Monday, 12 March 2018

Toxic Basketry

Dyed cane and willow wastepaper bins, early 90's

Students and fellow basket makers often tell me that they only like to work with ‘natural’ materials.

These are people who are also genuinely concerned about the environment and about ethical production methods. This makes it all the more surprising to me to discover that some of them buy natural materials to make baskets with that are in fact highly processed in one way or another and often have both environmental and ethical problems associated with this processing.

Firstly, I am not in any way suggesting these people are being devious or dishonest. In fact I think most of them genuinely believe that they are using natural, sustainable and environmentally sound materials when they purchase them on line because that is how they are being marketed. If you have never visited a commercial willow grower, that doesn't grow organically go in late spring and you will discover how unenvironmentally friendly it can be.

Commercial willow cultivation 
Willow is a ‘natural’ environmentally friendly product in itself, it is how it is grown and processed that is the problem. In much of Europe a lot of the big commercial willow growers still use a lot of herbicides and pesticides because they grow many hectares in monocultures, consequently they cannot control weeds or insect attacks without resorting to chemical warfare. But it isn’t just the growing, in order to ship natural materials it is often necessary to spray them with fungicide.

On one of my visits to one of the bigger willow growers in Somerset, I was presented with the sight of a worker in the yard spraying willow fencing panels with fungicide, prior to their shipment abroad. The man doing the spraying had some protection against the spray but the weavers of the panels, totally unprotected in their normal clothing, were working in the same mist in an open sided shed no more than 10 metres away from the spraying. It was 16 years ago and I hope very much that this sort of thing doesn’t happen now.  I am sure that many of the customers who bought willows or fencing panels from this grower at the time had no idea that this sort of thing went on because their marketing only spoke about their lovely ‘natural’ product.

But things are changing in the commercial willow world, at last, and there are an increasing number of growers who do it without resorting to chemicals and who manage to make a living at it. 

Dyed cane and found netting 1984
The last cane baskets 1984

Things are not however so good in the world of rattan. I know quite a bit about rattan because when I started making baskets I used a lot of it in its highly processed form known in Britain as ‘centre cane’ and in America as ‘reed’(France 'rotin', Germany 'pedigrohr') I even wrote a book featuring ‘centre cane’ techniques. It had lots of advantages for me as a city dweller, I could purchase it easily, I could dye it any colour I wanted, I could store it easily, soaking only took a few minutes and could be in done in a small bowl. All of these qualities also made it very easy to use in the classroom and students could learn many different techniques with this versatile spaghetti like material. It was and remains in some places a popular material for use in occupational therapy for all the same reasons. Its been imported to Europe for centuries and in Britain after the first world war many convalescing soldiers were taught to make baskets using it, which apparently aided their recovery.

David Drew
Despite all these advantages it was meeting David Drew in the 1980’s who grew his own organic willows in his garden for his beautiful baskets that had a profound influence on my thinking about the materials I was using and the ethical and environmental problems involved in rattan processing. That coupled with the realisation of the part I was playing in this story by my purchasing it from the other side of the globe and dyeing it with fibre reactive dyes convinced me I had to stop using it which I did in the early 90's.
For a while centre cane seemed to have gone out of fashion with basket makers in Europe, though its use in America has stayed fairly strong. But recently there has been a rash of it cropping up all over social media and being used by young makers. I thought that maybe now it is all being grown sustainably and the use of diesel oil and chemicals in the curing process has all been stopped, because otherwise why would these people be using it? So I did some research and what I found is that whilst there is an increased awareness of the environmental and health and safety problems at a governmental and NGO level there has been little progress on improving the situation for all sorts of interconnected reasons.

Calamus (rattan) is a jungle creeper that has traditionally been harvested from virgin forest in south East Asia and more recently Africa which, due to high demand for the product for the furniture industry has caused a lot of problems ecologically and shortages in some places. Rattan palms are slow growing not arriving at a productive harvest size for 12 years. So the idea of creating managed plantations was apparently a good solution to the problem of over harvesting, except that the land needed for a rattan plantation is equally suitable for an oil palm plantation. Oil palm is more profitable so the enthusiasm for planting rattan gardens as they are known has waned and harvesting from the wild remains the modus operandi.

