Basket

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After working with Greta for two-and-a-half years, I suppose it was inevitable that some of her enthusiasm for baskets would rub off on me.  Spurred on by this and the success of last year’s introduction to blacksmithing day at Avoncroft Museum, I spent a very pleasant Saturday last month making my very first basket. I attended an ‘Introduction to Willow Weaving’ course run by Jon Ridgeon at Winterbourne House & Garden in Birmingham.

Basket-making

The all-important tea break, after completing the base of my basket.

Being somewhat familiar with basketry tools, terms and techniques from my involvement with the Stakeholders project, the craft felt oddly familiar for something that I had never attempted before. We made simple little round-based baskets with pretty arched handles. If I remember correctly, we used twining to make the circular base then added in the vertical stakes which would form the basis of the basket’s sides. The sides consisted of a combination of ‘french randing’ and a ‘three-rod wale’. Finally we finished the sides off with a rim and added a hazel handle. I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of my complete basket to share with you but I promise that while identifiably having been made by a complete beginner, it wasn’t too terrible! It was a brilliant day, and it was really interesting to see how different all our baskets looked, given that we had followed the same instructions!

I’m hoping to go along to some more of Jon’s courses in the coming months and hopefully also have a go at some other crafts. I’m happy to take recommendations as to what to have a go at next – and if it’s a craft with relevant collections at MERL, all the better!

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Towards the end of last month I got to attend a training day run by Share Museums East called ‘The Wood from the Trees’. It was a day of training and advice about identifying and understanding different types of timber and their uses.

We started the day by going through some common terminology relating to wood, some of which I was familiar with and some of which was entirely new to me. I knew about softwood and hardwood, but not about the difference between sapwood and heartwood, and knew about knots and rings but not rays!

The next topic was the features and uses of eight common timber types: oak, ash, beech, sycamore, pine, mahogany, walnut and elm. Once we’d discussed their qualities and identifying features, we were given eight samples of wood to identify. My group got all eight right, but of course the task was made easier as we knew that they were each one of the specified eight that we had already talked about.

Wood identification samples

Wood samples and objects to practice our new-found identification skills on.

More difficult, but a more useful skill for someone working in a museum, was the next task. We were given a selection of wooden artefacts and asked to identify what they were made of.  My developing knowledge of baskets and basket-making gleaned from working with a basket enthusiast/obsessive helped me with the object in the photograph – a bicycle basket made of split oak by Owen Jones. The other objects we had to work with were much harder – objects are often polished and stained, making it harder to identify the wood by colour and texture.

The day was rounded off by a series of tasks designed to test how well we understood the different properties of types of wood. We imagined we were timber merchants offering advice to customers who wanted the right type of wood for a particular purpose. These skills should help me to make an educated guess at a wood I can’t directly identify, based on what the object was used for. My favourite fact from the day was that mahogany would actually be a brilliant wood for general-purpose outdoor functional uses. As a tropical hardwood it is very durable and good in wet conditions, but because it is so expensive you’d probably get some odd looks if you tried to make a farm gate out of it!

For anybody who’d like to find out more about wood identification, the course leader Robin Hill recommended the book ‘What Wood is that? The Manual of Wood Identification’ by Herbert L. Edlin.

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Hard at work

Hard at work

We followed up the success of the first day of the Stakeholders workshop visit with an even more successful second day. Working in pairs throughout the two days, our expert makers looked at over 45 baskets and recorded incredibly detailed information about each of them. I was really pleased that we managed to get through all of the ‘high priority’ baskets, and made a good start on the ‘medium priority’ ones – as well as giving everyone the opportunity have a look at anything they were particularly interested in. The recording forms have all been scanned and I will hopefully be attaching them to the records next week. I won’t get a chance to do the proper cataloguing until the new year but in the meantime I will endeavour to post about some of the baskets that were looked at and share what we’ve learned about them.

