Dave French

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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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