Category Archives: News

So you want to be a basketmaker . . . .

How to set about it? Here are some tips and thoughts that may help you approach work in this, or perhaps many other, handskilled crafts.

Mary with baskets
Mary with baskets
  1. Have you the passion?

Do you love making things and baskets in particular? You’ll be doing it a long time and that is no good unless you find it all completely absorbing and every step a fascination. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you find it easy or that it is not difficult to start a project. Those blockages happen to us all from time to time, but it does mean that, once started, you forget your coffee gets cold beside you and time moves swiftly without you noticing.

This passion is usually built in, not manufactured, and you will know it when you find it. I had no intention of being a basketmaker but I just loved that first unexpected afternoon working with willow, making a round base. Being sent home with materials, being told to make six more, leads me to the next tip for going into a great life as a craftsperson.

  1. Be excellent at what you do.

These hand skills are acquired by simply doing the same thing over and over again, always concentrating on the tiny details to achieve the right end product. Build up your repertoire slowly. Four or five objects perfected is better than a range not made less well, while you are finding your feet. Chose your materials, refine your weaving, be as neat with every join as you possibly can, all while keeping an eye on the overall result. It is all about hand and eye co-ordination and training, so along with this practice you need a really good, confidence-inducing teacher. Stick with one or go to several for different things but grasp what is offered and have fun doing it. I hope you will revel in it all, the examples, the books, the glimpses of a full craft life.

  1. Versatility is a way of life.

When I learnt, willow basketmaking was a solitary business, the days of the big workshops all but over, so it was hard work ‘on the plank’, making as fast as you could while maintaining quality. Most basketmakers now enjoy being versatile, bringing financial security and lots of contacts too. Many of us teach once we have reached a good standard ourselves but beware, if you teach a lot you get less good as a maker. Basketmaking is a highly repetitive skill, needing constant attention, so mix the two as far as possible and don’t start neglecting the making if it is still in any way important to you.

Many of us now do more than one kind of basketmaking. Coiling or twining can be done more at the drop of a hat with less planning for preparation of materials and may allow you to enter different sets of events in a slightly different worlds, the 3D textile world, the paper world, and so shift your career. Try things but don’t forget that passion! It will show through.

  1. Be good at the office stuff too. Reliability is a lot.

Being responsive to requests for work or exhibition pieces, sending off your CV or 100 words at the right moment, goes a long way and helps your reputation (why am I doing this on a Sunday morning while on holiday?). Some of this is about learning to say ‘No’ so you have enough work but are not over burdened. This is hard, as we never know if more work is coming in and the administration can take over your life, these internet days. But being realistic about what you can cope with, being honest with people who approach you, being a pleasant person to deal with, are traits that should come naturally but maybe don’t in the welter of work. And learn to charge properly – the hardest thing of all. Value what you do while keeping an eye on the wider markets.

  1. Confidence

In the UK we are notoriously bad at this! Try to be proud of what you do but don’t brag about your successes – a fine line to walk. You can still be honest about them and build on them. Be confident to try for projects secure in the knowledge you have ideas and intentions. Don’t go in for anything half-heartedly. Any lack of commitment or vigour will show in the work.

  1. Look for Opportunities and enjoy yourself!

Now the world is your Oyster. Opportunities are everywhere, so go to basket websites and their links, go to Museum sites and look for exhibiting possibilities, ask colleagues and friends, search the Crafts Council and Arts Council information, try Artists Newsletter. All these have given me amazing experiences in the UK and many parts of Europe and the Americas. Start with www.basketassoc.org

Mary Butcher MBE

Crafts Skills Champion 2013

Basketmaker

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This Beloved Earth

The Barony Art Centre, West Kilbride KA23 9AR, Scotland

www.crafttownscotland.co.uk

This has just finished but you can see lots of images here, on the Gallery web site and others. I enjoyed being part of it very much and had a delightful week up there with a variety of events. Very interesting and varied, and very good company.