One of the most fascinating elements of the visit was listening to the conversations that were going on and the questions that everyone was asking of each other – ‘what would you call this?’, ‘have you ever seen anything like this before?’, ‘is this typical of English work?’ and so on. The main focus of the whole project is the sharing of skills and knowledge, and it was wonderful to see this in action.

As well as the rich information recorded during the visit, I’ve also gathered various tips and pointers on places to look for further information, which books to look in, well-known names to look out for and that sort of thing.

We were all pretty exhausted by the end of the two days – a lot of concentration on behalf of the makers, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on our part getting all the baskets out and putting them away again. I hope that everyone went away feeling satisfied and inspired! It will be interesting to look at everyone’s work in a year or so to see if it has been shaped or influenced in any way by the things that everyone saw at MERL. A huge thank you to all the makers!!!!

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MERL 64/200. This is one of the High Priority baskets. Although we have some information on the materials it's made from, we have no details about its construction. It is thought that this basket may have been used for samples by the Water Board.

MERL 64/200. This is one of the High Priority baskets. Although we have some information on the materials it’s made from, we have no details about its construction. It is thought that this basket may have been used for samples by the Water Board.

We’re nearly ready to welcome the ten basketmakers to MERL next week to take part in the two-day study visit as part of the Stakeholders project. I’m very excited that it’s finally happening – it seems an awfully long time since July when we heard the project was going ahead!

I’ve nearly completed all the preparations for the session. I’ve finally managed to organise the baskets into high, medium and low priority categories, and I’ve created a recording form which I hope is easy to use and reasonably consistent with forms that have been used in the past. For each basket, I have printed out the current Adlib record and photocopied the form onto the back – this way, we’ve got ready access to the information we already know about each basket and can easily identify the gaps that need filling. There are still a few remaining bits and pieces to do – like making sure there’s room in the Museum store for us all, getting the first few baskets out, and making sure we have enough pencils – but I think we should be good to go on Tuesday morning! I think it’s going to be a very busy two days, but hopefully I’ll find time next week to blog about how it all went.

Although it’s going to be very intense, I think that in some ways the study visit is the easy part of the project. I think the challenging part will be inputting all the information we’ve gathered into the catalogue in a logical, consistent, searchable and user-friendly way (which will hopefully tie into the work I’ve been doing with thesaurus terms as part of the Countryside21 project). I’m also hoping to do some follow-up research in the MERL Library and Archives where necessary. Then there’s the commissions aspect of Stakeholders still to think about, arranging photography of the baskets which currently have no photos, and putting together some form of exhibition from the project – be it online, or in the form of banners for a pop-up or temporary exhibition. But challenging or not, I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in!

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The amazing array of baskets we got to look at and (very unusually for people who work in a museum) handle freely!

The amazing array of baskets we got to look at and (very unusually for people who work in a museum) handle freely!

Life at MERL is a little bit manic at the moment as Our Country Lives has somewhat taken over all of our lives, and finding time to make progress on all of the other projects we’re working on isn’t easy! However, while everyone else spent Monday battling with storylines, themes, subthemes and object selection, I spent the day at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk learning how to read a basket – all in the cause of Stakeholders of course! The training was hosted by SHARE Museums East and run by Mary Butcher, President of the Basketmakers’ Association and font of basketmaking knowledge, who will be joining us at MERL next month for Stakeholders. The training was intended for museum staff and volunteers to help us identify the basics or our basketry collections, such as key materials and techniques.

Mary talked us through the six key basketry techniques – coiling, twining, plaiting, netting/knotting, stake and strand, and assembly – and then set us the challenge of grouping the baskets she’d brought in from her own collection of world basketry. There were some spectacular baskets and it was quite a challenge in some cases.

Next up was materials. Willow, cane and rush are the most common materials used in British basketry. There are three ‘types’ of willow – white willow (cut and then peeled between April and June – the fancy stuff), buff willow (boiled and then peeled – the everyday stuff) and brown willow (cut and dried with the bark on – the rough stuff). Cane is a general term for rattan, and is identified by the distinctive ‘nodes’ where the leaves had once been. Cane can be used as whole cane, split cane, and centre cane. We also touched on some of the different materials used around the world – Mary had examples of dockage (dock leaf stalks – Shetland), birch bark (northern Scandinavia, Russia and Canada), esparto grass (Spain), pine root and orchid root.

