Mary Butcher

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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.

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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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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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