Basketry

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MERL 70/223 and 70/224. Two of the four 'Southport boat' baskets included in Stakeholders. Are all in Southport boats made using the same materials and the same construction techniques?

MERL 70/223 and 70/224. Two of the four ‘Southport boat’ baskets included in Stakeholders. Are all in Southport boats made using the same materials and the same construction techniques?

107 baskets have been initially selected for study in the Stakeholders project. These are baskets that have never been looked at by a basketmaker, or someone with expert knowledge. By and large, they are baskets which do not have one of Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms (transcribed and scanned as part of A Sense of Place). With a few exceptions, they were all acquired by MERL after 1970.

107 seems like an awful lot of baskets for 10 makers to look at it in 2 days, so I’ve started the process of prioritising them. I haven’t used any set criteria for these, but have tried to take the following into account:

  • Whether we already know something about the materials – bearing in mind that there could be errors
  • Whether we already know something about the techniques – again bearing in mind that there could be errors
  • Whether the basket has a complicated weave or combinations of weaves – I’m going on a course called ‘How to Read Baskets’ at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse in November where I’ll learn to recognise different materials and identify basic techniques
  • Whether the basket is of particular interest for some reason – such as having an interesting use or provenance, or an unusual appearance etc.

There are some baskets which I’ve instantly catgegorised as low priority. These include:

  • Samples
  • Miniatures
  • Spale baskets  – the construction/techniques are obvious
  • Assembly baskets (such as trugs and Devon splint baskets) – again, the construction/techniques are obvious

There are still some baskets I’m unsure about. For instance, 4 ‘Southport boat’ baskets are included in Stakeholders but are they all the same? Are they all made in the same way using the same construction/weave? Do we need to look at all of them or will one do? And how do I choose which one?

I’m still working on this process – I currently have about 55 in the high priority category (which seems a bit too many), 17 as medium priority, and 44 as low priority.

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MERL 70/149. A 'malt skep', used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging it across the malthouse floor.

MERL 70/149. A ‘malt skep’, used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to the working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging the skep across the malthouse floor.

This week I’ve started thinking about how best to record the information that we gather during the project. I’ve been exploring the functionality of Adlib, our collections database, to see what sort of things we can record and where. Adlib has specific fields for ‘materials’ and ‘techniques’ which we don’t currently use – these are something I want to experiment with during Stakeholders (which might also benefit other work, such as the craft cataloguing for another project I’m working on, Reading Connections). The advantage of these fields is that they are searchable and, because they are terminology-controlled, the terms used can be standardised.

I’ve also been thinking about how to record some of the more detailed information that we’ll hopefully gather. My current thoughts are to complete a detailed recording form for each basket which can then be attached to the database record, in a similar manner to Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of Baskets’ forms, but hopefully with slightly more detail. We could fill in everything we already know, add to it during the workshop visit, and circulate to participants afterwards for them to check and add any additional information. However, this wouldn’t be searchable as an attachment but it would mean that the information was there – I need to discuss this idea with Ollie and see what he thinks.

I’ll also need to think about how to record more general and perhaps tangential information that will inevitably emerge – things like memories and reminiscences, makers’ personal experiences, related photos and films etc.

I’ve also been taking advantage of the MERL Library to look for basket-related books and have started to compile a list of key terms – focusing on materials, techniques, and names for parts of a basket. So far, I’ve been through the Basketmakers’ Association’s list of terms, Mary Butcher’s Willow Work, and Sue Gabriel and Sally Goymer’s The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques. If anyone has any other recommendations, or knows of any good existing lists of terms, please let me know!

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MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we're hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but no nothing about its construction and the techniques used in it.

MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we’re hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but know nothing about its construction and the techniques used.

It’s been as busy as ever at MERL over the past few weeks, what with putting up the new temporary exhibition, Collecting the Countryside: 20th century rural cultures, and preparations for the Berkshire Show this weekend, amongst other things. However, I’ve managed to find some time to start planning for Stakeholders, our new basketry project, and it turns out that there’s an awful lot to think about!