Basketmaking tools are quite simple.

Basketmaking tools are quite simple.

Mary also gave us some tips on how to spot an English basket. For example, the way the handle is fixed is a key indicator – English baskets often have a ‘cross’ handle while Eastern European ones are lapped. Another difference can be seen in the way the stakes are positioned in the base of an oval basket – in English baskets they poke directly into the base at right angles to the edge whereas in every other country they are bent to the side so that they are parallel to the edge (I think!).

Mary also showed us the range of tools used in basketmaking (all fairly low-technology) and I was pleased to know that I recognised most of them from last summer’s cataloguing work. She also gave us a demonstration of making willow skeins – splitting the rod into three with a cleave, and passing it repeatedly through a shave to remove the pith and make it thinner and thinner and thinner.

The best – and most unexpected – bit of the day was the hands-on element. We got to make some rush rope in the morning, and in the afternoon we made a Catalan serving tray. I’ve seen these made a few times so it was really fun to finally have a go myself. As Mary said, having a go with the materials is the best way to understand them!

Some of the Catalan serving platters we made on the day - mine is middle left.

Some of the Catalan serving platters we made on the day – mine is middle left.

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MERL 90/43. A military shell basket, for protecting artillery shells, dating from World War I.

MERL 90/43. A military shell basket, for protecting artillery shells, dating from World War I.

Following on from last week’s post, I’d like to introduce the remaining five participants of Stakeholders.

Karen Lawrence started her basketmaking with a variety of short courses. She then took the Creative Basketry course at the City Lit, and is now part of a group called The Basktery Collective. She works in willow, rush and cane.

Sarah Le Breton is a willow sculptor and tutor, who creates life size or larger willow animals and teaches sculpture workshops for adults and children. Recently Sarah has started to develop her artistic skills and knowledge by studying and exploring the craft of basketry and in doing so has discovered her passion for preserving the skills and heritage of the craft.

Annemarie O’Sullivan took the Creative Basketry course at the City Lit, and in 2010 was part of the Emerging Makers Programme run by the Crafts Council. She has a deep respect for ancient crafts, and is attracted to the sturdiness of agricultural baskets. Her studies have included coracles, split wood basketry, frame baskets, living willow structures and bamboo structures. Annemarie is passionate about all things woven, knotted and netted, and transfers the traditional skills of basketmaking into larger woven forms, working mainly with willow and coppiced ash. She also works in schools and teaches traditional basketmaking skills to adults.

Maggie Smith became interested in basketry in the 1980s and she later went on to study Creative Basketry at the City Lit. She is passionate about traditional craftsmanship and her work, both traditional and contemporary, is rooted in the traditional basketry techniques. Her more traditional work includes functional baskets and garden structures, while her contemporary work focuses on using materials in new ways, often starting with a found object.

Angie Tavernor is a vet, and teaches veterinary anatomy at the Cambridge vet school. She has a passion for 3D crafts – having tried anything from welding to felt-making – and had her first go at basketmaking eighteen months ago when she attend Sue Kirk’s summer school (Sue is also joining us in Stakeholders). Angie has continued to attend Sue’s workshops, and makes baskets and garden sculptures at home.

I mentioned in last week’s post that I was going to the Basketmakers’ Association AGM on Saturday 19 October. It was a really interesting day, and it was great to meet some of the people taking part in Stakeholders, as well as many other basketmakers. The theme of this year’s AGM was participation and there were talks from Prue Thimbleby, Debbie Hall and Caroline Gregson on their work in basketmaking in the community/community basketmaking. I also met a basketmaker who is trying to make a military shell basket – a basketwork casing for an artillery shell. It just so happens that we have one of these at MERL – and it’s one of the baskets that we’ll be looking at in Stakeholders.

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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 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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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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