My Story: Black Girls Pewter
At Black Girl in the CLE we love seeing local Black women living their best lives and sharing the stories of Black Women breaking barriers and going against the grain doing things we’ve been told “black girls don’t do.”
Today we spotlight Willa Hollingsworth of Three Feather Pewter, a Pewterer and quite possibly the only African-American business owner in Holmes County. We asked, and thankfully Willa was willing to answer. Keep reading to see what Willa had to say.
by Willa Hollingsworth
What do you do?
I have been a Pewterer for over 20 years. My gallery/workshop is located in downtown Millersburg, Ohio which is the county seat of Holmes County. Holmes County is where the largest settlement of Amish in the world resides.
To my knowledge, I am the only person of African descent that is a business owner in the entire county. (FYI, I was born and raised in Cincinnati, so no, I am not Amish)
What is a Pewterer? A Pewterer is an artisan who can do anything that can be done with metal but does so exclusively with pewter, a tin-based alloy. I use a lead-free formula of tin, antimony, and copper.
So what kind of items do you make?
Tableware: I make my tableware in the Early American Colonial style which is very plain with clean lines. It can be dressed up for a formal table with crystal and silver or dressed down for a more basic table of mason jars and pottery. It also goes with most any decor from high country to modern. My selection includes candle holders, goblets, cups, bowls, etc.
Jewelry: I make a wide selection of earrings, earcuffs, pendants and bracelets. A small percentage of my pewter is displayed on my website. Many items can only be found at my gallery.
Buttons: Most of my buttons are made from historic originals. The periods portrayed by historic reenactors that get their buttons from me range from medieval to early Victorian for both military and civilians. Quilters, knitters, sewers and crafters love the vast variety of buttons I offer.
Ornaments: Since there are trees decorated throughout the year, I have made sure I have ornaments for every season. I continue the plain, clean look by cutting my ornaments in silhouette which gives the option of engraving.
What are some common misconceptions about your craft?
While the metals industry has been and is currently primarily a male-dominated field, it has been documented that women have been Pewterers since the late 1600’s in England. Very few women were allowed apprenticeships, most were widows of Pewterers who inherited their husband’s pewter business and chose to keep it going.
Furthermore, from my personal research and questioning scholars of African History, I am not aware of the existence of any Pewterer of African decent other than myself.
How did you get started?
My husband had been a Pewterer for many years by the time we met. He is considered to be a Master Pewterer by others who are Masters of their respective crafts. He realized I had a natural affinity for handwork and offered me an apprenticeship. As with any traditional handcraft, a Pewterer’s Apprenticeship lasts for 7 - 10 years. By my 7th year, my husband / Pewter Master deemed me Journeyman Pewterer.
Tell us about your first attempt. How did it go? Why did you try again or stick with it?
When I started spinning pewter, it was something I had never done before. Getting used to the vibration of the lathe with the tool against the metal while holding a controlled posture was all quite unusual for me.
While learning from my Pewter Master, I realized there are a lot of unspoken lessons in his techniques of creating pieces that even he did not know he was doing. This is one of the many reasons why an apprenticeship takes so long. These unspoken lessons will not be found in any book, they must be learned by one on one training.
From my background in dance, in watching him spin different pieces I noticed that each piece has it own rhythmic steps. Once I put that together spinning became much easier for me. Of course, with repetition comes mastery and I still have quite a way to go to attain Pewter Master.
So After 20 years, why do you still choose to continue working in pewter?
Having been a Pewterer for over 20 years, this functional artform is still my passion. I feel more at home in my workshop surrounded by my tools than anywhere else. As a Pewterer, I feel the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of my craft through artisanship and education. One of my goals is to continue the pewtercraft for the next generation of Pewterers and those who appreciate the art form.
Why do you think many people are not into your craft?
Many people who visit my gallery are not aware of pewter. Once we get the conversation going about the alloy of pewter and how it applies to history, I have witnessed an almost immediate appreciation coming from those of every ethnic and cultural background. It's like a tree flourishing before my eyes and it’s always a wonderful moment.
Why is it important for people to know about what you do or what are things they need to know about what you do?
Pewter is a part of our American History and we need not lose it. As a Pewterer, every day I am working to keep this part of our history alive. Currently, history seems to be out of fashion and much knowledge is being lost. My purpose is to bring awareness to pewter and it workings to prevent yet another traditional craft from fading away.
What is the history?
When women were still considered to be property, once they married, everything they owned became their husband's property except the linen and the pewter. Pewter was passed down from mother to daughter. If a daughter inherited a substantial amount of pewter tableware, socially she was allowed to marry above her station.
Another example is a piece called the Master Salt. Salt was not shaken in the U.S. until about the Civil War Era. Prior to that, salt at table was kept in the Master Salt which was a lidded and sometimes footed bowl that sat in front of the place setting of the Master of the House. It was the Master Salt from which the salt cellars at each place setting would receive their salt. Also, one’s political standing within the house was determined by where at table they were allowed to sit in accordance to the Master Salt.
How can people learn more about your craft or how do they get started
Conversing with artisans and lots of reading is usually how those who are interested in traditional handcrafts get started. When it comes to the metalcrafts, people generally tend to start by making jewelry at home. They purchase the small equipment and materials they need online then go from there.
What do you want people to know before they visit Three Feathers Pewter?
When people come to my gallery it’s not just about selling my work, a lot of it is educating the public about the historical significance of pewter, the once social importance of owning pewter and how it is still used today.
Editors note: Thanks to Willa for reaching out and sharing her story. You can check her out online, like her page on Facebook and stop by and shop small next time you’re near Holmes County. You can also leave a comment for her below.