The title came from a poem of Denise Levertov’s that Joe Hogan knew, ‘For Instance’, which set the theme for the works. Joe is very exercised about climate change and why we cannot all act quickly enough and I am very exercised about habitat destruction and species decline, and all of us are environmentally aware. We were seven, Ewen Balfour, Lise Bech, Mary Butcher, Carlos Fontales, Joe Hogan, Barbara Ridland, Lois Walpole, all working with out own ideas, materials and techniques.

‘Willow Scribble’ clouds

I tried to represent different aspects of our world, and the ecological problems that exist. Some ‘Willow Scribble’ clouds, fun to do and not too bad to send up by post if they are small, though not as easy to hold together as might be thought. No nails or ties, that is my rule.
I tried to represent different aspects of our world, and the ecological problems that exist. Some ‘Willow Scribble’ clouds, fun to do and not too bad to send up by post if they are small, though not as easy to hold together as might be thought. No nails or ties, that is my rule.

Bowls of vellum

Bowls of vellum, an animal material, not to leave them out, and interesting to work with as it has it’s own qualities, unlike anything else I have used except seaweed. It is slightly gelatinous but with a pleasant feel to it, not like aspic, and many mistook it for seaweed when dry. Some would have preferred it to be a plant perhaps, but it is material that is a bye-product of the meat industry so must be used or wasted. It has colour variations according to the animal skin, but even ones that are not obviously splotchy have gradations and subtle shades, translucent areas and thicker sections. All make for small decisions and choices as I work.
Bowls of vellum, an animal material, not to leave them out, and interesting to work with as it has it’s own qualities, unlike anything else I have used except seaweed. It is slightly gelatinous but with a pleasant feel to it, not like aspic, and many mistook it for seaweed when dry. Some would have preferred it to be a plant perhaps, but it is material that is a bye-product of the meat industry so must be used or wasted. It has colour variations according to the animal skin, but even ones that are not obviously splotchy have gradations and subtle shades, translucent areas and thicker sections. All make for small decisions and choices as I work.

 Net

Seven nets, all strung to willow poles and off different threads, mostly natural, which roll up and go into a tube, so practical too!

These were made with the decline in songbird populations in Europe in mind. It is drastic, and a lot of damage is done when catching these birds in nets on their migration routes across Europe, for use as luxury food, Lark pate and such.

Knotted netting

Willow, dogwood, hemp string, sisal string, linen thread, cotton string, plastic covered wire as seven nets
Willow, dogwood, hemp string, sisal string, linen thread, cotton string, plastic covered wire as seven nets

Nets are a necessity for food in many cultures, for bird ringing for research, against animal attack. They are also used for many other non-essential purposes and so the nets may be scarlet and bloodied.

Sea Creatures

Now known only as a fossil

I also made one of my now familiar ‘Sea Creatures’ as I always enjoy doing them, enjoy playing with the lines and stretching the willow, usually dry, as far as I dare. They take a long time, all that binding but the moiré effects as you move passed are intriguing to me. I called it ‘Now known only as a fossil.

I was thinking about the grandson of a long-term friend who lives here in Kent by the sea and who, aged 5, is not obsessed with dinosaurs but with sea creatures. When I first came here and our children were small we found all sorts of things along the tide line. Once there was an influx of Sea Gooseberries, jelly balls with waves of hair-like cilia rippling along, so small so delicate, hard to spot on the beach. And I doubt if we would see such a thing now as many of our beaches are polluted and do not pass the present standard. After I had finished this piece for the exhibition I turned to the newspaper, by chance to read of the drastic decline of the moose population in North America. A parent expressed her concern that her child, with an obsessive desire to see one, might never have that opportunity when, in her own childhood, they had been common.

Seven Plant Strings

Olive Leaves, olive stems, acorns, oak galls, Acer fruits, Cypress cones, pine needles, linen threads.

These record something of our current diversity of plant species but with the underlying thought that even this richness will be impossible to maintain with our current lack of action on habitat loss and climate change.
These record something of our current diversity of plant species but with the underlying thought that even this richness will be impossible to maintain with our current lack of action on habitat loss and climate change.

