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.

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