IKEA in conjunction with the WWF have been instrumental in encouraging sustainable plantations in Vietnam and they have also implemented health and safety procedures in the few workshops that they work with directly. The problem however goes far beyond their control because there are not enough ‘sustainable’ rattan plantations to meet the needs of all the furniture manufacturers that want it.

Another major problem with rattan is the processing which includes 'curing' the rattan. Curing is considered to be a necessary process to kill insects and stop moulds developing in the moisture laden air of the places where it grows. It is done by steeping the rattan in boiling diesel oil. The problem here is that because many of the communities where this is done are very poor they often employ used diesel and cannot afford the face masks and protective clothing that are needed to protect themselves from this highly toxic activity. There are quite a few videos on the web of rattan processing plants made by the companies doing the processing but few showing the diesel boiling process though on some you can see the blue smoke coming out of sheds in the background, (of course they might just be burning lunch but I doubt it.) However on some tourist videos it is possible to see people working with the boiling tanks wearing no masks or other protection. Another process that is often recommended is to sulphur the rattan immediately after harvesting to stop moulds developing that discolour the canes. A similar process to that used for whitening willow can be employed but they have discovered that a more effective method is to soak the canes in a sulphur solution which give off far more toxic fumes than the dry method. Not only is this bad news for the workers but both the diesel and the sulphur have to be disposed of at some point and apparently much of the residue ends up in the local water source.

Despite considerable time spent researching this issue I have been unable to find a source of genuinely sustainable centre cane/ reed for basket making. If anyone knows of one please tell me about it and I will be happy to promote it.

In the meantime, developing a close relationship with your materials by gathering or growing your own is still the easiest way to be sure that you are working sustainably. It also makes your work unique to you and your environment, it uses no air miles, endangers no one else’s health or well being and costs nothing. What's not to like?

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Boat Baskets and Beaters

On a damp March Saturday this year, a few folk gathered at Mid Yell Church Hall to participate in an auction of the church's possessions. The late Georgian church, simple and solid, that had wedded, christened, buried and, no doubt, hectored the community for nearly 200 hundred years is now too expensive to  maintain for the small congregation that use it, so it is being sold for conversion to other purposes. In the announcement for the sale it mentioned a basket and a couple of carpet beaters and my curiosity was piqued.

In amongst the cups and saucers, kettles,Christmas decorations, a manger with fluffy lamb, pews, vases, two organs and the altar was a Southport boat basket and two cane carpet beaters, all in good condition although the basket has lost its lid. No one else was interested in owning them so my £2 bid secured the lot which included (rather surprisingly in a church) a small folding card table and a reel of very fine copper wire. Some of the participants in the auction ended up buying tons of stuff in order to support the church and when I asked one man what he would do with it all, he said he had no idea. The most poignant moment of the whole event was when the Bible, a massive, ancient, leather bound, silver clasped copy appeared and nobody wanted to buy it, not even for one pound. Everyone  hung their heads and the sense of  shame in the room was tangible.

The Southport boat basket was an extremely popular possession in its day. Many examples can be seen in museums in Britain and particularly in Scotland, the Shetland Museum has at least two. According to Dorothy Wright (p.120 Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry, ISBN 0 88914 055 3) it was designed in about 1830  by a Mr. Cobham of Mawdesley in Lancashire and produced by the local basket making firm of Thomas Cowley. Although no one else at the auction bid for the basket plenty of people admired it and older folk remembered having one similar at home. They were used for taking goods such as eggs and butter  to market  but I have  heard they also   served  as 'cabin baggage' for the many women gutters who travelled by train around the northern British coasts following the herring boats, though I have no hard evidence for this.

It isn't surprising it was such a popular basket because it was very well designed, not only in terms of its functionality but also in terms of the time and skill  needed to produce it. Made out of buff willow and split ash it must have been  a quick basket to produce because of its method of construction.
Only one simple wooden mould would  have been needed to make the willow frame of the basket, the willow frame of the lid and the ash  handle bow/central rib as they are all the same size. The lid was woven from each end on one frame with a gap between the two woven areas that went over the handle. It was attached to one of the long sides of the frame. This would have been far quicker than making two separate lids  as it was only necessary to make and attach one frame. One of the Southports in the Shetland Museum collection has a plywood lid which was obviously a replacement, but very effective and quick to do. Interestingly a fettle ( carrying band) had also been added to this basket so that it could be carried on the back  as though it were a kishie.

