Thursday, 23 February 2012

Straws in the Wind

Coiled Shetland oat straw basket made by Jimmy Work
Oats were the staple grain in the Shetland Islands prior to the 20th Century and as in all rural communities at that time their use was completely sustainable, nothing was wasted. The threshed grain used for porridge, flour and animal feed was ground by small water mills set in the burns. The remaining straws were then used for things such as  roofing, stuffing mattresses, wrapping the feet in cold weather, mats for threshing, animal bedding and costumes for festivals. And, as in so many other rural communities all over the world they were also used for making baskets.

Image taken from an old postcard showing large coiled straw basket 
These islands are thought to have been inhabited for at least 5000 years but there is little evidence to suggest that there was ever a strong tradition of weaving with woody plants. There used to be trees in Shetland but they disappeared a long time ago, so for centuries there were few indigenous materials for basket making, little willow or hazel, certainly no oaks, ashes or chestnuts. Consequently the baskets of these islands had to be made with the native materials that could be gleaned or grown, such as oats, dockens, bent, rushes and heather.There was no riving, skeining or plaiting of anything tree or bark like, just the softer more textile tradition of twining, and for sturdier items, coiling. No axes or woodworkers 'donkeys' were involved just hands and pocket knives and bone or driftwood needles.

The Shetland Islands have a long tradition of spinning, knitting and weaving the fine wool that the indigenous sheep provide. This was the job of the women; basket making was the domain of the men and was an activity for the winter when the weather and short days forced them indoors.

The oats that grew here in the 19th and 20th Century here were different. They were fine and  stayed green and softer for longer making them ideal for basket making unlike the nitrogen-fuelled cereals  of today,  bruisers by comparison, short, muscular, and brittle. Now there are few people who grow these oats and those that do provide specialist needs such as value added local oatcakes, the roofing of a few listed buildings and the last semi-professional basket-maker Jimmy Work who only uses Shetland oats.

Jimmy Work in his 'real' indoor  work place 

Jimmy and selection of his baskets in  a 'staged' work place made for  a 1998 Calendar .
Photograph by Bill Jackson  for The Shetland Times.

Jimmy started making baskets in 1958 and he hasn't stopped. He says he taught himself and today at 88 he still makes the fine simple elegant coiled baskets that have become his trade mark. These are not traditional agricultural baskets like the kishie or fishing baskets such as the budie, these are domestic baskets for laundry and knitting, to hold peats by the fire. These are 1960's post herring trade, oil boom baskets used to decorate the home with in a much less hard and more leisurely life.

Jimmy has made hundreds of them, he doesn't know how many, and they have been sent to all parts of the world - he is a one man industry. His hobby, for that is what it is, has created a tradition and people come from all over to film him, talk to him and buy his baskets. Jimmy sells everything he makes and selling them is very important to him, he has little time for people that visit and do not buy! Most of his working life he spent painting and decorating for a building contractor, with his basket making almost a second job. He worked at it for an hour in the morning prior to the day job and several hours in the evening on his return home after a long day with the paint brush.

Jimmy says he can always recognise his baskets because he makes them without adding extra lines of stitching on the sides. There is the same number of stitches at the edge of the base as at the top edge regardless of any outward flow of the form. They are beautifully crafted, sturdy, functional and elegant baskets. He has never had any desire to alter his technique or his materials and it is probably because he has always made them the same way that they are so good.
Base of the basket

I asked Jimmy if he had ever taught anyone else to make them. I had heard whispers on the wind that he had refused to teach a woman who had offered to pay him for tuition. Apparently he told her that a woman would never have the strength to do it. I didn’t ask him if it was true, nor did I dare tell him I make baskets but I am very glad to hear that he is now passing on his precious knowledge to a couple of people – both male!  

1 comment:

  1. Over the late 1990,s I toured the summer Eire festivals weaving traditional folk kreels etc from withy/hedge row willow. Throughout all that weaving in public I came across only 8 other traditional weavers. One old craftsman grabbed me and shared lots of grass knotting saddle patterns etc. Latter the book "Basketmaking In Ireland" Joe Hogan was gifted to me. such a wash of my Celtic European Folkcraft nourished my life journey with the Fibers of the Pacific Basin. Thankyou for a bute informative blog about of KOCA restorative cultural practices.