I have been making these for a year or two, wherever I have been, but they have been private things, somehow, made to celebrate what I have seen and enjoyed and places I have been. All come from fallen fruits and seeds, stems that have been pruned or are to be used in some way, like vine ties. It takes a while to choose the threads, the spacings and to string them. They were beautifully hung in the Gallery. Maggie Broadley, the Curator, had spent thoughtful time on them, with spacing depending on the width of the shadows they each cast. I was delighted and specially by Joe’s comment which I think I am right in saying was ‘Blooming marvelous!’ They will be trademark pieces for me and I will continue with them wherever I am. They reflect all that childhood rambling I did as a child, out with bike and apple and plant spotting. I was mad on wildflowers at that time. Still am, really, but have forgotten a lot!

The Catalogue

We are lucky to have this and I like the way it is arranged, each of us with 4 pages and 4 images, one of us working, one of our materials, one of a piece of work and the last a wild place that is important to us, an good idea. That last was hard, as we had very short notice and my local wild places, in Blean Woods, parts of which are ancient woodland and familiar from many walks but I didn’t have images or time to get them. I used my desktop image of the sand causeway over to St Ninian’s Isle in Shetland, where I spent a day and didn’t see another sole. Rare. It is covered with footpaths so not wild to Shetlanders but wild to me. We each wrote a piece, too.

There are essays from Maggie Broadley, about the origin of the Gallery and CraftownScotland, a great innovation for the town as well as thoughtful comments on the exhibition. Barbara Ridland, from Shetland and who got us all together in the first place for a few fascinating days a couple of years ago, has written about the way the show was set up and our email conversations about our ideas.

I haven’t talked about everyone else’s’ work but it is varied and intriguing and beautiful, from Barbara’s fine, fine ‘Natural Flags’, of grasses and stems, plus some green wire thread I gave her at our first meeting 2 years ago (a nice echo), to Joe’s robust yet delicately constructed combinations of willow and wood, to Lise’s celebrations of willow, the garland, the colours of her homegrown material, and those lovely developments of the Catalan basket technique. Lois has gathered all sorts of waste plastics and ropes round the coast of Yell, the Shetland Isle where she is at home, brilliant colours with coiled edges and arranged as a careful installation. Carlos had developed the esparto technique of a spiral plait, and combined it with Rumex stems, rich burgundy color, and Ewen has extended his work of 2 years ago when he made a ceremonial ‘hat’ using his extensive knowledge of Shetland materials, rushes and seaweeds as there are no trees.

I don’t know if there are catalogues left, but they can’t be sold because of copyright issues connected with the poem. If you sent a good donation and covered postage (check with the web site first), say £5 plus, you might be lucky.

Next Year at The Barony

 The Scottish Basketmakers Circle will be having an exhibition there so that is worth factoring in to any travel to Scotland you may plan.

Selection is in the New Year.

Look at www.scottishbasketmakerscircle.org for information

 

Made in Brighton again

Since I had my grand day out in Brighton both basketmakers have sent images of their work which I am using here. Louise’s colourful chair is shown well enough but was even, deliciously, much brighter in reality, and Annemarie’s baskets, stacked here, show such great control and rhythm. Contrasts, good ones.

String and cane chair seating

illie Robb for Annemarie Osullivan

Basketry and Beyond Festival

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.

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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.

Art in Romney Marsh

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I had a month with work in Fairfield Church in September, very short notice but such a treat. I enjoy being down there very much. Those wide skies and flat landscape have always appealed to me and make me feel at home. Many moons ago I spoke about wetland  at the morning assembly at a Danish Summer School and surprised myself with the life-long thread that has run though my life. So here it was a gain. I was able to use all of Fairfield Church, very tiny, very beautiful and tranquil, all by itself. No village, just fields and sheep and a great photo in the church showing the flood waters lapping the church in the mid 1960’s.

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I enjoyed getting down there early and sitting watching the murmurations of starlings out over marsh. There were lots of visitors, many coming to see the church, knowing nothing of the art so a bit bemused! My willow and vellum pieces, with occasional paper and metal, fitted the muted ochre walls and the small scale. I met so many Marsh people and many from Hastings and enjoyed it. It was interesting, too, to hear about the effects of High Speed 1, only 35 minutes to London.

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Many people are retiring down there within reach of the train and also the Eurostar terminal for their houses in France. Rapid change on the way, I suspect.