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Craft Journeys: Caren Hartley - Bicycle Builder

The ups and downs of bespoke bike-making

We are highlighting the wealth of opportunities to build a career in craft through our Craft Journeys, a series of profiles that ask people work in the sector how they got there. Today, Caren Hartley tells us how hard work and resilience has led to rewards.

Caren Hartley Cycle. Photo Ollie Hammick

Tell us about what you do

I make bespoke and production steel and stainless-steel bike frames and complete bikes with a small team in my workshop. Each of the bespoke bikes is completely unique and tailor-made.

How did you get there?

It was a love of making and working with metal that inspired me to follow this path. After my A-levels, I did an art and design foundation diploma course at my local college and then went to the Surrey Institute of Art to study 3D Design, Metalwork and Jewellery. Then I did a year’s residency at the Bishopsland Educational Trust and went on to the Royal College of Art for an MA in Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork and Jewellery.

What have the main challenges been?

Balancing money and time is a constant challenge as earnings are never high for the hours that go into the work you do. I’ve tried to not to get disheartened or to take things personally when I’ve applied for projects, exhibitions or commissions and not got them. I didn’t get into the Royal College of Art the first time I applied and that was a real emotional setback, but I worked on the weaknesses in my first application, so when I applied again I was in a much stronger position. I’ve also often had to do things I don’t enjoy to move the business forward, such as being filmed and photographed for press articles.

Michaels, Hartley Cycle. Photo Caren Hartley

What advice would you give to someone embarking on a career in craft?

It’s likely to be challenging, varied but rewarding. You will work hard and are unlikely to earn a high salary. Most craft practitioners develop a portfolio career and have to do other work alongside their practice. You will also need to develop resilience, as competition is high. Try to take every opportunity you are given, as seemingly irrelevant ones can lead to better ones and are a good way to meet people. There will be setbacks along the way and these can feel personal, but they usually aren’t. Try to be objective if something doesn’t go to plan and think about if there is something you can change or improve for next time. Most of these downsides mean it can be a really interesting, you have a high level of autonomy over what you do and you will never stop learning.

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