Friday, 22 March 2013

WITHY, by Jane Borodale


If an advertisement for the basket were ever needed – then surely this picture by Beuckelaer must be the one. This lady is strong! And her baskets! Just look at them; tough handled, sinewy, perfectly formed, smooth, and bursting with good produce. Hers is an affirmation of skilful basketry put to practical use.

Joachim Beuckelaer, (1533-1575), Woman Selling Vegetables

And (though at great risk of sounding like Prince Charles), I say bring back the basket – home grown, durable, long-lasting, as light as, well, wicker, and sustainable. In a world of rising sea-levels and reclaimed wetland returning to its natural state in the face of the cost of sea defences; wouldn’t it make perfect sense to say that dampness is in, with its accompanying willows and withy beds, and imported jute and hessian out of fashion.

Salix Purpurea, Otto Wilhelm Thome
1885
The Somerset Levels are now the only part of the UK where willow is grown commercially for basket-making, see Musgroves or Coates, but traces of previously widespread cultivation lie all over the country in place names containing ‘withy’, from Withypool, Hereford, to Withymead, Chingford. 

It’s the perfect material for everyday carrying or storage vessels, not to mention eel traps and lobster pots, cradles, hot-air balloon baskets, coffins, and fencing. Willow is also used for high grade charcoal for artists and gunpowder, and has potent medicinal qualities. It can last practically forever, (possibly why willow is associated with the dead in many cultures across the world?). For an example of wicker’s longevity, click here and then scroll down a little for an excavation image of rare Roman basket, discovered beautifully preserved in a waterlogged pit at Marcham in Oxfordshire, and accompanying description of its possible use as a ritual object. 

I was interested to read that this basket was made of extremely fine stripped willow, of a fineness not grown in this country today, because although many texts about willow talk about the coarseness of basketry in the past, due to the limitations of methods of growing, old herbals mention many different kinds of withy or osier – implying that there was growing in withy beds, as well as pollarding from the tree, in early times. (Pollarding being where the tree is cut back to the main trunk, and then the resulting supple fresh growth of shoots or withies harvested each year.)

The Basketmaker, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)
Last year I did a short basketry course because for various reasons I have an old basket maker at the heart of my novel The Knot, a blind woman called Widow Hodges, and I felt it was important to at least partially understand the process of what she does all day. It was very demanding – like maths with twigs, and very hard on the hands, both in terms of strength needed and the astringent nature of the twigs. (I produced, since you ask, a very uneven greenish basket of which I was inordinately proud, that does despite its wonkiness actually get used for tidying every day. It took months for the deliciously sharp, smoky, bitter smell of damp willow to disappear from the room where it lives.) The tools used by basket makers are very simple and haven’t changed much over the centuries; a picking knife, a bodkin, horn full of grease…

Seriously, for those of us living in damp places, withy beds must be the thing to invest in, for when oil runs out…?



7 comments:

Sally Zigmond said...

How fascinating. My mother and I once 'got into' wicker basket-making until our hands were blistered and sore. But we still use what we produced, despite their wonkiness. They're so much more pleasing to use than plastic.

Joan Lennon said...

Very attracted to the wicker coffins, though I'm not sure what that says about me!

Thanks for posting!

Ann Turnbull said...

I love baskets! Saw some exquisite ones in the British Museum last weekend - the soft, flat kind, very finely woven in subtle patterns. They are such a beautiful, sensible, breathable way of storing things.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Ooh, Jane, You've inspired me to get a basket to do my shopping with. But I think I'll buy one, not make it...

Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you -a very interesting blog. It does sound like willow is much more sustainable than alternatives!

adele said...

I love this post! And baskets...must get myself to the B M

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