Brian W Lavery talks to sea-glass artist Sal Smith about her ‘paying hobby’ that was sparked by a chance remark and developed in lockdown
‘A friend asked me if I had ever found sea glass on the beach – and it sort of started from there,” says Sal.
I can’t tell if it’s said enthusiastically, as I can’t see her.
Finding the video Zoom icon on her iPad is proving a bit elusive.
She continued: “I retired from teaching about five years ago this is summer so had more time to be walking the dogs on the beach, and I think it was roundabout August 2019 that friend asked about sea-glass finds.
“So I researched the subject. Because although I’ve holidayed all over the UK as a child and then with my own children, I had never come across it before,” Sal added as her video camera kicked in.
She was at work in the little room in her Holmpton home, which doubles as the workshop for her burgeoning online jewellery business.
Sal does not refer to it as a business, though, preferring to think of it as a “paying hobby”.
“If I found this 25 years ago then I might well have been charging more, because I might well have been able to make it into a business.
“But this is my hobby and if I did happen to make any huge amount of profit I’m only going to end up paying tax on it.
“As it is, it’s just an extra bit of cash for birthday presents for the kids, Christmas presents for friends and the like.
“Everything – or much as possible – goes back into buying more of whatever I need, whether it’s silver chain, silver-plate chain or leather or cotton cords for necklaces.
“It is not a business as much as a paying hobby.”
The maximum charge that Sal makes for any of her sea-glass work is just £25 – and that’s for a silver cord necklace.
Her main stock, of course, is free and gathered up when she takes her six-year-old labrador, Cassie, for walks.
Sal said: “The sea-glass is free – all I need to do is look for it, so it only costs me my time – I rarely go without having the dog with me.”
Sea glass and beach glass are naturally weathered pieces. And the weathering process produces natural-frosted glass that be collected and used for decoration, most commonly in jewellery.
It can sometimes take as much as two centuries to get its unique texture and shape.
Sal went on to explain how she got hooked into her art: “I went down on the beach in 2019 with my husband and the dogs had a mooch around and found some sea-glass and was sort of quite intrigued by it.
“I did a little bit of reading up on it as to what you could do, and found I could make jewellery – and as a jewellery lover that made a lot of sense to me.
“I set off to make some. By Christmas that year we’d worked out how it was done and my husband had worked out how to drill holes in the material. He’s far better at trying to drill than I am!
“I also found the right sort of glue to stick what’s called the bales – the little bits of metal that join the pieces of sea glass to the chain – and decided that maybe I’d like to do some craft markets through “I started to try and build my stock and found a local craft fair that was due to happen at the end of March in 2020 and, well, Covid came along and it was like, ‘OK, what am I going to do with this?’ – because, you know, being on a pension it’s got to pay for itself.
“So I found an online company called Folksy and I sell through them. They are a bit like Etsy, only for arts and crafts, I suppose.
“Obviously once Covid eased I then started to sell – initially at Withernsea Pier Towers.
“I even did a silversmith’s course – just a day-long taster – because I really would like to be able to do a little bit more with the glass using silver.
“This is not helped, of course, now by the phenomenal price rise that silver is undergoing!”
Sal retired as headteacher of the Patrington and Easington Schools a couple of years ago after a 30-year career in teaching.
Before that she was a pharmacologist.
Her scientific background helped her get to grips with the chemistry of sea-glass and the processes it has to go through to become jewellery.
“I didn’t start teaching till my mid-30s but I had 10 years as a head teacher before I retired.
“I think it’s probably been more helpful with looking at some of the stones and recognising what’s a fossil in what’s not.
“Everyone keeps saying to me, ‘Gosh, you must be so creative,’ but I’m really not.
“But I think perhaps my scientific approach to things is that I can follow instructions to make an end result until I’m confident to be able to just get on and do it regularly.
“Most of my glass findings are from Withernsea.
“Talking with local people it is likely that most of the sea glass I find probably has come out of the old glass dump that’s at the north end of Withernsea. “But also you’ve got longshore drift here, so it could come from anywhere north of us.
“We’ve got villages from the distant past that disappeared into the sea, there’s shipwrecks, and also, unfortunately, you’ve got houses and caravans that ended up in the sea.
“When I find the glass it is covered in a white sediment from the salt in the sea. I wash them with washing-up liquid.
“When it’s wet on the beach it’s lovely and shiny but when it dries, it dries with this white salt film over it the surface of the glass.
“It is quite absorbent, because of the chemical changes that go on which I have read about.
“By putting little drops of baby oil on them in the water just to rinse it, it takes away that ability for the salt to stay there.”
And with the kind of precision you’d expect of a scientist, Sal, 66, added: “We were originally living in Market Drayton in Shropshire, and then moved all over the country before coming to East Yorkshire.
“We’ve been at Holmpton now for 10 years – 10 years and two days – to be absolutely accurate.”
And it is that kind of attention to detail that has helped her “paying hobby” Smithy Sea Glass to grow, in spite of not even having a website yet.
She now takes her stock to markets around East Yorkshire as well as selling online via Folksy.
And recently she took to social media – especially Twitter, with the handle @SmithyGlass – and she found support from another local artist – pebble-loving poet and Gazette contributor Dean Wilson.
Sal said: “It’s amazing how quickly things can happen on Twitter.
“Two months ago I found an amazing red piece of sea glass which was so unusual that I even managed to find a buyer for a piece of jewellery before it was even made. That was really lucky.
“I was also lucky enough to meet up with Dean Wilson at my stall and got to know him.
“He started retweeting most stuff and I got almost 1,000 new followers!
“I think my success has been thanks to him retweeting and his interest in the work that I’ve been doing.
“He’s a lovely man and very supportive.”
Dean said: “Until I met Sal and saw her sea-glass wonders, I’d never even heard of sea-glass. She’s opened up a whole new dimension to my beach walks.
“Her sea-glass jewellery is exquisite and I love it when her stall appears in the Pier Towers.
“I might even start to look out for sea-glass on my pebble walks – and commit my love of it to verse too.
“I’m finding myself drawn to sea-glass as much as pebbles on my walks now, and it’s a real thrill when I find blue, green or even red sea-glass. You can’t beat a sea-glass sensation!”