Southport boat basket in Shetland Museum with wooden lid and fettle

The use of  a strip of ash that was both the handle bow and central  rib would also have been much simpler to construct than a willow one, requiring only the bending and tacking of the ash strip. The strength supplied by this ash bow/rib meant that the ribs on the basket could be spaced quite widely apart thus speeding up the weaving, there are only 10 willow ribs on the full size basket. Perhaps the most ingenious design feature is the strip of ash that runs end to end underneath the basket because not only did it make the basket very strong but it also eliminated the need to fill in the gap between the  two sides  with willow, which is always the slowest and most difficult part of making a frame basket.

Given how popular this basket was I am surprised no-one has thought to make them again now. The design is well documented, it is an indigenous British basket and it is extremely practical. As  I have willow and the ash trees grow like weeds around my studio  I am sorely tempted to give it a go.

Before electricity came into our homes carpet beaters were essential household equipment. On a dry spring day carpets and mats were draped over the washing line and  the living daylights were beaten out of them by bored housewives wielding these decorative cane beaters. Not only was this superb therapy for the woman doing the beating but it  also got rid of all the the dust and moth larvae without her needing to spend any money on electricity. In our house the man beats the mats with a length of timber or an old tennis racket but I might feel a tad more inclined to join in with these lovely beaters. There are also instructions for making a carpet beater  (p.101) in the Dorothy Wright book mentioned previously.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Woven Communities Symposium 2

John Cowan and his herring cran
Symposiums around basket making are a rare breed.  I have only been to four: Basketry Making Human Nature at the Sainsbury Centre in 2011, Woven Communities 1 at St. Andrews University in 2012, Viva Basket  in Cieszyn, Poland in 2014 and Woven Communities 2 at St. Andrews last week. But we definitely need more because they are a great way to meet your fellow makers and for us to engage with people in many other walks of life whose work, in some way or another, connects with basket making.
Dawn Susan demonstrating  a Hebridean ciosan
This latest symposium at St. Andrews is the last programmed event in the much bigger Woven Communities Project that was initiated by and has been managed, so ably, by Stephanie Bunn of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews.

The theme for this event was Making, Mind and Memory and was divided into sections, Materials and Skills, Memory and Reminiscence, Basketry and Maths, Therapeutic Uses of Basketry, Intangible Knowledge and Education and Innovation. Within this framework we heard from basket makers, anthropologists, archaeologists, artists,engineers, philosophers, an occupational therapist, museum curators  a ropeworker and a mathematician among others.  There are always  things  that spark the imagination or kick start a new way of looking at things immediately and things that re surface some time later, because they just won't go away.

The things that I came away with immediately are images from Hilary Burns talk about basketry in Britain during and after the 1914-18 war, the use of maths for inspiration by Mary Crabb, a map drawn from memory by a Hebridean fisherman in Jon Macleods talk, the smiling faces of Polish basket makers in Paulina Adamskas' presentation and the fibre alphabet of Kiphu cords of the central Andes that Sabine Hyland is researching. It seems divisive to single anything out because in truth it was all fascinating and enjoyable. Except, that is, for my own Open Office presentation which was plagued with technical glitches, the most serious resulting in the loss of some images. Not an experience I have ever had before and very frustrating. But, according to the internet I am not alone. Personally I suspect Windows 10 has an anti open source glitch built into it, but then I am naturally suspicious of any business that makes a lot of money!

My thanks to Stephanie for inviting me and to everyone else involved in organising the event, especially Lucie.

En route I managed to see Lise Bechs solo show at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh,  lovely work but the gallery should have given her more space, the work needs and deserves some air around it and the paintings upstairs had plenty of room!

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Woven Communities in Shetland

Ewen Balfour working with the children at Urufirth 

Stephanie Bunn  at the University of St. Andrews  is the driving force behind the Woven Communitites Project ,which  has been going for a few years now. Its main aim is to document the materials, techniques,  people and  places  that were  all part of the vernacular basketry of Scotland. Through  its symposia and other activities the Project also includes contemporary international  practice and methodologies in the discussion.

