Monday 12 March 2018

Toxic Basketry

Dyed cane and willow wastepaper bins, early 90's

Students and fellow basket makers often tell me that they only like to work with ‘natural’ materials.

These are people who are also genuinely concerned about the environment and about ethical production methods. This makes it all the more surprising to me to discover that some of them buy natural materials to make baskets with that are in fact highly processed in one way or another and often have both environmental and ethical problems associated with this processing.

Firstly, I am not in any way suggesting these people are being devious or dishonest. In fact I think most of them genuinely believe that they are using natural, sustainable and environmentally sound materials when they purchase them on line because that is how they are being marketed. If you have never visited a commercial willow grower, that doesn't grow organically go in late spring and you will discover how unenvironmentally friendly it can be.

Commercial willow cultivation 
Willow is a ‘natural’ environmentally friendly product in itself, it is how it is grown and processed that is the problem. In much of Europe a lot of the big commercial willow growers still use a lot of herbicides and pesticides because they grow many hectares in monocultures, consequently they cannot control weeds or insect attacks without resorting to chemical warfare. But it isn’t just the growing, in order to ship natural materials it is often necessary to spray them with fungicide.

On one of my visits to one of the bigger willow growers in Somerset, I was presented with the sight of a worker in the yard spraying willow fencing panels with fungicide, prior to their shipment abroad. The man doing the spraying had some protection against the spray but the weavers of the panels, totally unprotected in their normal clothing, were working in the same mist in an open sided shed no more than 10 metres away from the spraying. It was 16 years ago and I hope very much that this sort of thing doesn’t happen now. I am sure that many of the customers who bought willows or fencing panels from this grower at the time had no idea that this sort of thing went on because their marketing only spoke about their lovely ‘natural’ product.

But things are changing in the commercial willow world, at last, and there are an increasing number of growers who do it without resorting to chemicals and who manage to make a living at it. 

Dyed cane and found netting 1984
The last cane baskets 1984
Things are not however so good in the world of rattan. I know quite a bit about rattan because when I started making baskets I used a lot of it in its highly processed form known in Britain as ‘centre cane’ and in America as ‘reed’(France 'rotin', Germany 'pedigrohr') I even wrote a book featuring ‘centre cane’ techniques. It had lots of advantages for me as a city dweller, I could purchase it easily, I could dye it any colour I wanted, I could store it easily, soaking only took a few minutes and could be in done in a small bowl. All of these qualities also made it very easy to use in the classroom and students could learn many different techniques with this versatile spaghetti like material. It was and remains in some places a popular material for use in occupational therapy for all the same reasons. Its been imported to Europe for centuries and in Britain after the first world war many convalescing soldiers were taught to make baskets using it, which apparently aided their recovery.

David Drew
Despite all these advantages it was meeting David Drew in the 1980’s who grew his own organic willows in his garden for his beautiful baskets that had a profound influence on my thinking about the materials I was using and the ethical and environmental problems involved in rattan processing. That coupled with the realisation of the part I was playing in this story by my purchasing it from the other side of the globe and dyeing it with fibre reactive dyes convinced me I had to stop using it which I did in the early 90's.

For a while centre cane seemed to have gone out of fashion with basket makers in Europe, though its use in America has stayed fairly strong. But recently there has been a rash of it cropping up all over social media and being used by young makers. I thought that maybe now it is all being grown sustainably and the use of diesel oil and chemicals in the curing process has all been stopped, because otherwise why would these people be using it? So I did some research and what I found is that whilst there is an increased awareness of the environmental and health and safety problems at a governmental and NGO level there has been little progress on improving the situation for all sorts of interconnected reasons.

Calamus (rattan) is a jungle creeper that has traditionally been harvested from virgin forest in south East Asia and more recently Africa which, due to high demand for the product for the furniture industry has caused a lot of problems ecologically and shortages in some places. Rattan palms are slow growing not arriving at a productive harvest size for 12 years. So the idea of creating managed plantations was apparently a good solution to the problem of over harvesting, except that the land needed for a rattan plantation is equally suitable for an oil palm plantation. Oil palm is more profitable so the enthusiasm for planting rattan gardens as they are known has waned and harvesting from the wild remains the modus operandi.

IKEA in conjunction with the WWF have been instrumental in encouraging sustainable plantations in Vietnam and they have also implemented health and safety procedures in the few workshops that they work with directly. The problem however goes far beyond their control because there are not enough ‘sustainable’ rattan plantations to meet the needs of all the furniture manufacturers that want it.

Another major problem with rattan is the processing which includes 'curing' the rattan. Curing is considered to be a necessary process to kill insects and stop moulds developing in the moisture laden air of the places where it grows. It is done by steeping the rattan in boiling diesel oil. The problem here is that because many of the communities where this is done are very poor they often employ used diesel and cannot afford the face masks and protective clothing that are needed to protect themselves from this highly toxic activity. There are quite a few videos on the web of rattan processing plants made by the companies doing the processing but few showing the diesel boiling process though on some you can see the blue smoke coming out of sheds in the background, (of course they might just be burning lunch but I doubt it.) However on some tourist videos it is possible to see people working with the boiling tanks wearing no masks or other protection. Another process that is often recommended is to sulphur the rattan immediately after harvesting to stop moulds developing that discolour the canes. A similar process to that used for whitening willow can be employed but they have discovered that a more effective method is to soak the canes in a sulphur solution which give off far more toxic fumes than the dry method. Not only is this bad news for the workers but both the diesel and the sulphur have to be disposed of at some point and apparently much of the residue ends up in the local water source.

Despite considerable time spent researching this issue I have been unable to find a source of genuinely sustainable centre cane/ reed for basket making. If anyone knows of one please tell me about it and I will be happy to promote it.

In the meantime, developing a close relationship with your materials by gathering or growing your own is still the easiest way to be sure that you are working sustainably. It also makes your work unique to you and your environment, it uses no air miles, endangers no one else’s health or well being and costs nothing. What's not to like?


  1. Thanks for the heads up. Even when doing things that are healing and therapeutic one has to 'be buyer aware'. Very good education in this thanks.

  2. I am glad you have found it instructive, thank you.

  3. Lois, what do you know about raffia? I'm not sure I want to know, but clearly should.

  4. I am doing some research into this as several people have asked me, but my impression is that there are quite a few sources of what they are calling "sustainable raffia".