Days 1-4 On The Plank - My Training with Eddie Barnard

Day 1: “Stakes should always be two fingers width apart, any more and there’s no guts in the basket, they’ll just fall apart.” “Don’t make a basket base that looks like Burrow Mump!” I’m straight in there with the learning… and trying to understand a rich Somerset accent….

Finally, after months of waiting til our timing was right, I’m now getting to train with Eddie. I’ve wanted an opportunity like this for years.  I’m simultaneously honoured and absolutely daunted. Early on I’m introduced to Eddie’s tools that have been handed down, that once belonged to Eddie’s uncle’s, father’s, father. A brass cleave, a thing of absolute beauty. Victorian secateurs, (wow they knew how to engineer them back then!) At 77 years of age, Eddie is a 4th generation basket maker and the last of his grand generation making baskets on a daily basis on the Somerset Levels, maybe now the last of his kind in the UK.

Eddie demonstrates to me a handle, one that he’s designed, somewhere way back it was inspired by a traditional Somerset apple picker basket handle.  It’s far more functional and purer in it’s design than the vast majority of handles you see, and very importantly for Eddie, it’s far stronger then the norm. The very next day I was able to teach Eddie’s handle at a RHS basket making workshop. That’s special for me.

Eddie’s baskets and his attitude to making is all about function; a clean, considered, practical and fast way of doing things.

You name them, all the high end shops, Harrods, Mulberry, Liberty of London etc. and he’s made baskets for them, demonstrated for them.  I very quickly get to realise that Eddie absolutely takes no prisoners. He’s always been a canny businessman, and still is.  I’m nervous now!  Taking on his techniques, it’s an honour. Enabling me to learn his designs and then potentially take them forward, (if I can make them viable again), it’s really special. I don’t want to fail him. I’m already glimpsing ways in which I could update the designs, make my mark; but first I need to learn inside and out how to make each basket.  There’s no way Eddie is going to let me take the reigns until I’ve conquered the basics, the existing designs, and practiced, practiced, and practiced some more.

Jeez – down on the plank. How come I’ve never truly been here before?  This is for real, no sanitised classroom or musty smelling village hall, but a breeze block shed up against the moor. I’m taking on the shoppers first, but we’re already talking hampers. Over lunch Eddie showed me photographs, 60 years of his work; began making as a lad of 17, by 19 he was entertaining royalty. To fulfill orders Eddie would work from 6am til 11pm. Just to survive, and because he always had drive and ambition.  Hundreds of fishing creels, dog baskets, thousands of shoppers, you name it, he’s made it and in quantity. Then Eddie begins telling me tales of his basket making workmates, those makers who he knew and worked alongside and who are now long since gone.  I listen in disbelief to Eddie’s tale of taking a fellow basket maker down a peg or two by hiding a grass snake among his withy rods, making his colleague “scream like a girl”.  As I mentioned before, you really don’t want to mess Eddie around!  I so wish I could remember all these wonderful, often side clenching stories and be able to concentrate on making baskets at the same time.

“If you get the set up right in the wale, you then can’t go wrong”.

An oval shopper, and I’m sent right back to basics.  So I slew away and learn a way of utilising a 4 rod wale that harks back to straightforwardness.  I’m learning how to get to where you want to be on a basket without any more willow than you need or any flounces.

On my journey home I realise with a start, how once Eddie retires, who will be making shoppers, (shopping baskets), commercially in this country?

Day 2: Day 2 on the plank and my world now looks like this, (see the feature photo!) I so wish I’d carried on with all that yoga… I know very well that basket making is a real physical activity, when teaching I often describe my workshops as a ‘workout’, but this takes it to a whole new level.

I never know beforehand what Eddie’s intending for me to do. I was up at 1am this morning, practicing my tied slath oval bases. Eddie’s mantra in my head over and over, “Just take your time, practice, then the speed will come”.  Again in tiredness I panic that I’m going to fail him, my life doesn’t allow for practicing everyday.

This time square work, or as Eddie says – ‘oblong bases’. So I start on the base for an oblong shopper. Simple but so neat. Small but significant changes to what I already know. More logic, less faff. Why add the next slewing rod continuously? Why begin the next rod where the previous one ends, resulting in an unbalanced weave? You add willow rods so as to make the weave more even – it’s logical. What rules have been created in my head that I now need to unlearn? Why double wrap rods around end stakes? That way you’ve got more chance of damaging the weaver. Instead just add the butt end of the weaver in a better place, take it back a little, judge more by eye. I love the banter, Eddie repeats then repeats again, knowing that I need to be repeated to. I use the two finger width rule on my oval slath bases, and now on my oblong ones too. I just wish that I could send all this advice back in time, to the me of 5 years ago who had no choice but to learn from books. As far as I can remember no book ever told me on staking up my square work baskets to set the corner stakes on a slight flow, pulling them out of the hoop after the wale. I slew my oblong shopper, it works.

When in the flow I pick up Eddie’s rapping iron, so balanced and lovely to hold, to use. Whilst I rap down my weave Eddie quite matter of factly drops in how one day the rapping iron will be mine. I’m taken aback by such a beautiful gesture, I never imagined that my learning from Eddie would mean as much to him as it does to me.

Squaring up – how important it is to take your time after the top wale to really push and pull your basket into shape. How to use a commander, a fantastic tool that I really need to get a blacksmith to fashion for me. Previously I’d have just got simultaneously excited and nervous about the prospect of doing a square work border and not paid enough attention to squaring up. I watch Eddie bordering down, remembering the last time I did a square border at the BA Spring school in April. I can do this I think, but I need practice to get the fluidity. Eddie whips in the handle, passes over the basket and declares, “You can sell that, it’ll pay for me teaching you”. “You know I won’t”, I reply. The next day this basket becomes my new tool basket. “Have you sold it yet?’ Eddie asks me on the phone a few days later. “You know I’d never sell it”, I respond. I’d consider selling my 2nd or the 3rd oblong shopper but never my first baskets with Eddie, they’re too precious.

