Knowing I am interested in old baskets, Neil, a friend and professional electrician, brought these baskets for me to look at. He spotted them in the loft of an old farm in Charente, Limousin that had just changed hands and where he was working on the renovation. The previous owners were 'paysans' and these baskets were obviously made to be used on the smallholding.
It is unusual to come across a collection like this. Baskets that are thrown into lofts and forgotten are usually destroyed by woodworm. Coiled straw baskets tend to survive in the Charente because woodworm are not very interested in straw, though they will have a go at the bramble stitching. Sadly the two large frame baskets had either had something damp left in them or been sitting under a leak. As a result the chestnut frame work has become a filigree of worm tunnels in just a couple of places on the bases and are now ready to crumble away. The worms like their wood damp, I guess its easier on their teeth!
At first I thought it had lost its handle but in fact the ribs have been carefully cut to a point where they meet on each side so perhaps it was never intended to have a handle. But I cannot be certain, as someone may have shaped the rib ends after the handle had broken. There is also a tiny frame basket, again chestnut ribs and split willow like the bigger ones, but it was never finished. I almost burst into tears looking at it as my first and slightly bizarre thought was that the maker had died before finishing it. Since then I have rationalised it as a "teaching aid" for the grandchildren which makes me much happier!
It seems highly unlikely that these baskets were all made by the same person, though possibly by two generations of the same family, and the person who made the three brown willow baskets obviously never had access to the 'teaching aid'! These three look much more recent and are great examples of someone just having a go, without much prior knowledge, and arriving at something that functions. It wasn't without a mega struggle though, and if the maker won in the end, the willow certainly put up a good fight.
There is a similarity with music making which also appears to be innate in all of us. Thomas Brennan, my Irish father in law had only one question for people who said they could play a musical instrument... "can you get a tune out of it?" He wasn't interested in whether they knew their scales or could read sheet music, all that mattered to him was whether or not they could play a tune he could dance to. As far as Thomas was concerned, music was for dancing to, just as these baskets were made for carrying crops and nothing else is therefore relevant.
Sometimes it seems as though too much knowledge suffocates the life out of things.