Monday, February 4, 2013

The 'mighty' yet humble pencil - a brief history.

The other day I was pondering over how little I tend to use the basic design tools these days, other than a trusty old HB pencil that sits by my keyboard and the old spot of black Indian ink for drawing and painting.

Pencils are, by their very design, modest but the lovely marks that can be created have always led to it being one of my favourite implements which I plan to use more.

So, it had me start thinking about how the origins of the 'mighty' yet rather humble pencil so I set about an internet search; with The Cumberland Pencil Company in mind.

They are based in Keswick (my father's home town, in fact) so I have been to the museum there a couple of times but not for some years now.

The Cumberland Pencil Company, Keswick- image courtesy of Derwent
Now according to the history information on the Derwent site, legend has it that in the early 1500s, a violent storm in the Borrowdale area of what was then Cumberland led to a number of trees being uprooted which in turn led the discovery of a strange black material underneath. This material turned out to be graphite and shepherds began using it to mark their sheep.

A cottage industry of pencil making soon developed, culminating in the formation of the UK’s first pencil factory in 1832.

With a history of over 180 years, the factory has had numerous owners and became the Cumberland Pencil Company in 1916.

The brand 'Derwent' came to market in 1938 and from that point on their range has developed into something from very traditional to quite innovative.

A lot of the processes used in pencil making in modern times were pioneered by The Cumberland Pencil Company.

Here are some old black and white images taken from the Derwent website:

Assembling -courtesy of Derwent

Finishing - courtesy of Derwent

The basic principles of manufacture have remained the same although the processes that used to be done by hand are now fully automated.

For a full overview of 'all things pencil' why not have a peak at their website.

They are currently running a competition with a fairly significant prize for people with exceptional talent working in pencil so for further details you can click through to their site using the link above.

Hopefully, you will feel inspired to pick a pencil and start drawing again (or even better go and visit!)

Pattern Addict.


  1. Thanks for the post Gill! A favorite of mine too : )

  2. Fantastic post and story Gill :-) Thanks for sharing x


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