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Lady smith is a relief from male dominance;FE focus

Metal-bashing over a coal-fired forge is gaining popularity among women. Judith Stares reports on a unique course

Women can now cast aside their needlework and watercolours - all those who have not already done so of course - and take up the sterner art of blacksmithing.

Thanks to 29-year-old Melissa Cole, a professional blacksmith, a class of smithing wannabes is picking up traditional skills in what until now has been strictly a man's world.

The innovative course is based at Swindon College in Wiltshire, where a workshop has been set up complete with coal-fired forge. The women-only diploma course in blacksmithing has been offered for a pilot year and the response has been enthusiastic.

"A blacksmith used to be a jack-of-all trades, and every village had one," said Melissa. "In those days he would do everything from shoeing horses to motor mechanics."

Today's blacksmith is more of an artist, although the work is still extremely physical.

Her students begin learning their craft by making such artefacts as wind-chimes and mirror frames, before progressing to more complicated projects.

"At school it was always the girls had to do needlework and the boys did metalwork. Sewing is a necessary evil, but this is fun," said student Marilyn Bray.

"I hope to carry on and start my own small business, though it means investing in a forge, and I have to find a place big enough to put it."

Sally Taylor has a fine arts degree, and is used to making mosaics. "I saw this course as a good opportunity to expand my repertoire. It fits in well with having children, and it's cheap."

Not only is there a free cr che on site, for mums who want to get involved in heavy metal, but the pilot scheme has been so successful that it will run again from next September, and fees will be waived for students who don't qualify for a discretionary grant. In effect, people can learn for free.

Swindon College says this is a carrot for women who are "under-represented" in any field. (Although men will also be invited to apply for the next course.) Melissa says: "I don't think there should be any distinction between women or men doing this job. You can work according to your capacity. If something is too heavy to lift, you just get someone to help you."

The daughter of a blacksmith, she is well aware of the impact women can make in her field. "After seeing me in my workshop people usually don't recognise me," she says.

The millennium is also the Year of the Artist, and Melissa is hoping there will be a real interest in the potential of hot-metal work. "It isn't easy to make a living at this, and I try to get that over to the students, but they all seem to really enjoy it, and there's a lot of satisfaction in doing quality work."

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