This story on willow baskets is the first installment of a series for T on craft around the world. For each practice I researched, I knew I would discover more incredible resources and makers than could fit on just a few pages. While the focus of each column is the current state of a particular craft (what we are calling “universal crafts,” as nearly all cultures have created versions of them), it is worth noting that the craftspeople engaged in these centuries-old traditions are involved in a living practice. These are objects meant to be used, not simply regarded as historic artifacts or hung on a wall. These makers are not starting from scratch or reinventing the wheel, yet their work is the product of innovative new ideas, practices and modifications. And it is also a tangible link to our past.
Baskets are unique in the realm of craft in that their materials remain unchanged in finished form. For pottery, earth is turned into clay. For weaving, wool must be spun into yarn. But the willow sticks as cut are the willow sticks that form your basket. Each of the makers featured here grow their own willow. In the winter, they coppice year-old withies, or sticks, to the ground (in the spring, the willow will sprout again from the stump). Then they bundle their harvest and transport it home, where they size and rebundle the pieces. Over a period of months, the willow sticks are left somewhere covered, but well ventilated, so that they may lose their sap. Just before weaving, the now-dry willow is soaked for about to a day in a basin of water and then drained and wrapped in a towel to mellow, so that it will bend without kinking.
There are three different ways willow can be processed for making baskets: There’s unpeeled willow, called “brown,” as it’s still clad in its bark; there’s stripped willow, called “white,” which is the palest because its bark has been skinned off; and there’s the honey-hued willow, or “buff,” which is boiled in water, allowing the bark’s tannins to leach into the pith before it’s peeled.
The seven makers below teach basketmaking to beginners, usually in group courses where they are based, though private lessons can also be arranged. While it takes many years of practice to become proficient, one can make a decent basket in a two- or three-day course.
O’Sullivan teaches small classes at her home studio in East Sussex, England, where I took a three-day course. She is a wonderful instructor, and her husband Tom makes a delicious lunch, with tea and biscuits served throughout the day. Her work is carried by the New Craftsman gallery in London, which was featured in T two years ago.
O’Sullivan lives just outside the town of Lewes, which has been a center for artists for the last two centuries. It is close to the epicenter of Bloomsbury life, where you can visit the not-overly-restored Charleston Farmhouse and garden where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant lived and worked with their various friends and lovers and husbands, including Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell, and Vanessa’s sister Virginia Wolff. Just an hour away is Sissinghurst Castle Garden, perhaps England’s most famous garden, created by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson. Closer to Lewes, the well-known English gardening and cookbook author Sarah Raven runs a school on her farm where students make use of her vast cut flower and vegetable gardens in the day-long courses in floristry, growing and cooking.
I was lucky to spend a couple days in the Devon studio of Hilary Burns, who has been making traditional baskets for over 30 years and studying their history for just as long. (She recently completed a research project on basketry during the First World War.) Burns’s work is greatly inspired by the journeymen weavers, like Colin Manthorpe, 80, of Great Yarmouth, who apprenticed for years to become masters and who then worked in England’s now-defunct basketry workshops, where the men sat side by side on the floor, working “on the plank” (seated against the wall with an angled plank at their lap).
The maund, a type of agricultural basket used by farmers to showcase their wares at market, inspired Burns’s Devon Maund, which could be put to good use as a picnic hamper — it stands on hazel legs and its lid can be propped open with the pitched stick used as a closure, or in a kitchen as storage for linens or flatware.
Adrian Charlton of Norfolk Basket Company
Thirty years ago, Adrian Charlton traded in a dangerous job working on an oil rig for the life of a basket maker. Terry Bensley, 80, of Great Yarmouth — one of the last of the weavers trained under the old apprenticeship system — agreed to give Charlton just 31 days of instruction in which they would cover three or four years’ worth of material. (They would work together for a few days, then Charlton would go home to practice and later bring his work back to Bensley, and so on and so forth, until his 31 days were up. They covered the whole syllabus!) For the last 20 years, Charlton has continued to call on Bensley, now retired, when he can’t figure something out.
Four years ago, Charlton decamped from Norfolk to a beautiful chateau in the Dordogne, where he works and runs courses with his wife. He had been coming to France every August for the annual basket festival in Vallebregues, near Avignon, in which makers from all over Europe gather to sell and celebrate basketmaking. His designs are based on old English agricultural and fishing baskets but with a contemporary slant and often inflected with techniques he’s absorbed from the South of France, such as the beautifully swirled weaving pattern Perigourdin basket.
Hogan has been making baskets in the magical countryside of Loch Na Fooey in County Galway, Ireland, since 1978. Earlier in the ’70s, he’d taken a bike trip to the area with his wife, whom he’d met in art school, and they made a pact to return for good. Realizing that basketmaking allowed for a rural life and a deep understanding of a particular place, he set out to learn from the masters. Even though the basketry industry had died out, there were still one or two weavers in several of the villages who made and repaired objects for local use. What Hogan discovered was that the techniques varied from village to village, almost like a dialect, and that each maker believed he possessed the only one way to make, say, the creel a fishwife might use to hawk her wares. Hogan ended up spending much of that first decade traveling the country, documenting these techniques which he believed would have completely disappeared within 10 years.
Hogan’s book “Basketmaking in Ireland” is intended not just to record this cultural legacy, but to inspire basket makers to find new uses for the old techniques, and to keep the tradition alive through their own ideas and work. His own beautiful and useful fitched log basket (“fitching” is a technique in which the upright stakes are left open or without weave) is based on the technique for making a quarter cran, used to transport and measure herring in the fishing industry. After 30 years, Hogan also started making nonfunctional woven work, which allows him to experiment in new ways with other materials and his surroundings, and is shown at the Scottish Gallery.
Parrette is a Sussex-based maker known for his frame baskets, which are woven onto a wood structure rather than built up from a base, as is typical. His Sciathog, which is based on a potato-harvesting basket, is made of buff willow on a frame of wild rose.
His willow plant-supports, used in vegetable gardens for climbing beans and vines, are made using the technique once used for salmon traps — fishermen would line up the funnel-like putchers in great rows in the river to capture the passing salmon.
Located in the Loire valley near Tours is Vannerie de Villaines, a cooperative of about 50 different basket makers and 25 different willow growers. In addition to offering tours and courses, it is a great resource for online shopping because the variety is so great — the diversity of selection is the closest thing to a 19th-century basket catalog for domestic use. French fitched baskets are generally more delicate and refined looking than their British counterparts, as with this rectangular fitched basket and this elegant cross-hatched one.
English-born, Central New York-based Bonnie Gale has been making English willow baskets for almost 40 years. In addition to selling her baskets, she is an American resource for dry willow, which she imports from England, as well as tools and books. Her supersize garden basket is like a harvest basket on steroids — in a good way. Gale also takes commissions for living willow structures and fences.
Related: Basket-Weaving Is Alive and Well