Friday 8 January 2021

Basketry by Janie Hampton

Bronislava and Jan Madejscy with their kablacok willow baskets, are part of the Slow Art in Poland movement, in Lucimia Village which is on UNESCO’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ list. © Paulina Adamska, Serfenta Association, 2009.
Baskets have been part of our lives ever since humans first gathered fruit to eat. Since then, basketry skills have been used to make hats, water carriers, coffins, boats, furniture, lampshades and designer handbags.
Despite much speculation, the origin of the word ‘basket’ is obscure but is assumed to be from the early 13th C Anglo-French bascat. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest source is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor published in 1602: ‘Look, here is a basket…. he may creep in here.’
Because baskets are used until they fall apart, and are then either burned or decay, they rarely feature in archeology. The earliest known baskets survived through chance – in fish-traps left behind in waterlogged ditches; in permafrost; or in desert caves.
Baskets have been found in Turkey from the neo-lithic period of 7500-5500 BC. They left only impressions in the mud after they were wrapped around the dead. In Fayum, near the Nile Valley in Egypt, there are no traces of dwellings left, but over 100 grain storage pits made between 5000 and 4200 BC reveal patterns from baskets made from wheat straw. One whole boat-shaped basket with colours and fine patterns was found in a grain pit in 1924. Its discovery raised the question: ‘Does its quality indicate that the value of grain was very high? Or was it first used for something of higher status, and then when it was half worn out, recycled as a grain scoop?’
Early 20thC basketmaker in Kent.  © Mary Butcher
Humans have always been good at adapting whatever they can find, to live more comfortably and safely. In the Peruvian Andes, the Spanish Conquistadors were astonished that the only way across deep gorges was by bridges made from rope. Designed over 500 years ago during the Inca Empire, the bridges were made entirely of grass. One keshwa chaca still survives, spanning the Apurimac River (‘The Great Speaker’). Only humans and llamas can cross it, but the tradition and skills are so important to the people that it is rebuilt every year using the same local qqoya grass and methods passed down to each generation. The grass has to be soaked and softened, then pounded by children, and spun into cords by women. Each household produces 40 arms-length of rope. Once about 7 kms of grass cord has been made, the men twist bunches of 24 cords into ropes. Old men then braid the cables, while the young ones stretch them across the channel. The bridge is completed with a deck of brushwood matting. The combination of grass - a material with little strength on its own, community effort, and the design of the keshwa chaca is a wonderful example of engineering friction, social cohesion and human ingenuity. As Ian Ewart writes, the process is ‘a nexus of social regeneration and reinforcement.’ 
Nassa fish traps from Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea,
made by the late Salvo ta Bertu from split Mediterranean cane
and a grass similar to esparto. © Geraldine Jones. 

Materials for baskets come from plants - trees, grasses, cacti, heathers – whatever grows near the maker. In the islands of northern Scotland, there are stones to build houses, but few trees to use as rafters to hold up the rooves. But there is plenty of heather, which can be twisted into ropes to hold the thatch, made of more heather. 
The first Girl Guide uniforms in 1910 included a wide brimmed hat woven from rush.
This was made by Jean Francis for Salt Cellar Workshops in Cornwall in 2019. 
During World War One, baskets were so important for transporting carrier-pigeons and medical supplies, and for observation-balloon baskets and even aeroplanes, that basket-making was a ‘reserved occupation’ and the War Office appointed a National Willow Officer. Mary Crabb relates that the artillery-shell basket had ‘a curious, slightly sinister cyclic quality about it. Woven to offer protection to objects of death and destruction – those injured by the shells were then taught to weave baskets as a means of therapy and rehabilitation.’ Basket making was found to be a therapeutic activity for shell-shock, requiring meditative repetition, hand-eye coordination and creating a sense of purpose with the finished product. The materials were cheap, and when imported cane ran out, wild roses and brambles were available in hedgerows. Also, it could be done in bed or a wheelchair. 
Basket weaving therapy at Seale Hayne Military Hospital, 1919.
Seale-Hayne Archives. © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. 

