In today’s internet world it’s a treat to find a craft that’s particular to one region and still being carried out in the same way as it has been for hundreds of years. Last week I had the chance to learn some of the skills of a traditional Cumbrian craft for myself.
Owen Jones is the country’s only professional maker of swill baskets, a beautiful, rural basket made from riven oak and used for everything from carrying coal or potatoes to laundry and newborn babies. I’ve known Owen for a few years and am proud to count him among my friends as we see each other at shows and occasionally scythe events around the county. His courses are very popular and book up incredibly quickly but this year I was lucky enough to get a place on the three day course at his workshop.
We started out ‘making ready’ the oak billets, cutting logs to the right lengths and cleaving them for different parts of the basket.
These are then loaded into a steel tank and boiled for several hours which softens the wood and allows them to be split into fine ribbons for weaving. The wood is worked straight from the boiler so we were all kitted out with towels to protect our knees, hugely fashionable. We learned to pull the wood apart, guiding the split with our hands – it’s exciting, sensuous work guided by feeling the material and I could happily done a whole week of this.
At the same time we dressed a hazel rod and bent it round a former to make the swill ‘bool’ or rim.
Preparing the materials is a big part of the basket as some of the material must be dressed to thickness, either using a drawknife or by drawing is between your knee and a knife blade. This meant we only started weaving on the afternoon of the second day.
Every piece in the basket has a name, each is slightly differently shaped and fine-tuned by eye so although it looks like a simple weave, it actually required Owen to patiently talk us through each step as we built up the shape.
By this time I’d become too involved in the process to take photos so here are a couple of other baskets from around Owen’s home; the first are cyntells, Welsh frame baskets woven by Owen from semi-green willow and a Devon stave basket which was especially nice for me as it reminded me of my friend Mark Snellgrove who now makes these and I’ve made one myself.
And finally the finished swill basket, beautiful and strong.
It took us until right up to the end of friday to complete them but Owen made sure everyone got finished and always seemed relaxed, taking time to point out a particular birdsong or tell us how excited he was to have his veg seedlings coming up in the greenhouse. It was lovely to spend the days in the company of a man so comfortable in who he is and so deeply rooted in a craft that even after 26 years and “about 10,000” baskets he still finds wonder and pleasure in the process. If you have an interest in basketry or craft in general I would heartily recommend you get along and take the course yourself.