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In the years since 1977 when the first edition of this book came out there have very naturally been changes in basketmaking and basketmakers. Industrial, agricultural and fishing baskets are fewer than ever, unless, as has happened occasionally, one catches a maker's fancy and he adapts it for a different purpose.
Some of our experienced basketmakers have been looking abroad for baskets which use techniques new to them. There are still country-made baskets in France, where the wine industry uses traditional shapes quite different from ours. In June 1986, a Pacific North West Basketry Symposium was held in British Columbia. It brought together some of the best craftsmen in the western world to teach workshops to advanced students from British Columbia, Washington State, Alberta and Alaska. Some wonderful things were exhibited and made. So many traditions were on display that it must have inspired many people to look out of new windows on the world.
But there are also some strange experiments being made in both England and the USA, and the resulting baskets cannot always be called well made. The materials chosen make good finish impossible. Can there ever be anything admirable in a badly made basket? In the search for the new and surprising, symmetry may get lost. Some shapes have unguessed complications. A basket is in essence a simple artefact. It must not fall over and it must contain what it was made to hold. The rules which govern its making are simple and will cover the uses of hard or soft materials in powerful or less powerful hands. There are rules to cover beginnings and endings. They may be difficult to execute but they are vital. In designing a new basket one must work out what is suitable for the shape and the material as well as the use. Cobbling will not do.
The word 'finish' is often used in relation to crafts. This refers to the difference between the handmade and the homemade; clean endings and beginnings, the beauty of order that is only achieved by competence and craftsmanship. Finish surely is visible in all things made by man's hands: a pot, a rug, an embroidery, a cheese or a saddle.
Recently, the Allegri String Quartet gave a concert at Dartington Hall. They were to play three quartets, by Haydn, by Bartok, by Dvorak. But the audience was told that the cellist had injured his left arm, so the Quartet would play two early Haydn quartets instead of the more testing Bartok and Dvorak. These two went pleasantly enough and the musicians were obviously not at full stretch. The last quartet was the late Haydn prepared for the original programme. A different thing. Here was the polish, the exquisite phrasing achieved by hours of practice.
It does seem, even to traditionalists, that the design of baskets must be on the move. It is bound to be influenced by the world around. There is a more romantic movement in painting and fashion than for years. Many of our customers are better off and designers must provide more costly objects to satisfy fuller pockets. Perhaps baskets will follow this movement, but they are not likely to imitate the elaborate Victorian baskets trimmed with ribbons and embroidery – though there are some signs of steps being taken in that direction. Whether one admires the work of the nineteenth century or not, the finish was always excellent; in the tiny stitches that secured linings, the matching of shells and feathers. Such things were ephemeral but they satisfied the taste of the time.
There are also signs of a renewed interest in the craftsmen and artists who were part of the revival of the original arts and crafts movement. They were working in the 1920s and 30s until World War II when the revival came to an end. One of its most important and faithful spirits was Miss Muriel Rose who, in 1928, opened her Little Gallery near Sloane Square in London to exhibit and sell the work of her friends: potters, weavers, metal workers, carvers, basketmakers. It was the first venture of its kind – which in itself seems strange to a world full of imitations.
The Little Gallery closed in 1939 and during the War Miss Rose went to work with the British Council. Later she took a craft exhibition to the USA. In 1957, when I was looking for some professional English baskets to adorn my first book I was told to go to the headquarters of the Rural Industries Bureau (now CoSIRA). Many of Muriel Rose's basket collection were there, named and ascribed, in the care of Mr Bill Trust, then the Willow Officer. Some of the photographs he gave me are still to be seen on pages 23, 36, 37, 38, 43, 47, 48, 57 and 58 of this present book. Muriel Rose died in 1986 at a great age and I am deeply grateful to her for the introduction these baskets gave me to some of the best basketmakers of that time, as we must all be for what she did for the crafts in general.
The reason for the inclusion of many foreign baskets in what has always been an English teaching book is that they have information to give about weaves, techniques and materials that are strange or new to us. Their uses and their history have been important too, so this third edition has a few new baskets. Analysis of their making is not always available, but a clear picture generally tells much.
Not all craftsmen are designers and not all designers are craftsmen though it is easier for them if they are. So not all basketmakers wake in the night with a vision of their current invention and listen to the questions and answers of the inner self ...
'Do I like it? Will anybody like it? Of course not, it's not the sort of shape they understand. But it isn't right, is it? It's not symmetrical. Why should it be? It's weak. No, it's not but the colour's good. Is that enough? Of course not, it's got to be remade. Why? Why? Because it's not what I meant. What did I mean? Did I? Ah well, we'll see in the morning.'
