Sheffield: The beauty of small in a region getting bigger

andyforge2-700x489Sheffield is a city of makers, of ‘little mesters’ in workshops and studio complexes dotted around the city’s villages. But can Little Sheffield fit with the ‘big’ economic picture the city region is developing?

In Portland Works, old and new industry – and capitalism and post-capitalism – rub up alongside each other. The former works building where Sheffield’s stainless steel was first made is now a designated employment zone owned by the local community.

From Andy Cole, who has been forging tools here since he was 12 using 19th century equipment, to the Hackers and Makers Collective playing with 3D printers, its tenants span the spectrum of economic history, and, according to some, hold the keys to the city’s economic future.

Portland Works is a classic example of Sheffield’s Little Mesters tradition, which propelled the city into the frontline of the industrial revolution. Hundreds of self-employed craftsmen and women rented small workshops around the city centre, and earned their wages by specializing in a particular stage of the production process, be it grinding, forging or finishing, fulfilling cutlery or tool contracts for larger manufacturers. Even after the big steel factories began arriving, the tradition of Little Mesters continued, and it lives on in the city today, with a new generation of small businesses and studio workers.

soarworks
Soar Works Enterprise Centre in Parson Cross

In the Soar Works Enterprise Centre in Parson Cross, in the north of the city, glaziers, artists and national charities share an office building designed to help traders interact and collaborate. At Sum Studios a creative community has grown in a former school building in Heeley. The Roco Creative Coop has recently opened its doors to fulfil demand for studio spaces.

‘Sheffield is a maker city.

It’s not a selling city like Manchester’.

The work of these small manufacturers and cultural businesses is often as precarious as it was for the Little Mesters. Many of the studios and small businesses scattered around the city are run by one person and are unlikely to grow. In Portland Works the forging and cutlery making traditions that survive will likely die with their owners. In Sum Studios, some design businesses cater primarily for London-based clients.

But, as Vanessa Toumlin, director of city and cultural engagement at Sheffield University says, culture and the ‘maker’ mentality are an important part of the city’s economy and sense of itself. Sheffield University is planning a Year of Making in 2016, to celebrate the energy and creativity of the city’s workshop culture.

‘Sheffield is a maker city’, she says. ‘It’s not a selling city like Manchester. The city has to find that out to make it focus.’

Indeed Sheffield is the only place in the UK to have its own trademark, Made in Sheffield.

Elsewhere in the city, Gareth Roberts from Regather is showing the importance of small economics through the concept of ‘Little Sheffield’, building community economic development, and celebrating small, organic neighbourhood level growth.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine
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