This summer Stephanie, along with  Dawn Susan, Julie  Gurr and Liz Balfour,  has been visiting Museums in the Highlands and Islands, documenting objects meeting elders and organising events.
The Shetland Museum was one of the partner organisations and Ian Tait, the Director  of the Shetland Museum, invited myself and Ewen Balfour  to be involved in the Woven Communities activities that were being organised by  Kirsty and Yvonne, the Museums Education team,  in Shetland schools.  I happily accepted, though not without some trepidation, because it has been a while since I have done any work in schools.

Simmens 'makkin' at Urufirth
In the end the programme that was divised between us all worked  well.  Ian started with a talk about the Shetland basketry tradition, this was followed by Ewen who taught the pupils how to make simmens (rope) with floss ( Juncus effusis) and then showed them how  the simmens were used for making  kishies. Stephanie told the children about the Woven Communities Project and it was my task to  re-enforce the simmens making, but with bits of found ghost rope pieces, that we then tied or stitched into baskets. Stephanie documented the activities in all the schools on video.

Whalsay pupils and their baskets made from found materials

Locals were invited to come in with any baskets that they had at home and in Unst we had several visitors come to the school with lovely kishies.

Child size kishies made some years ago on Unst

My co-workers, the schools, their teachers and the children were all a pleasure to work with and seemed to genuinely enjoy their immersion. A session at Urufirth was made very special by the children bursting into spontaneous singing, whilst working.

If we do not work with children we cannot expect any of these traditional skills to survive. So for me it was a positive and rewarding experience to know that as a result of this project at least 30 children aged between 7 and 13, who knew little or nothing about the tradition of basket making in Shetland, now know a lot more and are capable of making  a small coiled basket and simmens in various materials.

For those interested there is a second Woven Communities symposium being organised by  Stephanie at St. Andrews for January 2017. Details will be being published soon, so check the Woven Communities Facebook page if you are interested in attending.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Drawing Inspiration

1996 Contemplate and Cure, Taitemia Gallery, Kuopio, Finland
One of the requirements of the City and Guilds Basketry Certificate, that I did at the London College of Furniture in 1982, was to produce a body of work using all the techniques and materials we had studied based on a theme. Mine was Baskets in Paintings as there were plenty of them and  I enjoyed looking for them. Subsequently, paintings and drawings, without baskets in them, have often provided me with inspiration and in each case helped me to develop new techniques and forms,(the Heironymous Bosch painting Christ Crowned with Thorns  and Picasso's The Pan Pipes, among others)  but I haven't done any for a while.

1998 Basket inspired by Heironymous Bosch, Cardboard, willow and plastic bottles

During a recent search for some slides of old work I came across some  images which reminded me just how good it can be to work off someone else's creativity, without actually working collaboratively.

In 1996 JJ Ignatius Brennan (my husband) and I had a joint exhibition in Finland, at the Taitemia Gallery in Kuopio. The title of the Exhibition was 'Contemplate and Cure' which was also the title of a series of drawings he had done in response to my having a cancer scare. In turn I then used his drawings as the inspiration for my baskets. For me it was a great way to get ideas without having to search for them, they just leapt off the drawings at me, but they also presented me with  lots of challenges in terms of techniques, which I relished.

Whilst we were there we taught a joint workshop at Kuopio Academy of Crafts and Design where the students were asked to use their senses smelling, touching and hearing things to inspire marks on paper. These marks led to drawings which became baskets.

It was a long time ago, I cannot remember the names of all of the students and my photos of the workshop were not good. But I do remember it being a very creative few days, for all of us.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Stroking Straws

The hit is instant your skin cools rapidly and there is a powerful smell of dust and damp stone.You struggle to see anything in the deep shadow and the silence is palpably beautiful. Tentatively stepping forward, afraid of stumbling on the rock floor, you look up. It's an automatic reaction. Everyone who enters does it and the reward for this involuntary neck exercise is to see some sublime stone carving.

Out there on the other side of the giant oak door, the crowded market street is noisy, and unbearably hot but, on this side you find yourself in the best chill-out room imaginable. There was no charge to push open that door and enter, yet you are surprisingly alone in this cool and tranquil space. Red tea lights flicker ebony shadows over hand crafted, arcane and symbolic treasures. Their significance escapes you, but their presence is curiously soothing and you feel the need to be still.