My priority over the past few weeks has been to find the ‘established’ and ‘emergent’ basketmakers to participate in the project. I’ve nearly got everyone confirmed, and will hopefully introduce them to you in a few weeks’ time. My next priority has been to identify the baskets that we intend to study in the course of Stakeholders, and establish what information we already know about them and what we want to find out. This is a work in progress.

As well as the logistical side of things, there’s also a lot of other preparation that needs doing in advance of the two-day hands-on workshop at MERL to study the baskets. I’m slightly worried about how many baskets it’s actually possible for ten people to look at in two days, so I want to make a list of those baskets that I feel it’s essential to look at (e.g. the ones we know least about, or the ones that seem to be the most interesting) so that we can prioritise them. I also want to pool together any readily accessible existing information about these baskets/types of baskets, e.g. from the MERL Library and Classifieds. I then need to think about what information we want to record about the baskets (e.g. materials and techniques in particular), how to record that information during the workshop, and how to incorporate that information into the database. Thankfully, the visit from Basketry and Beyond in May gave me some experience for how to run such a session.

In the longer term, I also need to think about the commissions aspect of the project and the final outcomes including, we hope, some form of temporary or touring exhibition.

Lots to think about, so I’d better get back to it…

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Radcliffe Trust baskets

Some of the baskets to be studied in ‘Stakeholders’. Clockwise form top left. MERL 69/196, MERL 70/224, MERL 96/94, MERL 97/94.

For those of you who have been following the MERL Projects blog, you’ll know that we’ve been doing quite a bit of work with MERL’s basketry collections over the past eighteen months. We now have the opportunity to build on that work with Stakeholders, a new project generously funded by The Radcliffe Trust, which will explore the collection in more detail.

MERL has an excellent and extensive basketry collection comprising over 620 baskets, basketwork objects and basketmaking tools. However, of these, approximately 100 baskets have never been studied by a specialist, meaning there is a significant gap in knowledge about these baskets. The aim of Stakeholders is to address this gap and provide much-needed enhancements to the knowledge we hold in relation to the collection, and to the collection itself.

Stakeholders will entail an intensive two-day hands-on workshop at MERL with established and up-and-coming makers to examine this subset of un-studied baskets, to support two strands of activity.

  • Strand 1 will facilitate peer to peer (i.e. established maker to up-and-coming maker) and specialist to non-specialist (i.e. maker to Museum staff) sharing of skills- and materials-based knowledge, relating largely to basket construction, history and use.
  • Strand 2 will result in the commissioning of new pieces from emerging makers to address gaps and/or produce replicas of vulnerable baskets in the wider MERL collection. These items will be accessioned into the MERL collection.

Stakeholders will not only contribute to our understanding of the collection, but will also enable us to enhance our resources, inspire creativity, and foster community stewardship amongst emergent makers.

I’ll hopefully be posting regular updates on the progress of the project here, and have grouped all previous basket-related posts under the category ‘Stakeholders’ to make searching for basket-related blog content a lot easier.

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From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity's poker.

From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity’s poker.

Felicity and I have been working on so many different and exciting things recently that we’ve got a bit of a blog-backlog, so I thought I’d give you a quick update on some of the things we’ve been up to (and hopefully more detailed posts will follow when we get a chance).

At the beginning of July, Felicity and I went on a one-day blacksmithing course at Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove as part of our bid to try out different crafts so that we have a better understanding of them and can catalogue them more accurately. We both made beautiful pokers – and the glorious weather we’ve been having recently has given us a chance to test them out on the BBQ.

The following week, we had two days of photography training at Reading Museum’s store – learning all about lenses, apertures, shutter speeds, focusing and so many other things – and then began photographing their 600 shortlisted Historic World Objects as part of the Reading Connections project.

Last week, six of us were lucky enough to go to Sweden (generously funded by ERASMUS) to visit the Nordic Museum and Skansen (one of the world’s oldest open air museums) in Stockholm. We also had a chance to visit the Gustavanium at the University of Uppsala. The main purpose of the visit was to exchange ideas and inform plans for future development at MERL – but we all had our own areas of focus. Felicity was concentrating on the presentation of ethnographic material, particularly relating to the Sami, while I was looking at how craft was represented.