Angus MacPhee was a Gaelic speaker brought up on South Uist – a remote island on the Outer Hebrides. During the 1940s he developed schizophrenia and was sent to Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital in Inverness. An elective mute, he worked on the hospital farm where he invented his own therapy. He twisted and twined grass into yarn and then using only two pieces of broken fence wire, he looped, netted and stitched. He made coats, trousers, hats, boots and pouches, often interwoven with wild flowers and sheep’s wool from fences. Twice a year the hospital groundsmen tidied up his artefacts and burned them. He would watch apparently undisturbed, and make some more. A few pieces survived him, and basket-makers recognized the same looping techniques as used in 12th C socks found in a cave in Arizona, in Norse cultures, and by indigenous people of Australia today. 
A typical English fruit basket from the 1950s, designed for
occupational therapy and made of easily-manipulated cane. 
Basket making gained a bad name after the derogatory term ‘basket-case’ was coined in 1919, meaning someone who had lost both their legs in war and was now ‘useless’; and by the mid-20th century basketry’s association with the disabled and mentally ill meant its reputation declined. Recent research has shown the beneficial effects on brain injury and trauma that basketry can contribute to improving brain plasticity with sensory and motor signals, sequencing, recognition of mistakes and decision making.
Baskets have a protective role of containment and holding. ‘We are, after all, ’writes Hilary Burns, ‘nurtured in baskets from cradle to grave, literally from crib to coffin.’ 
Boks baskets from Vanuatu in South Pacific embody a rhythmic 
sequence of pandanus (pine palm) ribbons, passed down the generations. 
Whereas ’found materials’ or rubbish were originally used to make baskets for economic reasons, now basket makers use them to create political messages about sustainability. Lois Walpole used to buy rattan, until she realized the huge carbon footprint of transporting it across the world, and then dyeing it. Now she consciously uses only found materials such as disused packaging and ‘ghost gear’ – flotsam and jetsam from beaches- to make colourful, beautiful baskets and furniture. In the Shetland Isles she taught children to appreciate ‘ghost gear’ and not see it as ‘undesirable and untouchable but as something they could profit from as their forebears would have done [with grown materials]’. 
‘Ghost gear’ on Breckon beach, Isle of Yell. © Lois Walpole 
As more people buy plastic or factory-made baskets, the skills of different methods, knots, weaves and styles are dying out. In many places, only the oldest people still know how to make traditional baskets. A few basket historians, such as Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond, have sought out these basket-makers in places like Malta, Cornwall, The Azores and Northern Spain.
We take basketry for granted but now historians, artists, anthropologists and mathematicians are revealing stories, structures and skills in basketwork. The Material Culture of Basketry: practice, skill and embodied knowledge is a beautifully produced book which will inspire anyone interested in the interdisciplinary history of crafts, knots, plants. The book’s 36 authors remind us that baskets are not just craftily-made containers, but also holders of knowledge, history and design; and the textures, patterns and geometric forms in basketwork express maths, art, culture and engineering. 
Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond made this stainless-steel wire ball
following the mathematical pattern of a sepak raga football from Malaysia,
 usually made from split bamboo. © Geraldine Jones

The Material Culture of Basketry: Practice, Skill and Embodied Knowledge, Stephanie Bunn and Victoria Mitchell (Eds), Bloomsbury, 2020.

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs © Janie Hampton 

1 comment:

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

What a lovely topic, Janie. I so enjoyed reading all these stories which are full of history, humanity, art and necessity. Wonderful pictures, too.

As you mention, basketwork encompasses so many skills and the therapeutic qualities of this craft are clear. I remember attending a basket-making workshop at Horniman Museum as a child and returning home proudly carrying a 'basket doll' I had made.

The book sounds fascinating and is now on my 'To read' list!