A Call to Arms (or at least to Bodkins and Knives!)

If you’ve perused my website, been taught by me, (or even ever just met me!) you’ll know that I’m incredibly passionate about keeping willow basket making using English techniques in the UK alive.  I wish this was all just in my imagination but the reality for English willow basket making is currently the following:

  • There are very few of us now willow basket making and teaching in the UK who are below retirement age.  It’s a glaring fact that there are only a small number of us in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s teaching basket making.  I’m seeing across the UK the most incredible makers and teachers winding down their work and I’m left thinking how much I wish I’d been able to learn from them.

 

  • There are so very few of us who are able to make a sustainable living from making baskets and/or from teaching.  I myself am incredibly lucky that I have been very successful in my teaching.  I call it luck but actually it’s incredibly hard work being full time self-employed; combining building up my own teaching business, doing commissions and fitting in time to practice whilst bringing up 2 young children.  Through working in a university I gained a creative business background which helped me immensely in figuring out very early on that the only way I could survive financially was to organise my own teaching including all publicity and bookings, (this has become my Willow Animal & Basket Sculpture Days), target my market for commissions, (a National Trust membership and a ride-on lawnmower were minimum criteria!) and very much pick and choose who else to teach for.  At times this has seemed very mercenary and dare I say it even against the ethos of basket making, it’s heritage and wonderful community, but frankly if I hadn’t been business minded coupled with a good dose of necessity then I wouldn’t have been successful.  I’m so grateful that my teaching subsidises me practicing my basket making and occasionally on an ad-hoc basis I can now afford to attend basket making courses with the best teachers.

 

  • There are currently only a handful of basket making teachers in the UK who are teaching English traditional techniques, of whom very few are teaching square work. Just take a look at the courses available on the Basketmaker’s Association website (basketmakersassociation.org.uk/courses) and you’ll see how few and far between the opportunities to learn traditional English willow basket making techniques are.  Of course I recognise that there is a natural progression for learning English techniques, from round to oval to square work; but if so few basket makers currently ever reach the skilled level of square work, or even aspire to it whilst learning round or oval, then within a few years time these techniques will be lost.  As much as I’ve come to the conclusion that somehow we need to film our surviving English basket making techniques so that there may exist some future way of learning them, I want to right now be able to train next to a master basket maker with this level of knowledge of technique and skill.  I always say to those who attend my Willow Sculpture Days that it’s far best to learn the craft form from, and next to, a master basket maker; if not next to a basket; and failing that learn from a DVD or book.  However, I very much know myself that a book or a basket is absolutely no substitute in the advancement of my basket making skills compared to spending time with and learning from a master basket maker and teacher.  Furthermore, though grateful that I am for any training opportunity, the time spent learning from a master basket maker needs to be on a regular, progressive basis.  It is only in this way that I believe that myself or others like me will have the opportunity to learn the most highly skilled aspects of basket making with confidence and competency.

 

So what about the future of basket making in the UK? From where I’m standing it looks to me that a gaping hole is already emerging.  There is currently an amazing resurgence of interest in craft, including in basketry -just take a look at the glossy home interiors or garden magazines.  However, until we value, (in many senses of the word), our existing highly skilled commercial and non-commercial basket makers and teachers; until we invest in our craft form, in growing new makers, in supporting the surviving willow industry in our country and creating the much needed training opportunities for basket makers to learn high-level basket skills and techniques over the longer term, then this hole will continue to grow.  My fear is that without doing something right now, within a generation or two there will be no highly skilled willow basket makers left in this country using traditional English techniques, no UK commercial basket makers and no UK commercial willow growers.  How can we let thousands of years of willow basket making, of our heritage, of skills, techniques and knowledge that we may very well much need for our future just disappear?

I realise that increasingly I’ve become impassioned when talking about all of  the above at my Willow Sculpture Days.  I can try whilst teaching how to make a willow sculptural basket or animal in a day to also always educate everyone about our basket making heritage, about this amazing, rewarding and much needed craft form, but is this really enough?  I’m questioning whether or not I’m already too late to make any difference.

Recently, after a couple of days energetic teaching I was tiredly talking with a couple, two of the hardest working and most amazing people I know who live and breath willow.  One said, “Who actually, apart from the three of us here truly cares about keeping commercial basket making alive in this country?  Who actually cares about traditional English techniques?”  And I wanted to shout, “There must be lots of us!”  but I couldn’t.  I’m exasperated because I haven’t got any advice or answers to offer; but just maybe you have.  So if you want to keep this incredible craft form alive, keep English willow basket making alive in this country then you do really need to speak up now and we need collectively to get our heads together and take action.