Wednesday 21 November 2012

More Woven Home

Back in July I wrote about some of the things I had been making for my own home and mentioned I was working on a log basket - it is now finished.

The log basket that we were using  I made in traditional fashion, some years ago, with home grown willow. It didn’t however start life as a log basket, as it was made for taking washing out to the line. Since then a narrower door is used to take the washing outside. This basket was too wide to get through the door without tipping  it sideways and sometimes the clean washing fell out ... not a good way to start the day!

It was then  requisitioned  as a log basket but because it was originally meant for washing I hadn't rapped the weaving tightly and  little bits of wood and bark sifted themselves through the gaps and onto the floor. Consequently every time  the basket was moved it uncovered a pile of sawdust on the floor.  To deal with this I had made a highly engineered cardboard insert for the basket!

Perhaps you are getting the message from this, and from previous  posts, that, for me, good design is about making the daily tasks in life easier and more enjoyable and not about making  more housework.

So the new log basket had to deal with the sawdust problem, but I also wanted it to look more interesting and colourful than the brown willow one. I will have to look at it every day and brown makes me feel serious, it doesn’t really cheer me up.  If I am lighting the stove it is because I am cold and I need cheering up. The shape needed to be similar to the willow one, low and wide in order to relate to the shelves above it, but also to make it easy to see the choice of logs inside. It also needed to be fairly sturdy, though not too  hefty, as all it does is contain the logs.

In my stock of collected materials I found a pile of pressed card beer carriers. They came around bottles of German beer and are strong enough to hold and carry 3 litres of beer in glass bottles. I haven’t used them for anything before, which presented me with an interesting challenge, and the bright yellow design seemed ideal for the kitchen. But the carriers when opened up were not very big, so for plaiting they would have to be joined. I experimented with different ways of joining the strips and in the end decided that stapling would be efficient and quick. It seemed more honest to use staples than glue. The strips were cut quickly with a paper cutter,  stapled into long lengths and then plaited into a square based basket. Various decisions had to be made about how to staple the strips together, in terms of the design on the card, and then about what order to weave them in. I also considered which way to staple the strips so that the overlap could be pulled through the weaving. I only tell you this because you would not know about these things just by looking at the finished piece! A layer of black strapping tape was then woven in on top of the strips adding protection for the card and making the pattern more defined.

Some time ago I developed a way of using bunched willow for borders on plaited baskets. I decided to employ this technique again because it works really well and you don't have to soak the willow (always a bonus in my book). The woven card  basket, when it is only cut and stitched at the top edge, is still quite floppy but once the willow is attached it becomes tensioned and strong.  It seems as though you will never get the two ends to meet in anything other than a pointed leaf shape, but when they finally do, it forms  into a perfect ring and the basket becomes very solid. The process is a bit magical and I always enjoy doing it.

That left the handles and feet to resolve. The handles were made with  two pieces of electric cable with  the outer casing stripped off the ends of the wires.  These were then threaded  through the border to attach them. I decided that feet were necessary to protect the base of the basket from the tiled floor and  used black plastic lids from coffee jars that had been given to me. I riveted these on to the base, one in each corner and one in the middle. I could have stitched them on but that will be the back up if, for any reason, the rivets fail.

When I put the basket in place and took a photo I was quite shocked to realise that my choice of technique and colour scheme had not been my decision at all. It had, in fact, been decided for me by the Scottie dog and the Mexican tiger that have stood  on the shelves above the log basket for several years!

Tuesday 6 November 2012

The Basketmakers' Association AGM 2012

The Basketmakers’ Association in the UK held its 38th AGM at the  Art Workers Guild in London on the 20th October. I haven’t been able to get to these meetings for a few years and so it was a pleasure for me to be able to go this year. I was  reminded of how atmospheric and appropriate  the Georgian room we hold the meeting in is, with its rush seated chairs and portrait covered walls which  include one of Thomas Okey the author of "The Art of  Basket-Making" (1900).

The AGM is a formal, commercial and social occasion rolled into one. The formal part requires the voting in of committee members and approving the accounts, the commercial is the sale of books and materials, and the social includes hearing a talk by someone interesting. This year we had the bonus of two speakers: Mary Butcher on her perception of the metamorphosis of the definition of “basket” over the last 30 years, and Tim Johnson talking about projects he has been involved in, at home and abroad. It is also possible at the AGM to enter a competition and perhaps most enjoyable of all catch up with people you may not have seen for a while.