This weekend, Felicity attended an international conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (thanks to funding from the PRM and Oxford ASPIRE) on the topic of The Future of Ethnographic Museums. She gave a poster and presentation on the work of A Sense of Place and its links to museum ethnography. (Ollie has written an interesting post for the Our Country Lives blog about how the ethnographic discourse relates to MERL.) The conference was the culmination of a five year project funded by the European Commission called Ethnography Museums and World Cultures.

And this week (thanks to funding from ERASMUS and the HCA) I’m attending Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible heritage, where I’ll be presenting a paper on basketry as heritage in the UK. The conference includes a day of workshop visits, and also has sessions on intangible heritage and traditional craft, and intangible heritage and museology, all of which I’m really looking forward to.

In the meantime, Laura has been doing a fantastic job with enhancing object records and giving them the ‘Sense of Place treatment’. She’s well on her way to getting us to the 1970s – at which point we’re planning a celebration 1970s style!

So there’s plenty to blog about and hopefully you’ll hear more about all of this soon.

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Making a withy pot

I promised when I got back from the Basketry & Beyond Festival to write a blog post about ‘lobster pots’, having spent three days next to Dave French, a fifth-generation lobster pot maker, watching him make them. And it wasn’t just Dave – on the third day of the Festival he was joined by two other pot makers, each making pots in a different way. I’d previously ‘met’ Dave via comments he’d posted on this blog about lobster pots, so jumped at the chance to speak to him in person and find out more.

I quickly picked up a few key facts:

  • There’s no such thing as a ‘lobster pot’ or a ‘crab pot’ – they’re the same thing, and are called ‘withy pot’.
    What you catch with them depends on what type of bait you use – fresh bait for crabs, older bait for lobsters.
  • There’s a lot of variation in the shapes of the pots, and details in the weave make it possible to tell where, and even by whom, the pots were made.
  • Traditionally, Cornish pots have straight sides and are known as ‘inkwell’ pots, while Devon pots have more sloping sides.
  • Furthermore, the spiral tends to go anti-clockwise on the Cornish pot, and clockwise on the Devon pot.
  • Pots tended to be made in two sizes – a full size pot (approximately 2 feet tall and 26–28 inches in diameter at the base), and a ‘store pot’ of nearly twice the size for storing the catch until it was landed.
  • It takes 4–5 hours for one man to make a full size pot, although historically families would work together to make the pots.
  • The pots last 1.5–2 years with constant repair.
Withy pot 1-3a

From left to right. 1: Dave makes his pots standing up, and constructs them on a stand. He begins by inserting withies into the stand. 2: Dave weaves the mouth of the pot. 3: The fully-woven mouth.

Withy pot 4-6

From left to right. 4: Dave uses a ‘former’ to bend the withies down to form the curved top of the pot. 5: Dave ties the bent withies to the base of stand. 6: Dave has finished weaving the spiral sides of the pot. As he’s weaving, he inserts extra withies into the sides for support.

Withy pot 7-8

From left to right. 7: Dave takes the pot off the stand and turns it upside down to begin work on the base. 8: Dave cuts off any protruding bits of willow. This is particularly important around the mouth, to ensure that the fisherman’s hands weren’t cut when putting bait into the pot, taking the catch out of the pot etc.

Withy pot 9-11

From left to right. 9: Dave begins to make the base by bending down opposing sets of withies. 10: Dave bends down more sets of withies and ties them in place. 11: He begins to weave the base.

Withy pot 12-15

From left to right. 12 & 13: Dave continues to weave the base. 14: The finished pot!

Withy pot MERL

And finally, the withy pots we have here at MERL. Left: MERL 64/207. A full size pot. Right: 64/206. A store pot. Both were made by A. Hutchings and Sons of Beesands, Devon.

You can view the full records with further photos of our withy pots, as well as the rest of our collections, on our online catalogue.

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Festival2

This weekend I went to the Dartington Estate near Totnes, Devon, for the Basketry & Beyond Festival – three days of basket madness on the themes of fishing, farming and fashion. Throughout the weekend there were various demonstrations and have-a-go workshops for both beginners and professional basketmakers, as well as an illustrated talk from Mary Butcher (President of the Basketmakers’ Association, and recent winner of a national Craft Skills Champion award). The Festival ended with a wearable basketry fashion parade, with people wearing things they’d made throughout the weekend.

