I am resuming my basket blog with as much vigor as the new willow, late to leaf here in Kent this year because of all those nights well below freezing. But here it comes, filling my car as I have to drive stuff home. My first batch was cut by friends at a delightful small holding of long standing, a small market garden, where basketmakers planted a willow patch about 10 years ago.
The cutting parties involve coffee and cake in sun or cold and are delightful occasions, surrounded by orchard, large vegetable plot, hens clucking. This is the rural image of the willow world. Lucky are those who can conform to this way of living with space and the outdoors. A far cry from the industrial basketmaking of the cities in the last several hundred years, in cramped conditions, cold, damp, relentless. If you can find a copy of ‘A Basketful of Memories’ by Thomas Okey, (London 1903) it will paint a true picture of this life.
Thomas Okey was a remarkable man who started off his basketmaking in Spitalfields as an apprentice to his father, living in poverty and working long tiring hours. He educated himself at Toynbee Hall night classes and was able, in the 1880’s, to travel with like minded people who formed the Toynbee Travellers, to Europe. The first ever trip was to Italywith 80 East Enders, an experience which changed his life. He became tutor in Italian at Toynbee Hall in his forties and finally was appointed Professor of Italian at Cambridge, a far cry from the damp Spitalfields cellar. He wrote a wonderful manual of basketry in 1912, ‘The Art of Basketry’ (now available from www.basketassoc.org) part of which we would now see as sexist, women lacking, in his eyes, the strength to work with willow. In my view it is one of the very best willow manuals ever published. Working through that will teach so much and give great advice on good technique and methods of work. It is one of the great books. His portrait can be seen in the Art Workers Guild, Queens Square, London, top left as you face the speaker.
But I digress: willow in the porch, willow in shallow water troughs in the back garden, waiting for bud burst so it can be peeled, all this is the beginning – blog and work.