BBC’s The Repair Shop, or: Craftsmanship & Self-Doubt

We don’t watch a great deal of television here at Earthworks. We have a TV near the workbench and once in a while we’ll have a film on in the background. We often listen to audiobooks while we’re working but, more often than not, you’ll find me and Samantha listening to music while we’re making your leather journals.

But, a few days ago, one of us switched on the TV for some reason. It was around 4:45 in the afternoon and the TV was set to BBC1. We were greeted by a craftsperson at a workbench renovating a leather footstool. We were entranced. We had discovered ‘The Repair Shop’! Apparently, it’s on its fourth series (we’re always late to the party!)

the repair shop - bbc

If you haven’t watched The Repair Shop before (and I highly recommend that you do) it’s a celebration of craftsmanship hosted by talented furniture restorer Jay Blades and the concept is this… a group of skilled craftspeople from varying professions have set up shop in a beautiful barn at The Weald & Download Open Air Museum; people visit and bring their treasured possessions, items which have been passed down through the generations, items with huge sentimental value, items which have aged and become worn, damaged and broken. These items are left with the experts who go on to repair, renovate and restore them to their former glory before returning them to their owners.

It’s a beautiful programme, a bit like Bagpuss for grown-ups (not that Bagpuss isn’t for grown-ups too, of course!)

bagpuss mending song - earthworks journals

The Repair Shop has a simple concept perhaps, but the key to it is the emotional relevance people imbue these items with. They have been handed down through the family and the original owners have usually passed away; these items now belong to the children or grandchildren of the original owner and, in some small way, the items contain a little bit of the spirit of the deceased loved one. It’s lovely to see the emotional outpourings when the items are returned, how a simple keepsake can bring that person back, if only for a moment.

While watching the programme in awe Samantha turned to me and said, “These people are so skilled!” I replied, “I know, it’s lovely to see such incredible craftspeople”; we then went on to discuss how amazing it must be to be so skilled at your chosen craft. A few seconds went by and we looked down at our workbench, I was hand tooling an elaborate Celtic design into the cover of an as yet undyed leather journal and Samantha was delicately hand applying a leather dye to another which had just been tooled. We looked at each other and laughed, a strangely nervous laugh.

A4 CELTIC TRISKELE SPIRAL BINDER - EARTHWORKS JOURNALS A4B018

I want to talk about Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is apparently an incredibly common phenomenon in which an individual feels inadequate at their chosen profession and lives in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. I think the highly acclaimed author Neil Gaiman writes about it best with this famous quote:

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that at any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened The Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read.

And also in this remarkable anecdote from Neil Gaiman’s blog:

Neil Gaiman on Imposter Syndrome

Both Samantha and I feel like this every day. If we think about it logically we know that we have sent thousands of hand made leather journals and binders all over the world in our 19 years of making them and out of those we have only had four customers who were unhappy with the quality of their item when it arrived (yes… 4. We remember each one of them like a knife to the heart!). But that still doesn’t stop us fretting about it; it still doesn’t stop us worrying about that metaphorical knock at the door. Each time we send the packaged up journals out in the post we worry about angry emails from people saying “How dare you call yourselves craftspeople!”

But then, perhaps it shouldn’t be called Imposter Syndrome, I suspect the majority of people feel that overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Perhaps even those wonderful and highly skilled craftspeople at The Repair Shop also feel it too. Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps it drives us on closer and closer to perfection? From our own perspective, that fear of being ‘found out’ makes us try harder, not only in the actual crafting of the item but everything else connected with it, from the accounting to the customer service.

It’s a strange thing that even the knowledge that the vast majority of our customers are happy doesn’t allay the fear of not being good enough. We get nothing but glowing reviews on our Etsy shop, we’ve even had Thank You cards sent through the post, and we receive lots of emails every week from people saying how happy they are with our work… and we cannot tell you how much these messages mean to us, they are our lifeline. And, just like in The Repair Shop, we have even had customers moved to tears when they’ve opened their parcel. I think this has something to do with the personal nature of what we make, leather journals are naturally an intimate item; we begin the process by making the journal and the recipient completes the item by filling it with their thoughts. Just like the items people take to The Repair Shop, the journal is truly imbued with the person who owned it, their hands will have created a unique patina on the leather outside and their intimate thoughts will have filled the pages inside. It’s no wonder people become so emotionally attached to them.

A customer with her Earthworks Wraparound Journal

A customer’s own photo of her with her Earthworks Wraparound Journal

We’ve been moved to tears ourselves on occasion too. We’ve had more than one customer who have been told they have a terminal illness and need a journal to write down their story to pass on to their children. Another customer asked us to tool their family crest onto a binder so they could fill the binder with memories and present it to their grandfather who was spending his last days in a hospice; they even sent us a photo afterwards, which we treasure, of them presenting the binder to him. And then there are the books for public buildings, memorial books for churches and cathedrals, items that will become a part of the building’s history. It’s requests like these that make our hearts beat a little faster and make us think… are we really good enough to be making things for such important purposes? But, despite that self-doubt nagging in the background, we do our very best.

Our unofficial company motto should be: “We worry so our customers don’t have to!”

Who knows, if The Repair Shop is still being shown in decades to come (and I hope it is, it deserves to be a national treasure on a par with Antiques Roadshow), perhaps someone will bring in their grandparent’s Earthworks journal for restoration! And you can think of me, I’ll be the one cringing in my grave and fretting that those skilled craftspeople will secretly be mocking the workmanship!!

the repair shop 2 - bbc