This year we had to have a change of Chair and Secretary because Bunty Ball and Ruth Salter have uncomplainingly and very effectively done their time and I was delighted to see John Galloway press-ganged into service in the formidable role of Chair. John became a self employed basket maker at the same time that I did and lived not that far from me in London, but we have not crossed paths for many years.  John's speciality is robust, decorative indigo dyed willow baskets and his screens and “bottles” were highly sought after  in the 1980's. But he gave it all up to became a teacher of Design and Technology at secondary level and has only recently, after 17 years hard graft in the classroom,  returned to basket making.

It was a pleasure to see John elected, not only because he seemed genuinely pleased to be taking on this difficult and time consuming role, but also because he told the assembled audience that he aims to work towards a greater engagement by young people with basket making.  A glance around the room at the Art Workers Guild was sufficient evidence that this approach is desperately needed as there were few people present under the age of 50!

There are of course many reasons why the AGM is probably not the best way to judge the health of our organisation. A geographically spread membership, formal proceedings that can be off putting, no practical instruction on offer and a very large trade union march taking place in London on the same day could all have contributed to the small and not very youthful gathering on this particular day. But  I have spoken recently to members of both the Weavers Spinners and Dyers Guild and the Embroiderers Guild and the lack of younger members is apparently common to us all.

It seems important that we address this because what is the point of us working hard to conserve the knowledge of this amazing craft if we do not also try to interest  successive generations in it? They will, after all, be the guardians of this knowledge when we are gone and if they have no interest in it they are unlikely to be good guardians.

But how are we to do this? School seems the obvious place to start but there is little opportunity for anything practical to be learnt in schools in England now.  A recent political imperative in English education (the Scottish curriculum differs) to make the 3 R’s more important than any other type of education has, in conjunction with overreaching health and safety regulations, made it difficult to teach craft skills in schools.  I can only imagine that the school day must be very tedious for many children who have little opportunity to break up the relentless hours at their desks with fun things like woodwork, metalwork and cookery… well, I thought they were fun because they usually involved sharp tools and fire!

Luther Weston Turner, was in 1909 the Director of Manual Training in the Hill School Pottstown, Pennsylvania. and in his lovely little book, “The Basket Maker”, which I have mentioned  in a previous post, he explained why he thought  it was a good thing to teach basket making in school ….

“The fruition of thought is expression. Thought along the line of manual training is susceptible of expression in many ways and through many mediums. The expression of thought through wood and iron necessitates a more or less elaborate equipment of tools, and for this reason those mediums of expression are denied younger pupils. But the expression of thought through basketry, requires almost no tools, has variety as to form and color and almost unlimited possibilities in design.”

But with little real hope of basket making being considered an important addition to the curriculum in England we will probably have to think of other means.

As followers of this blog will be aware the exhibition of my work Urban Baskets toured for two years and having been seen by 57,000 people, including lots of children, in UK and the Netherlands it has now been returned to me. Initially I was tempted to burn the whole lot, it was such hard work finding venues and I am not ready to go through that struggle again just yet.  Disposing of it all, therefore, seemed a simple, if polluting (given the amount of waste plastic I use in my work) solution to a storage problem! For a few weeks the 10 very large boxes glowered at me every time I squeezed past them, but eventually I plucked up the courage to open one and by chance it was  the one with the copy of the visitors book in it. I had not seen the comments from the Harley Gallery, (the last venue) and there were pages and pages of comments almost exclusively enthusiastic and many of them written by school children. Their excitement at seeing the work is evident as this example shows.

Many of their comments made me laugh but also made me realise that children can be excited and interested by baskets. You could tell that many of these children were just itching to make one. Some children did get a chance to do a weaving workshop during the time Urban Baskets was at the Harley but it was led by a permanent member of staff, not a basket maker, and they didn’t make a basket!  These workshops have their own 'health and safety' problems as I described in this post.

In all the time that I have been a member of the Basketmakers' Association, both on and off the committee, there has never been any determined effort, that I have been aware of, to engage children or young people with the craft, or our activities. This is probably because there have been too many other imperatives and too few members willing to take on the work. John's willingness to take on the job of Chair therefore seems opportune and hopefully his knowledge, experience and passion for the subject can, with our assistance, be the catalyst for us to develop a new way to engage young people with this fantastic, versatile, easy and inexpensive craft.