Thursday 17 October 2019

Dordogne, Berkshire, Catalonia (Part 3 Catalonia)

From Reading to Catalonia to arrive in the last hour of the annual basket fair in Salt on the outskirts of Girona, so I made a quick dash around to try and see as much as possible before it closed. The Fair is organised by the Catalan Basketmakers Association who had invited me to run a post fair course for some of their members. On the Monday a group of us headed out of Girona to Toroella de Montgri to visit Josep and Magdas  workshop/shop. Set in a narrow street it had a cave like feel, filled with basketry, materials and chairs for restoration and where in a dark corner a female ‘gigante’ watches over everything.

On to the house that the association had rented for the course set on a ‘slow’ farm in the countryside, then off to the beach at the mouth of the river Ter to gather both beach flotsam and maritime rush Juncus acutus. Never having had a chance to handle this version of rush before I now understand why it is used to make fish traps and baskets like the saranda - it is very tough. Josep taught us how to pull it from the plant in two movements but some plants surrendered their rushes much more easily than others!

There were 13 students, Italian, French, Venezuelan and Spanish, most of whom are professional makers who had just had a hard weekend of selling at the fair so I offered them an opportunity to ‘play’ and to experiment rather than to impose specific techniques on them. But I did ask them only to use materials that were free. In fact some purchased materials were brought to the workshop and used towards the end and the machine split chestnut bands were perfect for certain techniques. It would be great if someone in UK could make those, or ash or hazel ones for us. Anyone know a wood/coppice/forestry business that might take it on, or at least give it a go? I am sure there would be a market for them.

Instead of completed items I brought lots of my technical samples for them to examine, they could choose any techniques they would like to learn and I asked them to make something that could be carried on the body without using the hands to hold whatever they made. We only had two days to work in and at the end of the second day the makers performed a catwalk wearing their creations. Antonios  plaited palmito nose cone for stabbing flies whilst working was just one of many gems!

As always it was a real pleasure to be in the company of fellow makers and my thanks to Josep and the Catalan Basketmakers for inviting me to share some time with them, to Idoia and Severine for translations from French to Spanish, to Mari for taking photos and setting up a Whats app group, to Carles, Francoise, Julio and many others for cooking skills, Magda for the lift to the station and to all of them for ‘playing’ and experimenting.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Dordogne, Berkshire, Catalonia (Part 2 Berkshire)

Shetland kishie in MERL collection (atypical base)
From Perigueux to Reading for a symposium about endangered baskets, organised jointly by the Heritage Crafts Association, the Basketmakers’ Association and the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers and hosted at the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University. The event was fully booked and apparently the same number of people had to be turned away due to lack of space, which was a shame. The aim was to try to develop a strategy for saving the knowledge of those baskets that are considered to be in danger of disappearing and to that end four of us gave talks. My talk was about the Shetland kishie, Mary Butcher spoke about several English basket forms and techniques that are in danger, Hilary Burns about the research that she has been conducting into English basketry over many years, Stephanie Bunn about the considerable work that she has done with Woven Communities for the Scottish Tradition and Jenny Crisp on the lack of more formal education for willow cultivation as well as basket making skills.

 Kishie, Cullivoe, Yell (typical)

At lunchtime we had an opportunity to look at baskets in the museum store. There are two straw kishies in the collection from Shetland but neither are typical because the bases are quite different to most of the ones I have seen in Shetland.

In the afternoon we broke into groups to discuss various topics. The group I found myself in had sustainability as its theme and included several professional willow growers who outlined the many problems they face. I was not surprised to hear one grower admit to using banned chemicals on his willow crop because he grows vast monocultures of Black Maul. I know I have been banging on about this for years and making myself unpopular in the process, but it’s still going on.  It’s the total disconnect between people and place that results in individual basketmakers working with materials that they have not harvested or grown themselves and I suppose it  must be the profit motive that makes commercial willow growers destroy their landscape and environment to satisfy their market. According to one grower, a large amount of sales are to people who are weaving  sculptures and coffins, both of which require huge amounts of willow. At least one grower even imports willow from Eastern Europe to satisfy this market. A willow coffin or basket made with chemically sprayed willows may be a ‘natural’ product but it is certainly not an environmentally friendly or a sustainable one.

