We grew up with Jerpoint glass on our table and have been curious to visit the Leadbetter family, who have been producing it, for a long time. In the last month we had to cancel twice and this time we were lost and about an hour late, not cool. However once we found our way through the villages and lanes of Kilkenny, past Jerpoint Abbey and took the correct left-hand turn, things got decidedly better.
Kathleen, mother, was there to greet us, tea and scones were brought in on a tray and introductions began. It was an introduction to the whole family, Jerpoint really is a family business in the truest sense. Kathleen is married to Keith, Keith is the craftsman, they met locally on the roadside, she was looking for a lift and he had a car.
Rory, the eldest son, does most of the blowing these days and Sally, their daughter, is about to help them plan out the next moves. The hot glass studio was built by Keith in 1979.
Prior to this Keith had been working with his friend and fellow glassblower Simon Pearce and had just set up the hot glass department in the National College of Art and Design. Bravery and some well-timed support set him out on his own and brought about the founding of Jerpoint Glass. After a few hours exploring the hotshop and store we all sat down for coffee and a chat.
Keith, when did you start working with glass?
I grew up in Stoke-on-Trent and started aged 16 working in the production of laboratory glass. One evening my sister brought back two brothers (Stephen and Simon Pearce, two brothers who both went on to establish a very successful Irish craft business) for tea. One of the brothers, Simon was heading for Sweden to study hot glass work in Orrefors. We got on well; he suggested I join him, so I did.
How was it in Sweden and at Orrefos, they are a very impressive company? It is an impressive country really.
In the 1960s, Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular, were world leaders in design - furniture and household goods seemed to take on a fresh new look. So it was a great time to be in the Glass School in Orrefors and to work during holidays in Boda Glass and others because as well as making cut crystal, they all did a wide range of other designs. It's hard to give a definitive answer as to what I learned in Sweden but I know it was more than just glass making - for example the first lecture I attended was all about re-designing, a garbage lorry. Good design and quality.
Why Ireland after Sweden?
I had always wanted to come here, for years, the music. There was a plan to move over with a great friend John Finney but Sweden altered that plan.
"All I can really remember about starting the glass studio is working 40 hours a week glass making and every other waking minute doing all the other jobs that turned up."
What was it like starting a craft business in 70's Ireland?
All I can really remember about starting the glass studio is working 40 hours a week glass making and every other waking minute doing all the other jobs that turned up. As I'm not a businessman I didn't have any preplanned expectations, so I just mullocked away and hoped that someone would buy our products - thankfully they did.
Kilkenny Design Workshop was in its infancy. Set up by the government to improve craft design throughout the country making this an exciting period for crafts people and they were very supportive of Jerpoint.
Once you got everything built here and the blowing began, did things progress fairly rapidly?
By degrees. Our first customer was a friend of our neighbours who lives in Thomastown. She came up through the mud, along our lane overgrown with trees and thick hedges. This lovely old lady came up through all of that mess and bought a jug. I felt guilty that I actually charged her for it.... that was our first sale.
A few weeks later a guy came up from a shop in west Cork and he confidentially bought all the wine glasses we had. After he left Kathleen came in and she was actually trembling, he had spent three hundred pounds. Three hundred pounds, that was an enormous amount of money all those years ago. It was very exciting.
Back then we had no phone and I would have to go down to the local phone box with all my papers and files, balance them against the glass and order materials.
Rory you do a lot of the blowing these days, do you have a favourite piece to make?
I don’t normally make the rummer wineglass but I was producing them this morning and enjoyed it. My favorite piece to make is the medium round jug.
What type of glass do you guys work with?
We used to mix our own here, but it is such a messy labour intensive job that we started to review the idea. Not so long ago we sent our recipe to Orrefos to see if we could buy our mix directly from them. As it turned out our mix was very similar to a glass they had available so we work with that now. The type of glass we use would be described as half lead crystal 12% lead oxide. Full lead crystal being 24% to 32%, which is better suited to cutting, as we don't cut glass we wanted a glass with other qualities.
Keith you were saying earlier that it is a very physical process. Watching you all today it looked like some sort of productive dance. There is constant movement and changes in pace, it is a joy to observe.
It is, yes, very physical.
What's next for Jerpoint Kathleen?
We are just happy to survive.
Do you export much?
No, not so much. We never really got into exporting. One person told me once, an American guy. He said: “You know the reason why you will never make a success of this. Because people will want to use your glass everyday.”
I said: “Good because that is what it is made for.”
His point was that people only buy highend glass - because we aren’t cheap, you can't make handmade glass cheap - to place it in cupboards. Glass behind glass.
However people do use our glass everyday.
But it has never bothered me that I have never had a desire to make expensive one off pieces. I really like the wine glasses and anything that compliments them.
Creating a table top family.
Yes, that is really all I have ever wanted to do.
Is there a functional object you have not made yet but would like to try?
I'm sure there will be other glasses that I'll want to try but at the moment I don't know what they are.
“You know the reason why you will never make a success of this. Because people will want to use your glass everyday.”
We headed home and not long into the journey we stopped down the road in a petrol station by a poppy field. We were running late again but the poppies were a welcome distraction. As we drove on we got thinking and talking.
Jerpoint might not be the operation it once was. Things are very different now and they are no longer a team of fifteen. They may believe they are now too small, but the passion and love for their craft is as strong as ever. Keith gets it. There is definitely more to come from Jerpoint.