Glassblowing and the Art of Carrying on a Tradition

The glassblower holds the iron rod up to his lips while somehow balancing a hefty bundle of glowing hot liquid glass on the other end. His breath fills the molten ball as it begins to take on a life of its own. A living, breathing piece of glass, it is constantly moving, shaped and formed by the glassblower’s movements.

At the Pairpoint Glass Works studio in Sagamore, with four furnaces roaring in the background and the room temperature climbing up to 110 degrees, master glassblowers cheer on apprentices as they work.

Glass is made from a mixture of silicates, found in sand, and lead oxide. Furnace temperatures must reach up to 2,300 degrees to bring the mixture to a malleable state. No matter what the glassblower intends to make, it all starts with a gathering of glass. This is when the glassblower twirls the iron rod in the pot of molten glass, skimming it off so that it gathers at the end. The maneuver looks like twirling cotton candy on a paper tube, collecting it in a great glowing bulge.

From the moment the liquid fire is taken out of the furnace, it begins to cool. The glassblower must keep the iron rod spinning to maintain the uniformity of the piece, while making sure that the temperature never dips below a certain level. If it cools too quickly, it will crack or even explode. To avoid this requires lots of trips back to the fire for reheating while constantly spinning the object.

At times glassblowers will hold the rods out and twirl them like batons to use centrifugal force for further shaping. When the rods are held up over their heads, gravity forces the edges of the molten ball down, creating a bowl shape. As the object continues to spin, the glassblower will carefully touch it here and there with wooden tools dipped in water, creating a bottleneck or design within the glass. To form the rim of a bowl or vase, pieces of the red-hot glass are cut away while it’s spinning. By the time these chunks hit the floor they clink with the sound of hardened glass.

The Sandwich Glass Museum tells the story of how a small factory founded by Deming Jarves in 1825 grew to employ more than 400 people by mid-century. Since glass is made from sand, it might make sense to think that the Cape Cod sand added to the quality of Sandwich glass. Ironically, that’s not the case. Cape Cod sand contained too many impurities to be made into fine glass. Jarves initially imported sand by boat from southern New Jersey, and by 1847 began bringing large quantities of sand from the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts to Sandwich.

One of the reasons for locating the factory in Sandwich was the promise of the Cape Cod Canal. Although it hadn’t been dug yet, at the time it seemed as if it would be soon. Politics being politics, the canal wasn’t created until years later, in 1914, after the factory had closed. The Sandwich Glass Factory operated for 62 years before competition from Midwest factories closed its doors in 1888.

Since the factory is no longer in existence, true Sandwich glass cannot be created, but its classic designs are reproduced. Glassblowing demonstrations are shown continuously at the museum so that visitors may witness techniques used by Egyptians, Romans, and Venetians, culminating with Sandwich and the innovation of pressed glass.

The glassblower tells the crowd, “I like the whole idea that what I learned is passed down from hundreds and hundreds of years and that basically with every generation it gets a little more refined. We’re still learning so it’s endless. You’re never going to get bored when there’s always something more to learn.”

35 thoughts on “Glassblowing and the Art of Carrying on a Tradition

  1. I’ve been to a few of the glassblowing studios on the Cape, and it’s amazing to see a demonstration where a glass sculpture comes to life before one’s eyes. Cheers.

    • It is a lot of fun to watch. Sometimes it seems like they’re dancing with the glass, especially since they have to move so fast to shape it before it cools. I’m glad you got to see it too.

    • It’s amazing when you think people somehow at some point figured out how to do all that – glad you liked it!

    • Thanks Wendell! I couldn’t believe all that’s involved in something like this. It takes years of training so it’s nice to see that craftsmanship like this hasn’t gone away.

  2. Great stuff, Sheila. Sydenstricker on 6A in Dennis or Brewster also does a lot of beautiful glass work. Had the pleasure of watching once, It’s pretty amazing.

  3. Sheila, interesting tour!! I loved the action shots. Interesting tidbits about the sand. Does the Sandwich Museum have a gift shop?! T. (Do the old factory buildings still exist?)

    • Thanks Theadora! The factory burned down at some point but for years afterward people could find globs of glass on the factory grounds. There’s a gift shop at the museum that sells reproductions of the old glassware and some of the creations that come from the demonstrations.

  4. This was really interesting, Sheila, a wonderful educational tour and I have always been fascinated with glass blowing…now, I have a better idea of what is involved! 🙂 xx

  5. We have a glass workshop here in Canberra. People can pay a small fee and receive a lesson on how to make something in glass. They take their piece home with them. Our artists sell their art there too and we can watch them creating their stunningly beautiful pieces. They take orders too. It is a wonderfully varied craft.

    • Glad to hear it – they’re a lot of fun to stumble on – especially in the fall or winter when it feels good to stand near that much heat!

  6. Unbelievable what God and man, in cohesion, can bring about to bless the entire soul/being of man ! Wonderful post~again a true joy! Blessings ~ Deborah

  7. Reblogged this on Bespoke Traveler and commented:
    We love the traditional art of glassblowing from the shores of Cape Cod to the Venetian islands. Fellow blogger Sheila Hurst took us on a virtual tour of the Sandwich glassblowers which we had to share.

  8. very informative 🙂 we’ve been to a glassblowing studio in seattle and it was really a treat watching those glassblowers shape such artistic glass pieces

    • They are a lot of fun to watch – it’s like magic. That must have been really interesting for you especially since you also do glass artwork. I’m going to have to learn how to do something like that one of these days.

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