See how amazing glassworks are made at Sunderland's National Glass Centre

It’s a chapter of Sunderland’s history that dates back centuries, and the art of glassmaking is still thriving today at the National Glass Centre.

Saturday, 30th October 2021, 4:55 am

Just a stone’s throw from St Peter’s Church, where French glaziers created Britain’s first stained glass in AD674, the venue honours the area’s rich industrial history whilst also fostering new talent.

After a challenging year for the arts, the venue is back open and sharing this ancient art with the public once more – and giving them a chance to try their hand at glass-making.

We went along to one of the ‘Make Your Own Glass Pumpkin’ sessions, which have proved a sell-out success, to see how it’s done.

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Glass pumpkin making at National Glass Centre

All glass starts runny like honey, lifted from a red hot furnace of 1130 degrees, and it’s glassmaker Ian Spence’s job to mold the molten glass into beautiful creations.

He’s been crafting glass for more than 40 years, starting as an apprentice at the long gone Hartley Wood glassworks when he was just 15.

Through the decades he’s worked with glass in all its forms, from sheet industrial glass to stained glass and, today, leading the regular glass demos in the Hot Glass Studio, where all manner of items are created, from vases and goblets to seasonal items, such as glass pumpkins and baubles.

In the weekends leading up to Halloween and Christmas the public can take part in sessions to make their own pumpkins and baubles, which this year have already sold out.

Molten glass is shaped with cherry wood due to its tight grain.

Ian says they’re a great way for people to learn first hand about glass-making, an art that has been relatively unchanged for centuries.

"Making glass in the studio is a lot more pleasurable than the commercial side of the industry, as you get to meet the public,” he said.

"Glass making is really hard now, but it was a lot harder back then as we didn’t have control of the temperature.

"The public really enjoy the demos, and are over the moon with pieces they help to make.”

Glassmaker Ian Spence blowing air into the glass in the Hot Glass Studio

He added: “Also, because it’s a learning facility, you see artists come as first years and then see their progression. They make some unbelievable things.”

Assistant glassblower Aaron Beck, who assists Ian in the demos, is one of the students who’ve honed their skills at the venue, which is the base for University of Sunderland’s glass and ceramics degree.

"Even well-known artists come here from London and are fascinated with the premises and what we have here,” said Ian.

Reflecting on the history of glass-making in Sunderland

Shaping the glass into a pumpkin

Sunderland is, of course, a natural home for the National Glass Centre.

The French craftsmen who visited in the 7th century passed on the skill to locals, making Sunderland one of the earliest centres of glass-making in the country, and by the 19th century it was a booming industry.

Along with shipbuilding and coal mining, glass-making played a huge role in the city’s industrial heritage and was fuelled by the availability of cheap coal and high-quality imported sand, the two key raw materials needed for large-scale glass production.

Some of the biggest factories included Turnbull's Cornhill Flint Glassworks at Southwick, open from 1865 to 1953, which operated for decades, as well as Wear Flint Glass Works, known from 1921 as James A. Jobling and Co Ltd.

The latter made the iconic Pyrex brand which, thanks to its heat-resistant properties, became a staple item in kitchens across the world after being sold in its millions. Every single piece of Pyrex back then, many of which is now a collector’s item, was made right here in Sunderland.

National Glass Centre

A pink pumpkin ready to go in the lehr oven

Although the closure of Pyrex manufacturers Arc Glass in 2007 brought to a close Wearside’s long history of commercial glass production, the National Glass Centre is keeping the art of glass alive.

Built on the site of the former Thompsons shipyard on the banks of the River Wear, the £17million venue opened its doors in 1998 housing Britain’s biggest ever exhibition of modern glass, three galleries, famous glass roof, workshops, cafe and shop and today attracts around 200,000 visitors a year.

As well as a permanent exhibition which honours Sunderland’s glass-making history, the venue has regularly-changing exhibitions and is currently showing the European Glass Prize.

In 2018 it also became home to the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA), which recently hosted Sir Antony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles.

::Due to the make your own sessions, non-ticket holders can’t access the Hot Glass Studio on weekends up until Christmas 2021. However, visitors can view the sessions through the window and regular free daily demos continue to run from Monday to Friday each week.

Ready-made pumpkins, baubles and other studio glass is also available to buy in the Glass Centre shop.

How glass pumpkins are brought to life

::1 – Clear molten glass, made of sand, soda and lime, is taken from the furnace with a hollow blowing iron.

::2 – Colour is taken from ground glass granules, in a shade of your choice, and added to the clear glass.

::3 – The iron is rotated in the reheating chamber, known as the glory hole, to set the colour.

::4 – Once the colour has been added a bubble is blown and another gather of glass is added and constantly rotated.

::5 – Another dip of colour is added for depth.

::6 – The glass is shaped with a wooden block. Cherry wood is used for its tight grain and is soaked for three months beforehand.

::7 – Wads of soaked newspaper are used to shape the glass by hand.

::8 – The glass is reheated and blown again.

::9 – The glass is blown in an optic mold to add the ridges and rolled.

::10 – The pumpkin is blown to size and the top knocked off.

::11 – The assistant prepares the stalk and attaches to the pumpkin.

::12 – The pumpkin is put into the lehr oven to gradually cool. The lehr is kept at a minimum temperature of 510degrees. The 10 degrees allows for the door to be opened.

::13 – People can collect their pumpkins, each one a unique piece, a week later to take home and enjoy.

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The finished articles. As well as making your own, glass pumpkins are available to buy in the shop.
A worker with Pyrex glass tubes in 1966, from the Sunderland Echo archives.
Glass blowing in Sunderland in 1957, from the Sunderland Echo archives.
The European Glass Prize is currently on display at National Glass Centre
Sunderland's National Glass Centre.