Welcoming the Basketmakers’ Association to MERL

Our beautiful commissions in a mixture of plain and arty shots (thanks Adam!). Top, L-R: Annemarie O'Sullivan, Bunty Ball, Sue Kirk. Bottom L-R: Maggie Smith, Karen Lawrence, the Meazzanine.

Our beautiful commissions in a mixture of plain and arty shots (thanks Adam!). Top L-R: Annemarie O’Sullivan, Bunty Ball, Sue Kirk. Bottom L-R: Maggie Smith, Karen Lawrence, the Mezzanine.

On Saturday we welcomed 50 basketmakers to MERL for the Basketmakers’ Association (BA) annual Summer Meeting. For me, it was a very important day as it felt like the culmination of the work I’ve been doing with MERL’s basketry collections over the past 2.5 years, and it was great to have the chance to share our wonderful collection with the people to whom it means the most.

The day consisted of a mixture of formal and informal sessions, with plenty of time for everyone to catch up with each other and share news. It was a gloriously sunny day, so we were able to make the most of the garden and had demonstrations in the sunshine from Rae Gillott making a willow waste paper basket, and Sheonagh Winterbourne doing rush chair seating.

I gave a talk on the history of the basketry collection at MERL (including my recent discovery of the Dorothy Wright archive – although I think this was only news to me), and the work I’ve been doing with the collections through A Sense of Place and Stakeholders. Bunty Ball talked about the BA’s Traditional Basketry Project, which essentially aims to document every traditional basket in the country – an enormous undertaking! Contact the BA if you want to find out more or want to get involved.

I also gave tours of the basketry collections in the stores. There was a selection of baskets out on the table for everyone to look at, along with accompanying documentation. This included baskets that were studied during the Stakeholders project, examples of baskets in different materials (e.g. rush, straw and marram grass) and baskets that have received a lot of interest over the past couple of years (e.g. a Devon splint basket and the artillery shell basket). We had some original photos from the Rural Industries Bureau from the 1930s out on display, and also some basketmakers’ ‘Lists of Sizes and Prices’, including one which dates from 1850. There was also the chance to look at the rest of the baskets in the store. Everyone was so informative and I’ve now got pages of notes full of information to add the catalogue!

The highlight of the day for me was, without a doubt, the arrival of some of the commissioned pieces from Stakeholders. They’re just absolutely wonderful and I’m so so so so thrilled with them! I’ll be blogging in more detail about each of them over the coming weeks, but here’s an overview. We received pottles from Annemarie O’Sullivan; a miniature version of Bunty Ball’s famous Sutton Hoo helmet; a panel entitled ‘Loosen the Corset’ from Karen Lawrence using white willow skeins woven using complex linking; a contemporary shopping style basket from Sue Kirk made using local (to Sue near Peterborough) willow and hazel, and inspired by the packing on some of our 1950s baskets; and a nest of three baskets made from every single part of the willow from roots to leaves and using 17 techniques, including some not normally associated with willow, from Maggie Smith. I love all of them, and can’t wait to get some proper photos of them!

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to take any photos during the day as I was rushed off my feet, but the atmosphere was wonderful  and I think everybody had a great time. The BA were as organised as ever, and came armed with books, noticeboards, information leaflets and (most importantly) cake! I’d like to say a huge thank you to the BA for choosing MERL as a venue, and to my colleague Phillippa for helping to organise the day and ensure it all ran smoothly.


Wonderful willow weaving at Winterbourne

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.


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!

Cataloguing the Stakeholders baskets

MERL 60/202 - photographs

MERL 60/202 – photographs

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post about the Stakeholders project – indeed, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to do any work on the project – but in the past couple of weeks I’ve finally been able to turn my attention back to my beloved baskets and have now added all the information that we gathered during the study visit to the catalogue. This isn’t the sort of skim-the-surface cataloguing that I’ve done for other projects at MERL – it’s much more in-depth. There’s now so much detail about the baskets that it’s like going from one extreme to the other.

I’ve typed up the recording forms that were completed during the visit, making a few amendments for clarity, so that all the details are available and can be brought up in a free text search. I’ve also attached scans of the original forms as well. I’ve then focused on adding the overall/general technique used*** (coiled, stake and strand, knotted or netted, plaited, twined, assembled), the main materials used, and providing more detailed dimensions. I’ve also edited the general descriptions I wrote when I catalogued the baskets first time round in summer 2012 to incorporate the additional information gained through the project and to ensure that all the details are correct.

The records now also have a really good set of photos attached to them – both general and close-up shots. Back in January we spent a very long day taking photos of about 65 baskets (the Stakeholders baskets plus those without colour photos) and ended up taking over 650 photos! And finally, as part of another project, I’ve been working through the entire collection (nearly 19,000 records) to give everything a new and standardised set of keywords – as a result, all the baskets, basketwork items and basketry tools now have keyword ‘basketry’, which can be used as another way to find them on the online catalogue (using the ‘subject’ field in the advanced search).

So have a look at the online catalogue and explore some of the baskets!