I was in the ‘Heritage Hall’ representing the Heritage Crafts Association, but also telling everyone about the wonderful basketry collections we have at MERL. Our stand was next to that of Dave French, fifth-generation lobster pot maker. Dave has commented on this blog in the past and shared details of his craft, so it was great to meet him and watch him at work. There’ll definitely be a post in the next couple of weeks on lobster pots, as I learned loads, and need to make some amendments to my cataloguing. On Sunday Dave was joined by two other pot-makers, each making pots in a different way. The Heritage Hall was also home to an exhibition about south west fishing baskets, which was based on some of the research that Basketry & Beyond did when they came to MERL a couple of months ago to see our south west baskets.

Festival1

From left to right: Mick Male, bee skeps; Dave French, lobster pots; Alan Lander, lobster pots; salmon putchers.

There was an ‘International Hall’ with French, German, Spanish, American, Japanese and Danish basketmakers – it’s surprising how different basketry from around the world can be when it’s all based on the same fundamental techniques. The International Hall was definitely a place that made you say ‘wow’!

As well as the lobster pot making, I really enjoyed seeing how other things we have in the MERL collections are made – such as salmon putchers, oak swills, bee skeps and wattle hurdles. One of my favourite parts of the weekend was getting to meet the craft legend that is Owen Jones, the last professional swill basketmaker in the UK. Owen was featured in MERL’s Rural Crafts Take Ten project, and you can watch a video of him making his basket online and in the Museum, where you can also see one of his swills. There’s also a good blog describing how he does it. I could watch him working for hours and it took me a while to pluck up the courage to speak to him, and in the end I bought my very own swill – I can’t wait to use it!

Festival3

Owen Jones making swills, and testing the strength of my new acquisition!

 

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Following on from my previous post about Basketry & Beyond’s visit to MERL yesterday, I just wanted to quickly post the list of information we think it’s important to record about baskets in museum collections. When I attended the Woven Communities basketry symposium last year, several museum curators mentioned the lack of expert knowledge about baskets embedded in their catalogues, and the need to work with basketmakers to better understand their collections. This was also the case with the collections at MERL, although baskets acquired prior to 1970 had been examined by Dorothy Wright, who recorded information systematically in her ‘Catalogue of Baskets’ forms. Building on those forms and the experience I had enhancing the catalogue records for MERL’s basketry collections (see earlier post), I compiled the following list in preparation for Basketry & Beyond’s research visit and for future research visits by other basketmakers. Hopefully this can be used to inform future work about baskets both at MERL and at other institutions. I’d be interested to know if anyone has anything else to add!

General information

  • Standard name of basket
  • Dialect names and where they were used

 Information about this specific basket

  • Creator (who made this basket)
  • Place made (where was this basket made)
  • Date made (when was this basket made)
  • Acquisition source (who was this basket acquired from)
  • Acquisition place (where was this basket acquired from)
  • Acquisition date (when was this basket acquired)
  • User (who used this basket)
  • Place used (where was this basket used)
  • Date used (when was this basket used)
  • Use (what was this basket used for)
  • Materials (what is this basket made from)
  • Construction method/techniques (what is the construction of this basket)
  • Shape (what is the shape of this basket)
  • Dimensions (what are the dimensions of this basket)
  • Unusual features (unusual features of this basket, compared with other baskets of this type)
  • Associated information (anything else relating to this basket)

 Information about this type of basket

  • Materials (what was this type of basket commonly made from, if specific example is different)
  • Construction method/techniques (what was the construction of this type basket, if specific example is different)
  • Period in use (when was this type of basket used)
  • Use (what was this type of basket used for)
  • Distribution (where was this type of basket made/used)
  • Makers (who made this type of basket)
  • Current makers (is anyone still making this type of basket – who are they, where are they based)
  • References (books, articles etc. referring to this type of basket)
  • Images and other media (video, audio etc.) representing this type of basket
  • Wider historical context relating to this type of basket
  • Unusual features (unusual features of this type of basket compared with other types of baskets)
  • Associated information (anything else relating to this type of basket)
  • Other museums representing this type of basket

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IMG_6049

Over the past few months MERL has been working with an organisation called Basketry & Beyond, who have recently received a HLF-grant for a project to preserve and promote the heritage of basketry in the South West. This includes a Festival at the Dartington Estate in Totnes, Devon, in May to celebrate all aspects of basketry, with a focus on the themes of fishing, farming and fashion.

