Forget the usual hearts, flowers and chocolates this Valentine’s Day – say it instead with something more lasting in the form of a hand-carved, one-of-a-kind Welsh lovespoon. Giving us the scoop on what makes these spoons and their symbolism so special is master craftsman Paul Curtis of Angel Woodcraft in Pontypridd, who has carved some of the country’s finest over the past three decades: as heirlooms, as romantic gestures and as objects representing hiraeth (longing for home).
What’s the story behind the Welsh lovespoon, Paul?
Welsh lovespoons are intricately carved and wholly unique wooden spoons that feature symbols or motifs reflecting the craftsperson’s hopes and feelings. Originally they were a means of young men wooing the object of their affection by showing their skill and devotion. Though not thoroughly archived with physical examples, it’s clear that the Welsh lovespoon owes its origins to the carved cawl spoon, used to eat Welsh broth.
Can you tell us a bit about the symbolism found in the spoons?
The most common symbol is the heart, which needs no introduction. This appears in most lovespoons, but it’s now fairly common to omit it from a design as it’s somewhat implicit.
A close second would be Celtic knot, examples of which date back to the Byzantine era, though it is more commonly associated with the Celts due to its prolific use in Celtic art. This symbol represents eternity, depicted by the continuity of its weaving. Coupling a Celtic knot with other common symbols such as a heart or a diamond would symbolise eternal love and eternal fortune respectively.
What sparked your interest in crafting lovespoons?
I’ve always loved woodworking and coming up with new designs – there are hundreds in my head that I haven’t yet made! Wood is a perfect, natural, God-given medium, with all its different colours and densities, and when it’s finished properly it can become even more beautiful.
Lovespoons are such a big part of what it means to be Welsh, and while traditions may have changed, the lovespoon is still tightly woven into the country’s culture, adopted by so many. There has been a real revival in the craft recently, with many people having access to online courses and more time on their hands.
What’s your favourite lovespoon design and why?
My personal favourite designs incorporate flowers because they are a challenge and always turn out beautifully. And they are a universally understood means of showing affection. But the oldest and most traditional designs feature links and balls in cages, which symbolise unbreakable bonds and love held safe.
Despite the growing market, we are seeing many entirely unique lovespoon designs that indicate an evolution of the craft as a whole. People are interpreting the art form in ways that are vastly different from its origins, finding new ways to express themselves in this fascinating medium. What’s new today is that many of these pieces are commissioned works – a customer might supply a rough drawing, say, and leave the craftsperson to fill in the details.
When would you give a lovespoon today?
Often chosen to mark special occasions, lovespoons can be given to celebrate weddings, graduations, the birth of a baby, and similar milestones in life. Many people collect them and hang them on the wall, much like charms on a bracelet. It’s now also very common for people to buy a lovespoon for their own collection. Their appeal is incredibly wide reaching: Tom Jones has one of mine hanging in his Beverly Hills home, and I hope this keepsake gives him fond memories of Wales. My lovespoons have also appeared in the TV series Gavin & Stacey.
Some lovespoons are mass produced and touristy. How can you tell them apart from the real hand-carved deal?
The devil is in the detail. A heart on a mass-produced spoon would be identical to that on a spoon of the same design, for instance, whereas hearts hand-cut on a scroll saw would all be slightly different. If a laser cutter has been used they have horrible burnt edges. The level of precision cannot really be hidden. An authentic lovespoon is full of the quirks and irregularities that we know and love from handmade crafts.
Giving a real lovespoon is the ultimate token of affection because a lot of consideration goes into choosing one. Each spoon has its own story, history, design and symbolism. Each reflects the whims and eccentricities of its carver, and lastly through the occasion that it is given. There are few gifts that have quite as much dimension as the humble Welsh lovespoon.
The language of lovespoons
- Heart: love
- Flower: affection (love will grow)
- Anchor: a wish to settle down
- Horseshoe: luck
- Lock: security; two souls locked together
- Angel: protection
- Ball in cage: love held safe; the number of children desired by the carver
- Dragon: strength (symbol of Wales)
- Bell: wedding or anniversary; joyfulness for love returned
- Chain: our destinies are linked; together forever
- Dove: peace
- Heart-shaped bowl a full and happy life
- Cross: God’s blessing
- Key: I shall look after you
- Celtic knot: eternal love
- Paisley shape: the soul; deep affection
- Wheel: a vow to work hard
- Diamond: good fortune (I will provide for you)
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