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When David “Lovespoons” Thomas presented his girlfriend with a keychain-sized carved piece of yew, Yolanda had no idea what he was trying to tell her.
“She had recently moved to Wales from Barcelona and was working at one of the hotels with another Spanish girl. When she went back home, they were trying to figure out, ‘What does this mean?’” said David, who goes by “Dai.”
It was especially strange, since it was the second time Yolanda received a lovespoon.
“For her birthday, her friend bought a souvenir lovespoon — a little fridge magnet from Tenby — and she wrote her a letter and said that ‘this is the Welsh spoon of love. When you blow out your candles on your birthday, make a wish and, within 35 days, your wish will come true,’” said Dai.
Within a month, the two met.
“She met the only person of the same age in the whole of Wales — probably in the whole of world — who carves lovespoons,” said Dai. “It’s ridiculous.”
Dai works with his father Kerry, also known as “Thomas the Woodcarver,” at their family’s Lovespoon Workshop in Pembrokeshire, a county in the southwest of Wales. Theirs is one of the few places still creating hand-crafted lovespoons, which are blocks of wood that are carved into tokens of love.
A short drive from Tenby, Wales, is the Lovespoon Workshop, a family-run business that sells hand-crafted lovespoons and teaches about the tradition. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Lovespoons are believed to have originated in Wales in the 17th century as a utensil gifted at weddings. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
While courting, young men would present a hand-crafted lovespoon to the woman they were interested in. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Kerry Thomas, also known as Thomas the Woodcarver, explains the art form to groups who visit his Lovespoon Workshop. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Kerry is joined by his son Dai, here shown telling the stories behind several of the family’s annual lovespoons. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Some of the lovespoons on display at the workshop took hundreds of hours to complete. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Students can begin carving after about a week of training, but due to the extensive variety of woods available, true mastery can take many years. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Because of the hours of work required to carve lovespoons, there are few real lovespoon shops in Wales. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Origins of the TraditionAccording to Kerry, who has tracked down old spoons at museums, it’s believed that the first spoons were practical utensils used for serving and eating cawl soup, a Welsh lamb-and-vegetable-based stew. Lovespoons began as functional gifts given at weddings, but eventually became more decorative and symbolic. In the 17th century, it was tradition for young Welsh men to carve lovespoons while courting. Once the lovespoon was complete, the man would present the woman he fancied with a handcrafted lovespoon. Accepting a lovespoon was understood as a sign of betrothal, though some women collected lovespoons as trophies.
“Today, lovespoons are carved for all different occasions, such as birthdays and anniversaries, but especially the wedding day,” said Kerry. “Just after the wedding ceremony, you’ll often see the bride getting a lovespoon.”
Visitors to Wales can usually find lovespoons at souvenir shops, but few are actually crafted by an artisan.
“Creating lovespoons is a dying art because of the hours required,” said Marion Davies, a local Welsh guide for CIE Tours. “It’s very hard to make a living — there are very few Welsh lovespoon carvers left.”
Authenticity in ActionDai Lovespoons and Thomas the Wood Carver are among the few left, making a visit to their Lovespoons Workshop a particular treat. A small facility located near the resort town of Tenby, Wales, the Lovespoon Workshop also serves as a shop, a museum and an education facility.
Seated on pew made out of — what else — wood, groups of up to about 40 people can comfortably watch the father and son duo demonstrate how they carve the wood while explaining the tradition of lovespoon carving, as well as their personal story.
“I thought that I would learn how to carve to save myself from having to buy an engagement ring — that’s part of the Welsh character,” said Kerry, who carved his first spoon while enjoying the national holiday of Prince Charles’ Investiture in 1969.
Since then, Kerry, now with his son’s help, has created one yearly “lovespoon” to commemorate each passing year. For these annual pieces, “spoon” seems like a lowly misnomer: these are extremely complex, large pieces of carved wood that beautifully blend symbols of the year’s important events, ranging from the personal to the political.
Anyone visiting the museum will be struck by how each piece manages to be unique. The family uses different varieties of 50 types of wood, including holly, oak, laburnum, ash, yew and mahogany. Committed to sustainability, the Thomases use reclaimed wood when possible.
“It’s amazing what people will throw out,” said Dai. “We’ve had things like organs that are no longer in use brought to us. If it didn’t come here to be used, it would have been burned.”
Each timber not only looks distinct, but requires different treatment. Most people can produce something tangible within a week of training, but, like any craft, mastery is a lifelong pursuit.
“There are two to 3,000 types of mahogany and they’re all different,” said Dai. “For some types, the grain carves backwards — you can’t learn that. You have to trust your instinct. That takes something. Every spoon you come to carve is unique. Every day is a learning experience.”
In 2007, the family completed the world’s longest lovespoon, a 27-foot-long spoon carved out of one solid block of oak that took around 300 hours to complete.
And it’s hard to leave the shop empty-handed. With so many distinct pieces, you’ll likely fall in love with one — whether or not you think that buying yourself a lovespoon is like sending yourself flowers. Another bonus is that the cost of a lovespoon includes engravings, thereby personalizing the spoons as though they were hand crafted by a loved one.
After all, even though these lovespoons can be given outside of a romantic context, they still tell a love story.