade quickly in sunlight.

The workshops, however, will concentrate on techniques needed to produce textiles dyed with natural indigo. She explains that this is a naturally occurring colour that is extracted from over 150 different plant species all around the world. “You find different cultures all around the world producing and dyeing with indigo,” says Jude.

During the course, she explains how the plants are harvested and the indigo extracted before moving on to demonstrate how to hand dye a piece of cloth to make a beautiful scarf and how to dip it in and out of the dye bath to create the depth of colour. “At the end of the class, people will have made for themselves a beautiful, practical, and unique product that will last a lifetime,” says Jude. “For many, they will come to an understanding that dyeing is a meditative process and that you can’t make beautiful products with an angry mind.”

Alexander Stone is a master leatherworker who turned a hobby into a career. His business, Artisan Leather Crafts, sells handmade leather costumes and apparel around the globe. “People appreciate the hand-cut and hand-stitched hats, sword sheaths, and cosplay wardrobe I make,” says Alexander. His leatherwork classes provide a comprehensive overview of the different types of leather, how to hand-cut leather and stitch it together to make an accessory like a buckled leather pouch.

“The difference between machine stitching and hand stitching is the difference between something that was made to be thrown away because it is difficult to repair and something that looks beautiful and authentic, lasts a lifetime, and if it does fail, you have the skills to be able to repair it with your own hands.”

leather making sovereign hill rare trades


Some artisans work with silver to make jewellery, iron to forge implements, or canvas to sew together a traditional sailor’s bag. Daylesford ceramicist Minna Graham, however, uses clay to make cups and plates we eat from every day. “I like to teach skills that are easily transferable, that people can use at home,” says Minna. She starts by showing people how to wedge clay to compress the particles and remove bubbles to make the final piece more durable.

A hand rolling technique follows, and then the plate, for example, is shaped or ‘slumped’ over a mould. The wet plate is decorated with glazes that are applied and etched away to make patterns, and then Minna carefully packs them away and takes them to her studio where she dries them and fires them in her kiln to harden the clay and set the glazes. She then carefully packs each participant’s cup, bowl, and plate into a box and posts them back to their home. “It is so lovely to use something that is highly functional but something you crafted yourself,” says Minna. “Slow cooking, slow eating, slow crafts – they all go hand in hand.”

ceramics rare trades and lost arts ballarat


Erin Santamaria agrees. “Making something that you use or wear yourself stirs something within,” she says. “The Rare Trades Centre teaches all this, but not just in our large range of workshops. We are a community. A space for like-minded people to share ideas and skills.” She refers to the monthly Pecha Kucha talks held at the centre on Fridays after work. “We are so lucky to be surrounded by such a concentration of people who work and practise their artisan skills and who are so enthusiastic and passionate about passing them on,” she says. “And to have this magnificent centre here in Ballarat to bring it all together!”


WHAT: Sovereign Hill Centre for Rare Arts and Forgotten Trades
WHEN: Various dates


We wish to acknowledge the Wadawurrung people as traditional owners of this land and to pay our respects to their Elders, past and present.
Every week we send you
our picks of the best
stuff happening outside
We will never share your information with a third-party.