My red-hot sausage is drooping dangerously. This isn’t an ’Allo ’Allo!-style wartime code; I’m turning a floppy oblong of molten glass on an iron stick, trying to stop it falling on the floor. The heat is intense, but what’s really alarming is that no one acknowledges how rude this looks. Our instructor, KT, is too refined to countenance such imbecility. The spitting image of Julie Hagerty, she keeps urging me to “re-centre!” like a yoga teacher who works in hell. Supporting her today is Phil Gumn, an ex-powerlifting champion who works as a floorer. Surely he’s up for some innuendo? “The amazing thing is these tools are the same ones the Romans used,” he enthuses. I guess not.
He’s not wrong, though. While it’s absurd to describe a material that humans have worked with since 2000BC as “having a moment”, the success of the Netflix reality show Blown Away means it might well be. I had assumed this obviously dangerous art to be beyond the reach of hobbyists, yet apparently anyone can have a go at glassblowing, so I’ve come to The Glass Hub in Wiltshire, where I’ve discovered I’m rubbish at it.
In a furnace behind me, a crucible of molten glass bubbles like the chambers of Mount Doom. I’ve already been shown how to “gather” this liquid, like honey, on to a red-hot iron. I’m now sitting on a wooden throne, turning my gather constantly with one hand and using enormous smithing tools – jacks, blocks, files – to sculpt it with the other. There’s only a short window of time for this delicate work, as the material is always cooling to a fragile solidity. At the same time, the heat of the iron is beginning to burn through my safety glove and Kevlar sleeve. Random chance, or a slight gust of wind, could introduce an invisible crack that later destroys the entire work. The process is ridiculous, like making candy floss for masochists.
It is also magical, alchemical. In the workshop next door, sculptures of frozen intricacy are arrayed, all the more impressive for their elemental origin. Who knew you could pinch glass into shape like caramel then, 30 seconds later, file it like metal? It’s thrilling to walk a burning spear around, occasionally thrusting it into a 1,100C furnace to keep it pliable (a step known as “flashing in the glory hole” … don’t get me started).
KT interrupts my reverie to demonstrate a pulling technique. Using jacks to pinch and elongate the glass at intervals, she forms a wand of bulbous swells. “We call this the caterpillar,” she says. I examine the obscene icicle. “Is a caterpillar what it most resembles?” I ask. No one wants to say. Maybe I’m going mad.
I coat my sticky blob in delicious-looking frit: coloured glass, ground to the consistency of sprinkles. I’m wondering how this turns into a vase. My situation is made worse by the presence of Miri, another novice, but clearly a natural. Of our two blobs, hers has genuinely interesting form. When I later make a bird, she crafts a bird of paradise. When two tutors are employed to help me roll my iron in a straight line – that’s four hands, six including mine – I decide competitiveness is an outdated attitude.
Then we get to, yes, blowing. KT shows us how to exhale through the iron like a blowpipe, expanding a bubble inside the glass. It’s a bonkers sensation. Honestly, what even is glass? As an experiment, I over-blow one to shattering point. The material is so thin, like a soap bubble, I can crumble it in my hands. (The tiny pieces are known as confetti, although perhaps don’t chuck it around at a wedding.) Returning to my frit-infused, blown gather, I score a line off the top of the iron and tap. The cool object falls off, birthing itself on a bed of sawdust. Congratulations! It’s a vase. To me, it’s a miracle.
The gas furnace is constant, the irons are heavy, people work at speed. Yet I never feel unsafe here. It’s a creative, encouraging atmosphere. The traditionally macho, unecological culture of glassblowing is changing, notes Gumn. The Glass Hub is female-owned and uses 100% recycled glass in its workshops, as well as an efficient, portable furnace of KT’s own design. It’s a privilege to join these blacksmiths of the angels, hoisting my own sorcerer’s staff. Don’t we all want to play with fire?
It’s tiring, though, the constant turning of the iron. My tendons are burning – and it’s nothing to do with the glory hole. I have to stop. KT is making a bauble. “Can you give me a bench blow?” she asks. “Just a gentle one.” Oh come on, I think. I get on my knees and blow delicately down the tube, moving my head side to side, as she rolls the iron back and forth. Oxygen is all I’m good for, but at least I’m involved. I try one last time to lower the tone. The caterpillar, I say. She rolls her eyes, but concedes. “The real money in glasswork is bongs and dildos. Sex and drugs, right?” I may be rubbish, but I’ve not been gaslighting myself. I’m counting this as a triumph.
There be monsters
While still a teen, KT left her native Loch Ness and travelled around the US, Italy and Switzerland, learning techniques from different glassblowing masters, like a samurai legend. At that age, I wasn’t allowed to go to Leicester Square.