Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Woven Communities Symposium

Scotland was very green last week when I went to the University of St. Andrews for the Woven Communities Symposium, and I couldn’t stop looking at the beautiful grass everywhere. There is a dust bowl in my garden where the grass normally grows, as there hasn’t been any rain for over a month with temperatures close to 30C for most of that time.

A group of basket makers, conservators, archaeologists, philosophers, anthropologists, educators, museum directors, curators  and artists met for two days to hear fragments of each others research and views on baskets and basket making. This Symposium was similar to the conference at University of East Anglia last year with several of the same speakers. This one, however, had a Scottish focus to it. It was initiated by Stephanie Bunn, a textile artist, willow sculptor and lecturer in Social Anthropology at St. Andrews who is currently engaged in research into the vernacular baskets of Scotland with the assistance of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle.
Image from Scottish Country Life by Alexander Fenton,
John Donald Publishers Ltd.1989
Threshers on Foula

This symposium had a practical element each day which the academics present seemed to particularly enjoy. One of the anthropologists told me he had never been to such an enjoyable symposium and that it was because the makers and artists were all so passionate about their work.  For me it was an interesting, if tightly packed,  two days and although we were not a huge group there were still some people there that I never had a chance to talk to. Greta Bertram has written a good description of the event on the Heritage Crafts Blog.

The penultimate session was a round table and open floor discussion about the future of the craft but we had very little time for it. I found it to be the least satisfactory part of the event with ideas and observations left hanging in the air.  I am an optimist and it seems, to me,  that the cultural and economic climate in Europe at this time is particularly propitious  for engagement with the craft of basket making by many different sectors of society.

“Basket making” is really a misnomer for all that this craft encompasses because it is possible, with these materials and techniques, to make plenty of things that are not baskets: jewellery, buildings, sculpture, boats, fences, shoes, furniture.  The list is endless, and much of  it can  be done with little money and without causing undue harm to our ecosystem. Perhaps, it is both these things that make it so right for the time we are living in.

Baskets, traditionally, have always been sustainable, being made with the materials of the maker’s immediate environment. Ultimately biodegradable and requiring no fossil fuels for their production they are the perfect model for a contemporary product. These are exactly the qualities that every product designer is now seeking for their products.There is a strong movement in Britain and many other parts of Europe and America towards the local and organic. I see no reason why anyone wanting to make a living from "basket making" should not have a ready market for their work as long as they do not compromise the sustainability and authenticity of their products.

It was surprising then, to hear one of the speakers at the symposium make a point of stating categorically that it is impossible to grow willow organically on a commercial scale. Yet, prior to the invention and marketing of pesticides in about 1940 all willow was grown organically and certainly in the 19th  and early20th Century much of it was grown for commercial purposes. An example being Chiswick Eyot in the Thames, where, between 1800 and 1934 willows were grown for the local basket making industry and without the aid of pesticides.

Chiswick Eyot
The commercial willow growers in the UK are mainly located in Somerset  and the reason they may find it difficult to grow organically is all about contemporary agricultural practice and the scale of it.  These willow growers, like most other non-organic farmers, grow their crops in vast fields of single varieties and like most of the other farmers suffer with all the attendant pest and disease problems associated with such practices. Given the time scale between planting and harvesting the first willow crop – usually about 3 years – it is understandable that the Somerset growers are reluctant to rip up their fields and start again with smaller parcels of land and more varieties in order to grow organically. As willows have been grown in the Somerset Levels for centuries, long before pesticides were invented,  they could perhaps find out  how to do it from  old  maps of the area.
Commercial willow crops on the Somerset Levels
In an appendix to the Cultivation and Use of basket Willows produced in 2001 by the Basketmakers Association and IACR Long Ashton Research Station there is a list of the chemicals that have been tested on willow beds for weed control and it reads like a poisoners bible. It isn’t just weeds, there are plenty of insects and fungi that like willow, but one of the main reasons commercial growers are spraying their crops routinely from May onwards with pesticides is to control “button top”, caused by the button top midge Rhabdophaga hetcrobia, which results in branched or stunted willow rods. I remember visiting Helen Tyler, a commercial grower in Somerset, some years ago to find her painstakingly trimming tiny branches from the tips of thousands of rods in order to sell them. This more than likely negated any small profit she may have hoped for from their sale but she did it because she thought she would be unable to sell them unless the bolts looked perfect. Perhaps the growers need to ask their customers if they wouldn’t prefer to accept that some willows may have branched tips, if they knew that it meant they did not have to be sprayed.

Few of the main grower’s web sites discuss the company’s spraying policies and neither do they offer non-sprayed or organic willows. I imagine therefore that a lot of the people buying these willows assume that they are buying a natural, organic product because it  looks like one and not one that could indirectly be harming the environment in which it grows, and that  also contributes to yet more profits for Monsanto et al!

Ultimately, it comes down to education, and this is something we briefly touched on in the discussion, but which seems to me to be very important.  The general public in the UK, despite being the purchasers  of large quantities of basket ware, (according to UK trade statistics over 28 million pounds worth of imported wickerwork and basketwork so far in 2012) is still largely ignorant about basket making and its related activities. I still meet many people who think that the cheap imported baskets they buy in shops  are made by machine and  very few people can distinguish between native willow and imported cane.  Perhaps we need some 'TV basket makers' who can show people not only how easy it is to make something, but who could extol the virtues of  indigenous  'ingredients' and 'recipes' and enthuse a whole generation with the magic of cooking up wonderful things with this amazingly versatile and sustainable activity.

I know it isn't easy to grow willows organically, I grow them myself,  but it is certainly possible and there are plenty of individuals and several companies operating in the UK selling a good range of organic willow that they cultivate Water Willows in Milton Keynes is probably the biggest certified organic grower but there are smaller ones such as Blencogo and Barfad in Scotland.

It is still a dust bowl here in France but maybe it isn’t just the grass that is greener in Scotland.


  1. Thanks Lois. Your comments on the use of chemicals in willow production are welcome. As you rightly say there was a very recent time when all willow (and of course food) was produced organically, maybe some rods were twisted, some feathery, some carrots forked, apples blemished...who cares?? So much preferable to the endless and unsustainable reliance on chemical use in farming methods.

  2. Apologies for not acknowledging your welcome comment earlier, Trevor. I have been away from the computer for a few days, thank you.

  3. Can I print this out for the AGM next week Lois?

    Liz Balfour