Dartington Estate

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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.

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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!

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

 

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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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