Yesterday six members of Basketry & Beyond came to MERL for a research visit to look at some of the baskets we have from the South West (the cataloguing work done as part of the Sense of Place project on the basketry collections means it was easy to identify this material – see an earlier post). The group were particularly interested in the types of baskets that are typical of the South West, rather than individual baskets that were made, used or acquired from the area but are not typical of the region. This included lobster pots and stores, Tamar chip baskets, Devon splint baskets, and salmon putchers. This research will be used to produce fact sheets about the history and heritage of the regional baskets, and will feed into an exhibition at the Festival.

This lobster store (MERL 64/206) was a lot bigger than I was expecting!

This lobster store (MERL 64/206) was a lot bigger than I was expecting!

We had a great day in the MERL stores. As well as having the baskets out to examine (some of which were surprisingly large) we had lots of books, pamphlets, magazine clippings, and photos from the MERL Library and Archives. There was a lot of sharing of knowledge – both ‘peer-to-peer’ between basketmakers (as everyone had their own area of expertise), and ‘specialist to non-specialist’ between the basketmakers and Ollie, Felicity and me ­– and plenty of exchanging of notes, articles, etc. Both sides now need to collate this information in meaningful ways – Basketry & Beyond for their fact sheets, and us to input into and disseminate via the online catalogue.

As well as being able to gather lots of useful information for the Festival, hopefully the session also gave Basketry & Beyond an opportunity to gain experience in researching and recording relevant information which they can use when visiting other institutions. We’re hoping to run this type of session again with other basketmakers to find out more about our basketry collections, particularly those which came in after 1970 and have never been examined by a basketmaker, so this was a good opportunity for us to figure out how what works well – the numbers of people it’s practical to work with, the number of baskets it’s possibly to look at in a day, the best way to record the information and feed it back into the catalogue, the things we need to have access to while working (the online catalogue, a scanner, a photocopier etc.).

You can find out more about the Festival on the Basketry & Beyond website and their Facebook page.

You can find out more about the baskets we looked at yesterday by visiting our online catalogue.

60/442 (Hive, skep; Basketwork); 60/444 (Basket, bird – ‘fowl crate’); 64/22 (Trap, salmon – ‘putcher’); 64/23 (Trap, salmon – ‘putcher’); 64/206 (Store, shellfish – ‘lobster store’); 64/207 (Pot, shellfish – ‘lobster pot’); 64/216 (Basket, fish – ‘maund’); 64/217 (Strainer, bilge; Basketwork); 65/284 (Pot, shellfish – ‘prawn pot’); 66/266 (Basket, fish – ‘cowel’); 66/347 (Basket, vegetable – ‘chip basket’), 66/348/1–2 (Basket, vegetable – ‘chip basket’); 68/92 (Basket, picnic; Bag); 68/561 (Basket, angler); 69/196 (Basket, vegetable – ‘black basket’); 71/224 (Basket, fruit; Basket, vegetable – ‘Worcestershire pot’); 91/38 (Basket, feeding; Basket, potato – ‘Devon splint’); 96/118 (Basket, feeding; Basket, potato – ‘Devon splint’).

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Bulk upload

Since February last year we’ve had a team of volunteers working on digitising our old black and white negatives. This was initially part of the JISC project, but we’ve been carrying on the project as it’s a great way to get images for the catalogue without having to take new photographs (which are very expensive and time consuming). We’ve now scanned about 7100 negatives, of which 6100 have been uploaded to the catalogue this week! There are still another 10 boxes of negatives to scan (23 in total), but we’re past the halfway mark.

In addition to the negatives, we also scanned the documentation in the accession files for 150 objects as part of the JISC project. This totalled nearly 2100 scans, and these too have now been uploaded to the catalogue.

And all of the scanning I did for the basketry collection, which included Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms and transcripts of an interview with Jack Rowsell, the last Devon splint basketmaker, and slides of Jack making the baskets, have also been uploaded.

So do take a look at our online catalogue and let us know what you think!

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