There are plenty of places to sit. In fact a couple of hundred simple wooden chairs, lined up in rows facing east. Old hand-made upright chairs with straw-wrapped rush seats, each one unique like the people they have supported over the years, people who came here seeking support of some kind. Light streams in from a window high in the walls and the empty seats glow gently.

Sitting on one of these chairs you notice that none of the rush worked seats are identical either. Different sized  coils, varied straw colours, different cross over points and oscillating twists. The urge to stroke them is irresistible, they are lovely because they were lovingly made, they are simply beautiful.

The heat is crushing, there is a strong smell of exhaust.  The light is painful and you are enveloped by noise. You wonder if somehow, in a moment of inattentiveness, your eyes closed  and it was just a dream.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Ghosts at the Kloster

Deep Six
Weaving Ghosts is now on show at Halsnoy Kloster (monastery) on the island of Halsnoy in the Hardanger fjord in Norway, where it will remain on show until the 14th August.

The trip to set it up started badly for me, with striking railway workers in France preventing me from getting to the airport. This resulted in losing a day that had been planned for the installation and also meant that there was little time spare for me to explore the island.  In the end it didn't really matter because the house and gardens of the Kloster are so special there was no need to look further.

The gallery and my home for the week was in a rustic mansion built in 1841 set amongst the remaining stones of the original medieval monastery. It reeks history and according to the locals is haunted. The floorboards did creak occasionally but I have no doubt that was caused by the unusually warm weather with the sun shining out of a clear blue sky for six days solid, rather than phantoms. One of the locals told me that summer normally happens on a Tuesday in July!


There Were 15 to Feed at Midbrake and Fleiki
In the semi basement, which has low arched windows looking onto the garden, are four linked rooms providing the main gallery space with heavy wooden beams and rough cast whitewashed walls. The walls in the two main reception rooms on the ground floor are also used for exhibitions and are decorated with painted canvas panels in red and green.

HelenPetersen is the curator and manager of the house which is used for a photography residency and private events like weddings and conferences as well as being open to the public. It is filled with furniture from the museum collection and outside a lawn runs down to the  boathouse and stone jetty with a spectacular view of the mouth of the fjord. The house is surrounded by very tall ancient oaks, beech and ash. There has been very little modernisation in the house so it feels as though you are living in a very unprecious museum where you are allowed to sleep in the beds, sit on the chairs and eat at the tables.

It was interesting to set up the same exhibition in two very different spaces. The simple white box in the Shetland Museum  where everything could be pinned to the walls made the exhibition very easy to install  and I was very happy with how it looked there. But this is something totally different at Halsnoy, very domestic, small separated spaces, where nothing can be pinned to the walls, forcing me to re think how things could be presented. The effect it had on some of the pieces was dramatic, particularly Deep Six and Deep Sixty which came alive against the coloured walls of the Red and Green Room, I doubt if they could ever be hung in  better spaces.

Deep Sixty
Curating and installing my own work is becoming a habit that I enjoy. Each time I present it in a new location there are challenges and surprises that allow the work to be seen in a different way. In the Shetland Museum the space and lighting were a pleasure to work with but at the Kloster it is the fabric of the building and its demands that have added a new dimension. 

Footwarmas and Key of Sea
Peg Kishie
Being Shetlands' closest neighbour this region of Norway is also very appropriate for this particular body of work because there are many similarities between the two places. Not just latitude and climate or because they both have  Leirviks, but also because  they both lost a large part of their  basketry tradition when oil was discovered in the 1960's in the sea bed between the two places. 

My thanks go to Jane Catherin Saersten Junger of Sunnhordland Museum for inviting me to exhibit at the Kloster and to Helen Petersen who made me very welcome, working hard to make sure everything went to plan including gathering and washing materials from the beach for the workshop and open day. Also my gratitude to Oyvind Hjelmen who with Helen manages the photography residency at the Kloster and who helped me with the installation of my benign ghosts.

The fast ferry to Bergen made up for the trials of the outward journey. We definitely need one of these in Shetland to go from Yell to Lerwick... I might have to start a petition.