Stakeholders blog

MERL 68/202 – cataloguing work (internal catalogue view)

*** Technique refers to the overall construction of the basket. I did think about keywording for all the different techniques (e.g. slewing, randing, pairing, fitching, waling, etc.) but there were several issues with this: 1) I don’t fully understand them, which makes cataloguing a challenge; 2) I’m wary of filling the thesaurus with extremely niche keywords; 3) one basket can use so many techniques – indeed, one part of a basket can use so many techniques – so it all becomes extremely complicated to catalogue and makes the records unwieldy; and 4) I’m not sure there’s an awful lot of benefit to cataloguing in quite so much detail, especially as that information is present in the recording form (both the scan and the transcription).

MERL lunchtime seminar – Basketry skills as intangible heritage

Collections on mezzanine 011 compressed

If you happen to be in Reading today with nothing to do (4 February 2014) why not pop along to MERL at 13.00 for our lunchtime seminar? This series of talks, entitled ‘Untouchable England’, looks at how different forms of intangible heritage might help us explore and better understand rural England.

Today’s seminar will be given by… me! And I’ll be talking about basketry skills as intangible heritage, examining the idea of heritage craft, exploring values that basketmakers ascribe to their work, and looking to the future of intangible craft skills. After the talk there’ll also be an informal pop-up exhibition of baskets in the Museum’s mezzanine store and a chance to talk more about MERL’s current Stakeholders project.


Stakeholder success!

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!!!!

One day down…

Just a very quick post to say that we’ve had a really successful first day of the Stakeholders workshop visit to MERL. Our basketmakers have been great – so enthusiastic, and so knowledgeable! We’ve probably looked at about twenty baskets so far (good thing I prioritised them) and everybody’s written such detailed notes, and it’s been wonderful listening to everyone sharing their expertise. We’ve looked at some truly amazing baskets – and some truly hideous ones too! We’re all looking forward to another basket-packed day tomorrow.

MERL 78/48 A Victorian work basket avoided by everyone...

MERL 78/48 A Victorian work basket avoided by everyone…


... MERL 70/196 And a folding post office basket which packs down to about 4 inches in height. This is a to-scale model, but the full sized version was never made.

… MERL 70/196 And a folding post office basket which packs down to about 4 inches in height. This is a to-scale model, but the full sized version was never made.


Not long to go….

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!

How do you read a basket?

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.

Introducing the makers – Part 2

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.

Introducing the makers – Part 1

MERL 86/147/2. A lipwork basket made by Alec Coker and Doris Johnson - two craftspeople who were experts in straw work. We have a few lipwork baskets that might be examined during the Stakeholders study visit. However, these baskets are nothing compared to the impressive lipwork chairs I saw at St Fagans.

MERL 86/147/2. A lipwork basket made by Alec Coker and Doris Johnson – two craftspeople who were experts in straw work. We have a few lipwork baskets that might be examined during the Stakeholders study visit. However, these baskets are nothing compared to the impressive lipwork chairs I saw at St Fagans.

Apologies for the absence of a Stakeholders post last week. We’ve all been kept very busy with the Our Country Lives project (for the redevelopment of MERL) – although I did escape on Tuesday to visit St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff, where I was lucky enough to have a guided tour around the basketry collection (lots of amazing lipwork chairs, beautiful cyntells, and some thought-provoking lobster pots). I do, however, have some good Stakeholders news – all of the participants have now been confirmed! So today I’d like to introduce you to five of them.

Bunty Ball is Vice-President and Past Chairman of the Basketmakers’ Association, and was given a lifetime achievement award this year by the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers in recognition of her contribution to and support for basketmaking – as an art, a craft and a trade. She specialises in and teaches chair-seating – in cane, rush, willow and skein willow.

Hilary Burns originally trained as a fabric weaver, before taking up basketmaking in the 1980s. She works mainly with willow and hedgerow materials, producing both functional and sculptural pieces inspired by her study of traditional basketry techniques. Hilary is a co-founder of Basketry and Beyond, a voluntary organisation in the South West which promotes the use of natural materials and sustainable construction, and visited MERL as part of the organisation’s preparation for their Festival in May this year. She also teaches basketry to adults and children.

Mary Butcher is President of the Basketmakers’ Association. She was awarded an MBE last year for her services to basketmaking, and became a ‘Crafts Skills Champion’ at the Craft Skills Awards in May this year. Mary started out as a willow specialist, learning local traditional work from apprenticed makers, but now makes traditional and contemporary work in a wide range of materials, and using a wide range of techniques. She is committed to the transmission of basketry knowledge – researching the history of basketry, writing on the craft from both a historical and practical perspective, and teaching and mentoring. Mary has also curated and exhibited in innumerable exhibitions (solo and collaborative) and installations.

Sue Kirk describes herself as an ecological basketmaker. She works in willow, using a mixture of organically home-grown willow (she grows over fifteen varieties) and Somerset willow, making traditional and contemporary baskets and sculptures. Sue also teaches and runs workshops for beginners and improvers.

John Page began his basketmaking career with a City & Guilds course in creative basketry at the City Lit, having been greatly impressed by the Crafts Council’s Contemporary International Basketry exhibition. He now teaches rushwork at the City Lit and coordinates the course, and brings his students to MERL to view the basketry collections. He also edits the Basketmakers’ Association newsletter, and repairs harps.

I’m off to the Basketmakers’ Association AGM at the Artworkers’ Guild in London tomorrow, so hope to see some of you there! If you’re in Reading tomorrow, don’t forget to come along to Apple Day at MERL, 13.00-17.00.