My talk ‘Basket Tracks: Where have We Come From and Where are We going?’
This was a wonderful event and everyone I spoke to enjoyed it enormously, so varied, so rich. And lots of talking time with other basketmakers but, of course, never enough! Congratulations to Hilary, Angela and Geraldine and all the many helpers and basketmakers.
I only was able to go for a long weekend and gave a talk on the Sunday before the final procession.
It made me gather thoughts and string together parts of my practice to come up with the state of play for myself and, as important at least if not more so, for my students and the next generation. It is imperative that we all pass on as much as we can to the next generation, in schools, colleges, and wherever we can. Most of us do this as a secure regular income for craftspeople today depends on teaching opportunities, but I wonder about the wringing of hands over the fact that many who come to classes are mid career. I came in to the craft as a second career, as do many, but there is still time to acquire good skills and excite others.
Part of my talk dwelt on the types of baskets made over a period and the ever-changing nature of basketmakers’ practices. We come to the upsurge in basketmaking from the second half of the 1700’s that accompanies the Industrial Revolution, with an enormous increase in need for transportation of objects. These baskets are recorded in Trade Lists, each region having their own and reflecting the local industries. Trade Lists were essential to the basket trade and listed everything that might be made in workshops at a particular date. They were to help the Governor of the workshop price up work for Friday pay day by listing all the parts of a basket and giving a price for each, numbers of stakes, height and size all being listed, as are all fastenings and fittings. Each entry is, in a way, a basket recipe although intended for the weekly tally. The List for London in 1895 when the Industrial revolution was peaking and baskets were used for all transport both inside factories, taking goods to market, for agriculture, with animals and domestically, is a long one. It included “SpireTop Cages, ArchTop Cages, Dove Cages, Florarrrays, Knife Baskets, Straw Baskets, Bonnet Baskets (upright), Hand Baskets, strong Hand Baskets, Hawker’s Cap and Shoe Baskets, Hat Baskets, Box Baskets (Covered), watercress Hampers (cane), Railway Truck Baskets (coarse randed), Chalk Baskets (Cane, Made Light), … I could go on, but it is evident that most of these baskets are unfamiliar to us today but being well known then as part of London life.
The next list I have, 1915, at the height of the First World War, gives us a snapshot of the dramatic changes in ways of life. It lists such things as Post Office Department baskets, lots of handcarts and bicycle baskets, office basket for wastepaper, letters, collecting baskets and a War Office Department section with many sizes of basket for soiled linen, Medical comfort panniers, signaling panniers, Nurses hip baskets, ambulance baskets as well as those for medical supplies on the one hand and Howitzer, shrapnel and Lyddite rectangular Shell baskets on the other. All ammunition was carried in individual baskets as it was all so prone to explosion simply by being knocked.
The 1945 List for London, just following the Second World War, had some of the baskets we might now expect, square work, round work for the office, transport of particular foods, and a lovely Agricultural List: potato molly, bushels and half bushels, potato prickle, hop baskets, cabbage crates, cherry pickers, flats, rabbit flats, but then comes the Government section: lots for the office again, the Post Office, but also Air Ministry Pigeon baskets, Drop bag fittings, Copper suction strainers, and other exotica we know nothing of now. Airborne Panniers, Gun mats, are a large section here, bringing us to the reality of the effect of the war on basketmaking in this country. Tom Carpenter, the basketmaker in Sandwich, near me in Kent, and who taught my teacher, Alwyne Hawkins, was allowed willow for local work if he filled a Government quota for the war effort as well. This enabled him to continue making and repairing hop and fruit baskets so local farmers could gather and market the annual harvests.
The last List produced in 1956, and republished by the BA, sounds much more familiar, even if we don’t make the baskets today. There are many for domestic life: cradles, cutlery trays, and hampers, much more fitched work and again with an Agricultural section. The War Department has shrunk considerably and life looks less stressful but it marks the beginning of the end for the bigger basket workshops. Coconut fibre bags and wooden boxes had already replaced many baskets and the imports from Poland and then further East accelerated.
I would like to speculate about a Trade List for today’s baskets and what such a list might look like at various points in the future. If we had had such a list in recent decades it would have shown ever increasing change, until in the 1990’s many shapes and sizes of kitchen draw would have been in the List, as would the garden structures now so prevalent, there would have been colourful baskets with different willow varieties. Later, coffins, made in many different ways, would have been strongly in evidence, as would all sorts and dimensions of obelisk, spheres for the garden, fantasy objects with random weave and maybe even an ever-increasing Gallery Work section, work somehow grouped into families the by materials or techniques or colour or size. And what for the next decades? I will speculate a bit next time.
If any of you have Trade Lists or know of there whereabouts I would love to hear from you. The last List published, 1956, has been reproduced, with a Preface on how to use it, by the Basketmakers’ Association and I have found it a very useful document.