Wiser, braver, we make it again, not once or twice but ten times over until it is ours and what we intended. Muriel Rose had a wise thing to say about this:
'A basic craft cannot be learnt quickly by intensive study. The knowledge must grow out of practical experience with the hands over a considerable period of time until the nature and right usage of materials becomes instinctive ... the eyes also have to learn to see with critical perception.'CHAPTER 2
Materials and their Preparation
The form and type of baskets in any part of the world is largely determined by the plants growing in the area. Necessity has always been the mother of invention where baskets are concerned. If there is only straw or grass available then it is coiled and sewn with roots or creepers, and however short and brittle the fibres they will hold together. Weaving and plaiting flourish in kinder climates, and the greater choice of materials there has made man selective. In tropical and sub-tropical climates there are many palms; these are sometimes coiled but are mostly plaited. Some baskets have not changed at all in 1,800 years. Esparto grass, used for coiled baskets in Tutankhamen's tomb, is still the primary material used in Egypt, southern Spain, Algeria and Morocco.
Almost all the cultivated cereals have been used for baskets since earliest times, and wild reeds, rushes, grasses and sedges in infinite variety. Bamboos and canes are the materials of south-east Asia: Burma uses mostly bamboo and some cane; Sarawak uses more cane then bamboo. Taiwan uses nearly all bamboo, which is also much used in south China and in Japan where it has long been the foundation of fine lacquer ware. Far Eastern cane has become a universal material for heavy commercial baskets and furniture, and centre cane is exported in great quantities as the favourite material, because the most accessible, of the amateur the world over.
But in the New World in particular there is now a longing among those who have access to the countryside, to use native materials. The old methods of splitting saplings into their yearly rings and then cutting them into splints or skeins were used in Britain in medieval times, and it appears that the North American Indians knew them too, possibly having learnt from Scandinavian travellers. Laborious but satisfying is the verdict of those who follow these methods today and many fine frame or ribbed baskets have been made from white oak and ash, drawing on Indian designs and copying baskets and techniques brought in by settlers from Europe.
The first material of northern and western Europe is the osier or basket willow. The Salix family is an enormous one including many species and varieties of which the osiers are only one branch. Even at the time of Pliny eight useful osier species were named though it is difficult to identify them exactly. The most important species grown for making baskets are:
a. Salix triandra which produces high-quality rods an average of 7ft (2m) long
b. Salix viminalis gives a stouter type of rod, up to 12ft (3.6m) long, which is used in coarser basketry such as hurdles and agricultural baskets
c. Salix purpurea which is not much grown now. It gives a small, slender, very tough rod up to 4ft (1.20m) long, which does not buff well and was used for small, fine high-class baskctwarc.
LOCALITY AND CONDITIONS
There is an old saying that 'land that will bear fat beasts will bear good willows'. The main willow-growing area in England is now in Somerset, in the rich alluvial 'moors' drained by the rivers Parrett, Yeo and Tone. The main centre is Langport and the Paddington-Penzance railway line runs through the willow beds, so that any interested traveller can see the industry being carried on. The moors are flat and have to be well drained by a maze of ditches, because of seasonal flooding. Modern pumping-stations have greatly improved the drainage.
Willows need rich, deep and well-drained soil, especially clay and silt mixtures. There must be abundant water with good drainage, though Salix viminalis will grow in poor soil and S. purpurea is said to prefer a sandy soil. In the past willows were also grown in large numbers in west Lancashire, the Trent Valley, in Nottingham and East Anglia and the Thames Valley, but since 1925 the area of land under willow cultivation has decreased everywhere. The disastrous East Coast floods of 1953, caused by an exceptional combination of tide and weather, wiped out many willow beds which have never been replanted.
Wild willows are said to have no 'nature' or, if they have, it is not 'kind'. 'Nature' may be defined as strength and elasticity – a good skein has such a nature that you could lace your boots with it. 'Kindness' is harder to define, but any worker with willow or cane knows what it is. One might call it cooperation. Nevertheless one of the best basketmakers of the recent past, William Shelley, was taught as a boy to use wild willows grown for duck cover. His father got them for nothing and their workshop used them for farm baskets. So the amateur, if he can get permission to cut from a pollarded tree or even from old osiers which have grown free, will find they certainly serve for bottom sticks and, with judicious cutting, for siding too.
The life of a willow bed varies between 20 and 50 years, and the first saleable crop is obtained in the third season after planting.
Planting is usually done in March or April, in clean land. Cuttings or setts 9—15in (23—38cm) in length are made from 1 year old rods, and pushed into the ground until approximately one-third of their length is showing, buds upward. Rows are carefully measured, and a spacing of 27in (69cm) between rows and 14in (36cm) between cuttings in the row allows room for power-driven cultivators. One acre so spaced requires about 16,500 cuttings, or just over 40,000 per hectare.