In front of a monocultural plantation of Black Maul in Somerset 1982 - little has changed.
Chemical pesticides and fungicides were first available to farmers on a large scale in the 1950’s. Britains basket industry was at its biggest and most profitable prior to that in the early 20thCentury when thousands of willow baskets were being made for all sorts of purposes. They achieved this without the aid of Monsanto, ICI, Bayer, et al and I see no reason why it cannot be done again. 

London basketmakers  A.Cook  1935
When you think about it, it is obvious that any willow plantation is going to be vulnerable to pests and diseases because we plant the willows in lines bang up next to each other to make them grow straight, we then force them to make lots of new shoots by chopping their heads off every year, we seldom fertilise and we tend to plant single varieties which means that if one gets infested they all do. Added to this heavy tractors instead of lightweight horses are now used to cut (and spray) the willows on large plantations thus compacting the soil round the roots, so it’s no wonder the willows give up after 10 years or so of this onslaught. It’s time to re think the whole business of growing willow as a crop, there has to be a better way. I have read that there is a bacteria that can kill rust on willows and any other infected plants that is completely harmless to the environment or man, but I imagine it is not that easy to get hold of because one of the big chemical companies will have made sure they have the patent or they will have buried the research!

It was good to have a chance to discuss these things and to catch up with friends and fellow makers and to meet some people I had only previously ‘met’ on social media.

Hopefully a comprehensive strategy for documenting some of our endangered baskets that are languishing in national Museum stores will emerge from this event along with other activities to preserve the knowledge stored in these baskets. My thanks to Mary Lewis at Heritage Crafts for inviting me to contribute to the day. It was certainly food for thought.

Dordogne, Berkshire, Catalonia (Part 1 Dordogne)

During last week, three unrelated events took me to a French lycee in Perigueux, a museum in Berkshire and a basketry fair in Catalonia. The self-employed life has always been like that and I have learnt that, you have to take opportunities when they are offered because turning them down, however genuine the cause, hurts the proposer and they seldom repeat the invitation. It was mentally taxing doing all three, one after the other, but my carbon footprint was considerably reduced by linking the three events together and that was important for me.
I have divided this blog into 3 separate posts to make it a tad more digestible!

When I was invited to do an ‘intervention’ at the Lycee Albert Claveille in Perigueux, I liked the proposal very much but was anxious about how I could actually achieve everything. The brief was to give a talk about my work and to teach 105 fifteen to eighteen year old pupils some basic basketry techniques in the space of about 4 and a half hours. All of this to be done in French, which for someone who failed French O level, is an achievement in itself.

Never having taught in a Lycee I had no idea what to expect. But I am a great believer in preparation because if I have done as much of it as I possibly can and done it as well as I know how, the chances are things will work out in the end. It also helps hugely to have someone in the school who has thought of everything from their point of view too. I was very lucky to have Celine, one of the applied arts teachers, initiate the project and plan it extremely well with 5 teachers, 4 classrooms and video projection for the practical instruction. I did the talk first, then three demonstrations, which were projected so all pupils could see, then they were split into 4 groups each with a teacher and I went from room to room. In the end it was a very positive experience for me as the pupils listened attentively, asked lots of intelligent questions and then made 3 different samples from recycled paper or card in random weave, diagonal plaiting and hexagonal plaiting (more photos in the schools facebook link here )

The applied arts teachers will continue the project using polypropylene strapping tape and I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with.
Thanks to Karen Gossart and Corentin Laval for suggesting me to the school.

One of the teachers, S. Frangeul, brought in some baskets from his personal collection and this one I found particularly interesting. He told me it was a dough basket from the Dordogne and that he also had a smaller one at home. It has a linen lining common on dough baskets but the shape and the random weave were unlike any other bread raising basket I have ever seen. It is a big basket maybe 70cms long and looks more like a flower basket to me. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has come across any others like this.