Day 3: Back to Oval shoppers, over and over. Each time Eddie allows me to do an extra stage of the basket myself, heading from the easier to the harder aspects, building up a whole basket repertoire. It’s a really good way to learn and I’m grateful.

I’m astonished as I watch Eddie’s nimbleness, how his feet dance as he’s creating an oval slath base and I realise that’s exactly it, Eddie’s a dancer. I ask him and yes he used to ball room dance, loved to go dancing, even won competitions for his dancing prowess. Eddie declares that he loved to do all the dances except the fox trot and I’m left wondering if the rhythm of the fox trot is somehow disjointed, the pauses all in the wrong places for a basket maker. Later it dawns on me that he’s also been a boxer, this makes so much sense too, his strength, his agility, and how even at his grand age of 77 I really wouldn’t want to meet him down a local drove road in the dead of night.

No tallow in a cow horn, far to much of a faff that slows you down. Eddie rubs a bodkin on his head instead…. Yes that’s right! Eddie greases his bodkin, (fortunately it’s pretty blunt), on his bonnet! That’s one tip that I won’t be using. I’ll stick to a cow horn with tallow and to keeping my hair…

At the BA summer meeting in Cardiff I was given a postcard, upon which was a back and white photo of basket maker Norman Upham. Turns out Norman was Eddie’s uncle’s uncle. Norman started the basket making at Coates in the 1980’s with oblong shoppers and then pigeon baskets. I think how I’m trying now to help in whatever way I can to save commercial basketmaking in this country, how it’s come full circle and that I can’t let Eddie, Norman or any of the other makers down.

Next basket, remember to always stand up whenever staking up and wack those stakes in with Eddie’s two fist movement. I try, it’s effective, but oh how the sides of my hands hurt, really hurt. When bending up stakes Eddie scores them right next to the base. No need to rap them in as this two fist pump method has already launched them far enough into the base. Less need for tools, for wasting valuable time… and my hands sting for days after in pain.

Not yet allowed to do the bottom wale, but the rest of the basket is now all mine.

Bordering – Concentrating on a 4 rod behind 2 border. Only kink over the first 4 rods, go 2 1/2 rod widths up. I learn to push the uprights towards me, (rather than my instinct of pushing them away from me), before taking the stake down behind. I learn that for the last few rods I can really cut them down in size and angle them into the border, put them each in their place by taking them on a much sharper angle into the border than I’ve ever done before.  The border is finished off so fast and neatly, then the bodkin used to raise the last few threaded through rods back level.

Day 4: It’s a boiling hot July day and I arrive utterly exhausted to Eddie’s workshop. I’m living on adrenalin, too little sleep.  I’ve yet again pushed myself so close to the limit this summer term. I just can’t see how to work any less and get all that I need to do done. I want to erupt in utter frustration.  I’m letting Eddie down, I’m failing to practice as much as I want to and I feel so guilty. Eddie is greeted by my whirlwind, but unperturbed he hands me a very sweet coffee and after letting me vent, commands me to sit down on the floor of his workshop, hands me an oval shopper already complete with it’s bottom wale, signals to me to pick up some willow tops and to get on with it. My mind goes blank, I’m so utterly exasperated at myself because everything I’ve learnt feels like it’s unraveling. Then gradually I start slewing, find a rhythm and begin to calm down. Eddie’s taken me back to basics again, and I’m not annoyed at him, I suppose I could be because I could be demanding for my money to be learning far more advanced techniques by now.  What Eddie is doing though isn’t about my ability or technique, he’s a knowing teacher, he knows that I need to just clear everything through my head, then find a pattern, a pace, find some kind of iota of peace. It works.

A few hours later Eddie’s got me spitting on the end stake when pulling it through the basket border. Reminding me to turn the basket upside down when trimming and… I’m nearly making it back to myself. This I guess is my version of a Spa treatment and I’m so grateful to Eddie for all his support.  I realise how he identifies so closely with my driven nature, with my passionate spirit, in some ways we are so very alike.

I complete a whole oval shopper, all the elements by myself.  Eddie tells me that all I need now to do is go home, have a good practice and I’m there, one decent basket under my belt.

Whenever I’m teaching at Coates English Willow and Eddie is dropping off his latest baskets or picking up willow, he now turns up in the morning at my classroom door, comes to see I’m ok, says hello to all my students. I love this, because what he doesn’t realise is that by the time I’ve introduced the day, I’ve already told my students about Eddie, how amazing it is to have the opportunity to train with him, thanked them for coming to be taught by me because in doing so they are paying for me to learn from him. In just a couple of months I have learnt so much, I have adjusted my techniques, I now teach with a different pace, I’m far more succinct with explanations, I concentrate more on functionality, I have more confidence.  It makes me so smile, because if this wasn’t enough, after a day of my teaching basket making, Eddie’s basket handles are now leaving my workshops and Willow Sculpture Days throughout Devon, Dorset and Somerset. These handles are swinging on arms, attaching their lovely makers to better made baskets.

Thanks to Eddie I am learning how to make decent traditional English technique baskets that need to be held onto, that hopefully one day will be viable again to be made by commercial makers in this country, and despite how I berate myself, I am becoming a better basket maker. I will do Eddie proud.