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.


  1. Some interesting thoughts Lois, and ones which often come up in conversation as to what is the future of organisations such as the BA and SBC.
    Firstly there are a generation of young makers having a serious impact on the presentation of woven objects, Laura Ellen Bacon, Rachel Carter and Tom Hare to name a few. Okay it is mainly installation work but they have a wide audience and are quite inspiring. None of them, to my knowledge, are members of the BA and I don't think that is what young people are looking for. There are art centres with lively programmes of workshops, online discussion groups, fibre crafts are really big at the moment with lots of young people engaged, but they don't need a formally constituted club to get involved.
    Finally from my own experience there is quite a healthy input in schools of various art and craft mediums. Not from the school itself but by bringing in outside tutors. I do a lot of school work and have introduced hundreds of children to willow. Okay we have not made full blown baskets but many have gone home with a Catalonian tension tray. For the next four weeks I am working with a local school to come up with a collection of woven pieces that they can sell at their annual art exhibition.
    I think we can be hopeful about the future, as we know baskets evolve and change as well as the context they are made in. So I think it will be okay however I think the future of groups such as the BA is less certain.
    Sorry this was a bit long.
    Best wishes,

  2. Basketmaking will only attract younger people if affordable training is available they are able to to go on to make a reasonable living from their craft. Until that happens, basketmaking is likely to remain the preserve of middle aged, middle class people (like me) who have time and the means to pursue their craft.

    1. Thank you both very much for your comments. Geoff it is good to hear about the work you are doing in schools, but you are in Scotland and that does seem to make a difference, as I suggested in the post!

      Yes, I agree that there is a lot of interest and activity in sculptural work (by the way Laura is currently listed as a member of the BA) which is great, but it would be good to have some new energy directed towards the functional as well. In Europe we are still importing mountains of fairly horrible baskets so people must want baskets badly!

      Of course, social media makes it easier for people to connect without belonging to formal organisations but there still seems to be a role for groups like the BA and SBC in terms of the bigger picture, such as the work both groups are doing with indigenous basket research. In theory (not withstanding 'financial crises') these bigger groups should be able to attract funding more easily for projects like this than individuals, so it seems important that they exist, but in order to exist they need active members...

      Jane, in response to your comment, I am not personally interested in promoting basket making in or out of schools as a means of earning a living. My own experience has taught me that that is a hard road to travel almost anywhere in the world, not just in the rich parts of it.Rather I see it as an aid to autonomy, an empowering and enriching thing for anyone, of any age, to be able to make something useful or beautiful for themselves without having to go out and buy something horrible! So, encouraging the 'amateur' maker of any age might be important for individual well-being, our organisations and our craft.

      There is a comparison I can make with participatory sport.I play tennis because I enjoy doing it and it keeps me fit. I have never had any desire or ability to earn money from it but it doesn't stop me doing it, watching it, trying to get better at it and paying to belong to a local club so I can meet other people, of all ages, who also enjoy playing tennis. It is also through this membership that the infrastructure is created for us all to be able to play, I don't know anyone who can afford to build their own court and it wouldn't be much use without someone else to play with!

      We teach sport in schools because we think it is a good thing for human well-being. Perhaps basket making could be viewed in the same light?

  3. Zoe Green made a contribution to this discussion on the woven home post so I have copied it here.

    Hi Lois,in reply to your comments on younger people in crafts such as basketry,spinning etc I agree,and as part of this passing on of skills, we are trying to introduce these as part of the Craft Council's craft clubs in schools,galleries etc. My local one,where I volunteer, is at The Sainsbury Centre,Norwich.This provides free tuition and introduction to various crafts.I am also a City Lit Student, City and Guilds basketry and have recently found your blog via one of my friends on the course!

  4. And here is the reply I posted on Woven Home:

    Thank you very much Zoe for your comment
    I was aware that the Crafts Council had initiated Craft Clubs but did not know any basket skills were being offered, so that is great news, keep up the good work!