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The day has finally come when I have to say goodbye to MERL. I’ve been here for nearly three years and have loved absolutely every minute of it – it really has been a dream job!!! And, in all honesty, I think I can say that there’s only been one day when I wasn’t looking forward to going in – which is pretty good going! MERL has been wonderful place to work (largely thanks to my amazing colleagues and volunteers, and the fantastic Felicity in particular) and I’ve loved all of the different things I’ve been involved in – the various projects, the events, meeting visiting researchers, and trying to convince everyone that baskets are the Best Thing Ever!

The thought of leaving MERL and all my beloved craft collections (especially the baskets) is absolutely heart-breaking, but at the same time I’m really looking forward to my new adventures at the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. But my departure from MERL certainly isn’t an end to my love affair with craft – I’ll be carrying on as a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association and will hopefully continue to try my hand at lots of crafts.

Thanks everyone!

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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.

 

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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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Yesterday was one of the Best Days Ever! At the suggestion of Sarah Le Breton, one of the basketmakers who took part in the Stakeholders project, I went to visit the Willow and Wetlands Visitor Centre in Stoke Saint Gregory, Somerset – the home of P. H Coate & Son, willow growers and basketmakers.

Coates started out in 1819 and is still a family business. I met Jonathan and Nicola Coate, and Jonathan’s mother Anne. Sarah and I started the day with a wonderful tour by Anne (I just wanted to scribble down everything she was saying), which included the history of willow-growing in the Somerset Levels and the history of the business, the museum collection of baskets (one of the main reasons for my visit), the methods of processing willow and, finally, the workshop where five makers were hard at work.

In the afternoon, Nicola drove us round the withy beds which were badly affected by the flooding earlier in the year. Miraculously, Coates managed to harvest about 80% of its willow, but the silt on the stems of the unharvested willow showed just how bad the flooding was.

Two baskets at MERL made at Coates circa 1945. (L) MERL 60/457, potato hopper. MERL 60/459, potato planting basket.

Two baskets at MERL made at Coates circa 1945. (L) MERL 60/457, potato hopper. (R) MERL 60/459, potato planting basket.

With the collapse of the basketmaking industry after World War Two, Coates have had to diversify their offer over the decades – making new types of baskets (e.g. willow coffins), finding new markets (e.g. for films, TV and theatre), making new products altogether (in the 1960s Coates began to make artists charcoal), keeping beef cattle (it was traditional in the Levels for cattle or sheep to graze on the harvested withy beds to eat any early shoots) and, obviously, becoming a tourist attraction.

Coates is an amazing place and offers a really unique experience. I sometimes feel like a bit of a heretic in the museum world because my true passion lies in keeping craft skills alive, rather than in keeping craft objects forever. I’m particularly interested in whether museums can play a role in ensuring the survival of a craft and what that role can be. I’m also really interested in exploring what can be done with smaller craft collections (be they in museums or otherwise) and the different ways they can be used.

A beach chair, for protecting holiday-makers from the wind. They were available for hire in the same way as deck chairs are today.

A beach chair, for protecting holiday-makers from the wind. They were available for hire in the same way as deck chairs are today.

So for me, Coates is so wonderful because you can see the craft of basketmaking in its full context and appreciate that the survival of a craft relies on so much more than just the making of the end product. At Coates you can see the whole chain of basketmaking – from growing the willow, to harvesting it, and to processing it, and then using it. It’s a great combination – the focus is very much on the making (it is a business after all), which keeps the craft alive and ensures that skills are passed on, and is supported by the collection of historic English willow baskets which present the history of the craft from a museological angle.

I came away full of ideas, and my mind was buzzing on the train home making links and connections between the baskets at Coates and those here at MERL. It was reaffirming to see similar baskets in both – it shows to me that MERL’s collection contains the right sorts of baskets. It was great to see crossovers – bushel baskets, picnic baskets, sparrow traps, singlesticks etc. It also confirms my love of baskets justification – that ‘anything and everything was made out of basketry’ – from pans for scales, to carriages for spinal patients, to hireable windproof beach chairs! The visit has also given me loads of ideas for blog posts and avenues to explore – I’ve been meaning to write something about our artillery shell basket for a while now and Coates had numerous wartime baskets, the most intriguing of which is a willow aeroplane seat from World War I, and Anne showed me a World War II government publication entitled ‘Baskets into Battle / from Willow to Weapons’.

Thank you so much to Anne, Nicola, Jonathan and Sarah for making it such a wonderful day! I really hope I can visit again.

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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.

 

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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.

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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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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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