During the first two seasons after planting the new bed must be carefully and frequently weeded. The shoots, though not commercially usable, must be cut annually in winter or early spring to encourage new growth. A mature bed also requires weeding but no fertiliser, because of the heavy leaf-fall.
Harvesting is done annually, any time during the winter or spring before the sap rises. Cutting is a highly skilled job done with a heavy sickle Illus 2.' Since 1979 growers are beginning to use a machine for harvesting, invented by a Belgian grower, Fernand de Vos. This cuts and ties the willows, greatly reducing hard manual work.
Rods are tied into bundles immediately after cutting. A traditional bundle measured an old English ell—45in (115cm)—around, measured 1ft (30cm) up from the butts. In Somerset however, today a bundle of processed S. triandra measures 37in (95cm) in circumference 2in (5cm) from the base. Approximate weight is 26lb (12kg). The traditional bundle has three ties, the ell band, one closer to the butt ends than the ell band and the other well above it. An acre (0,4ha) of the most useful willow grown in Somerset, the Black Maul variety of S. triandra, will produce an average yield of 200 bundles, weighing approximately 6 tons, the equivalent of 16.1 tonnes per hectare.
PROCESSING AND MARKETING
Autumn was the time when willow auctions were held, though these are now occasions of the past. Illus 3 shows the notice of Mr Thomas Cowley of Mawdesley's annual sale in 1913 and it will be seen how great was the quantity sold by one firm alone in the Lancashire area not far from Preston. The osiers grown in the land which had been the estuary of the Ribble, only drained in 1800, were very fine and small and of the best quality. Buyers came from all over England. Varieties of Salix purpurea in particular grew very well in this area, they seem to be even more salt-tolerant than most willows, and the reclaimed estuary was ideal for their growth.
After cutting, the bundles of willows are graded by standing them in a tub and selecting them against a measuring stick. The rods are graded in 1ft (30cm) lengths from 3ft (91cm) upwards.
Brown Willows are rods dried and used with the bark on.
White Willows are rods peeled without boiling just before they break into leaf. In most cases bundles for 'peeling for white' are 'pitted', ie stood in 6in (15cm) of water, either in ditches or concrete pits. In spring they begin to break into leaf and must be peeled by the end of June.
Buff Willows are brown rods that have been boiled in tanks for several hours and then peeled, giving a red-brown colour. This colour varies considerably according to the kind of willow and also the time when it is 'buffed'. A paler colour known as 'harvest buff' (see colour illustration on p 51) is obtained by cutting the willows in winter, stacking them in the open to dry until summer, when they are boiled and peeled. The darker colours come from boiling and peeling in winter, soon after cutting.
Peeling used to be done by hand, but the bulk of the crop is now machine-peeled, only a few whites being done manually. In both cases a device called a willow-brake is used (Illus 4). Two smooth metal rods are sprung together and the willow rod is drawn between them, stripping off the bark (Illus 5). After peeling, the rods are dried in the open air spread out along hedges, fences and walls, a characteristic sight throughout willow country.
Insufficient willows are grown in England today to keep basketmakers supplied. West Country baskets are mostly made of Somerset willows, but basketmakers in the cities in Scotland, the Midlands and East Anglia, if they are unable to get local willows, are compelled to use imported ones.
Excellent white or buff willows are coming in from Spain, the Netherlands, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Madeira, Austria, Hungary and Germany. These willows are often better graded and cheaper than Somerset willows, but there is no doubt that English basketmakers prefer native material when they can get it. At least one Somerset man who has emigrated to New Zealand is getting his local buff willows shipped out to him.
PREPARATION FOR WORKING
Materials should be prepared and sorted beforehand. Osiers, as already mentioned, are bought by length only. All have a long taper but the thickness will vary, and when choosing rods for a particular basket one tries to match stakes with some care so that the parts used for the border will be fairly even. Only in the very finest professional work are rods precisely matched.
Bottom sticks should be approximately three times stouter than stakes, and will therefore have to come from a very long rod. Stakes and liners are stouter than wale, and waling rods stouter than side rods. Material for randing is naturally stouter than that for slewing, for which the tips will come in useful so that the stuff (as the basketmaker calls it) is not wasted.
A stout rod is one that has a big taper (Illus 6). The taper of willow rods is perhaps the greatest difference there is in the working of willow and cane. The use of willows is so much a matter of eye and of experience because, like rushes, they are natural materials which, though cultivated, are not machine processed. In making a willow basket it is well to remember that you are making something that cannot be made by machine.
Willows are worked in a damp or mellow condition which means that they must be soaked in cold or warm water (never hot) and then allowed to lie covered in a cool place.
Excerpted from THE COMPLETE BOOK OF BASKETRY by Dorothy Wright, David Button, Susan Smith, Malcolm Couch, Paul Riley. Copyright © 1992 Dorothy Wright. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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