Welsh love spoons history
Love spoons date back to the seventeenth century and the oldest example of a Welsh love spoon is dated 1667 (St Fagin’s museum collection). Amid this period a tradition arose throughout Europe, whereby, the rural poor took to carving various utensils from washing bats, knitting spindles to pieces of furniture as tokens of love. It was in Sweden and Wales that the tradition of using a spoon for carving reached its heights.
The seventeenth century marked the Baroque age. Baroque was a luxurious, intricate and extravagant style that could be found in architecture, art and music. The Baroque period became even more elaborate as it moved into the Rococo period known for its use of curves and asymmetry. With consistently expanding interest for more mind boggling enrichments the art of woodcarving developed considerably during this period with Grinling Gibbons’ works highlighting such ability.
The rise in love spoon carving
This rise in the arts and culture across Europe throughout the 17th century would have impacted the lives of even the poorer rural classes. Certainly at this time European folk art was flourishing as the art of the elite spread to the masses.
With this historical backdrop young men in largely rural communities took to carving love spoons as a display of their feelings for their coveted lady. These spoons often showed great intricacy and painstaking craftsmanship especially considering the carvers were limited to very basic tools.
The ritual of giving love spoons isn’t well archived and there is much doubt over whether spoons were ritually given as marriage offers, rather like an engagement ring today. More likely is they were carved and given to somebody out of romantic intentions to strike up a relationship. In fact in Hungary it became custom for the carver, should his interest be rejected and the spoon returned, to smack the bottom of the girl in retaliation. Somewhat of a cheek on his part I think!
Through the course of history the motive behind gifting the love spoon has changed. Today, rather than a display of romantic interest the spoons are given at special occasions such as weddings, anniversaries and christenings.
So, why a spoon?
It has been suggested that a spoon as a utensil that one would use to help themselves could have been extended as symbolising to help one’s lover; the spoon representing sustenance and to feed one’s soul. In Wales the use of the spoon has been said to have stemmed from use of the cawl spoon (Welsh broth spoon), though it hasn’t been explained why the love spoon doesn’t bare any resemblance to the shape of the cawl spoon!
How to carve your own Welsh love spoon?
Firstly, the carver will need to select a single piece of wood for the spoon. There are several important considerations to take into account at this stage; it is much better to choose wood that isn’t green and is completely air dried as moisture can adversely affect the carving process.
Often a carver will create a paper template of the design of the spoon and stick it on the piece of wood chosen and draw around it.
Next the process of shaping the spoon begins. There are an assortment of tools that are available to a carver in modern times. In the centuries past a craftsman would have been reduced to using simple tools such as an axe and a knife. This process would have taken long hours and required great patience. Today, apparatuses such as the electric scroll saw or band saw have empowered the carver to work at a far greater pace and make more intricate designs.
To carve the spoon bowl a curved gouge is selected usually from various sizes and with the use of a mallet chips away at the wood with the grain. Another option is a tool called the bent-bladed knife. A piece of fine sandpaper is then used to smooth out the curve of the bowl.
To begin the process of shaping the spoon and removing any unnecessary wood, as specified earlier, such machine tools as the scroll saw or band saw could be used. Another option would be the more manual coping saw.
Once the excess wood around the edges has been removed a drill could be used to drill holes to start off the interior cavities. The gaps would then be extended to configuration by using such tools as the coping saw or scroll saw. When approaching the more intricate edges of the cavities the bench knife, chisel or gouges would be employed.
After a final sanding with the grain and never across it, waxing, staining and polishing can take place.
Phew as an interlude here is a great video of Joe Dillett carving a lovespoon.
Welsh love spoon meanings
The love spoon through the centuries has incorporated lots of different symbols. The main symbol, of course, is the heart and this has been presented in many ways. Two hearts entwined, for instance, reveals the two lovers are deeply in love, whereas one heart conveys the donor offers his heart to the recipient.
Woodcarving was often a past time of sailors during long voyages and perhaps that is why some spoons express a nautical flavour. The anchor is a popular symbol representing a homestead that the admirer has found and wants to stay. The inclusion of a ship’s helm was an expression of safe direction through life or perhaps a symbol for love itself acting as a guide for their future together – the last explanation being particularly emotive. Rope, indicating a ship’s rigging tied in a knot, often depicted in Celtic patterns, expressed infinite love.
Another symbol that carvers liked to use is the comma shape. This is said to have originated from Egyptian hieroglyphics representing the soul. The symbol is sometimes carved in wheel patterns. The diamond shape has been called upon many times too, with the hope of prosperity signified.
Wooden chains and balls and cage
Often a love spoon will have attached to its handle a wooden chain. Each link in the chain is believed to represent how many children the admirer predicts they might have in future. Certainly not a sense of wanting to take things slowly!
Some artisans would carve a small holder within the handle of the spoon, whereby small wooden spheres would rattle about without escape. This was an expression of the wooer feeling trapped in love for the intended and would be held hostage until the love was returned in equal measure. However, there has been some dispute amongst carvers and historians with some claiming the wooden spheres indicate the predicted number of offspring whereas the chain links rather represented an offer of security. One of arguments in favour of this is that older spoons often had many links e.g. more than a dozen. This would present some feat for the woman giving birth to such a brood! Despite meanings that have been applied to the ball and cage carving it may initially have been a way for the craftsman to simply show off his virtuosity.
So how many spoon bowls do you need?
It wasn’t uncommon for a love spoon to include two or even three spoon bowls. Two bowls indicated that the ‘two were one’ whereas three was said to represent the couple plus their first child (often marked by a smaller bowl). Other features included a wheel that symbolised the intention of the lover to care and buckle down for the loved one.
The more mirthful carver in their to desire to impart, ‘they like what they see and would like to see more’, has gone to the lengths of carving a pair of spectacles in the handle of the spoon. A more conservative symbol to reflect the same intent has been the lamp or lantern.
Vines or trees have been used to symbolise growth in a burgeoning relationship ahead. The key and keyhole has been used frequently in carvings with the key expressing the key to one’s heart and/or security. The horseshoe speaks to good fortunes.
I’d recommend having a browse through a sample of the Welsh museum’s love spoon image collection at their website.
Welsh love spoons as wedding favours
Today love spoons, rather than the Welsh tradition of being given to a woman to try and entice them into a relationship, they have become an important staple at weddings. A wedding spoon often includes particular motifs that are personal to the couple. They are often engraved with the wedding date and there is often reference to the ancestry of the couple in the choice of wood and symbols. More generally the Celtic knot is a popular choice as it indicates everlasting love.
Additionally at weddings small love spoons are often given as wedding favours to the guests with personalised engraving such as names of the bride and groom, a short message and the date of the wedding.
This evolving trait is much more in line with other parts of Europe such as Norway and Brittany where it is traditional at weddings to incorporate ceremonial spoons.
To make your own love spoon and email it to a special one visit National Museum of Wales’s love spoon page.
To see some incredible jaw dropping love spoon carving visit Pinterest’s 109 best Welsh Love Spoons.