Basketry & Beyond

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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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