Exceptional British Craft - Furniture, Homewares & Gifts

Baskets of the British Isles

As part of our Decorex VIP lounge, in collaboration with House & Garden Magazine, The New Craftsmen has collaborated with British basket makers around the United Kingdom to create an instillation that celebrates this diverse craft. This amazing feat has been brought together by basket maker extraordinaire Hilary Burns, who we have already been working with as a maker, enabling her expertise to guide us when celebrating the range and diversity of basket making around the country. Here she speaks about the ‘Baskets of the British Isles’ installation and the history of this ancient craft.

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Do you know the secret of the tendle, can you tell a kibsey from a kishie?

A cloud, actual not virtual, of British baskets will float above visitors’ heads at this year’s Decorex fair. Having been asked to co-create an exhibition on Basket’s of Britain with The New Craftsmen, we are preparing to celebrate this original ‘slow craft’ with a sculptural display of forms and textures.

In deciding what to include, I’ve drawn on over thirty years of making and teaching and a fascination with the heritage of basketry, one of the oldest of crafts.

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As a maker I’ve felt the frustration and joy of mastering each new technique for making a particular type.  As a researcher I know how easily many baskets, some of them extraordinary, which have remained the same over the centuries are now quickly disappearing as the need for them fades. Added to this the profile of basketmaking, despite the skills involved, remains fragile, not often attaining the status in Britain accorded to crafts such as ceramics or textiles. Retaining the knowledge whilst making the craft relevant today is a challenge this display hopes to help address.

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The exciting part has been tracing makers around Britain who continue to weave the traditional shapes, or those who take inspiration from these to create contemporary pieces.

British basketry has been shaped by the materials that grow in our climate; willow, hazel, rush, straw, ash, oak, elm, many of these now under threat from disease or pressure on the landscape.

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Don Riddle and Deryck Huby, now in their late 70’s still make a few putchers each winter, cutting their own willow. These iconic funnel shaped traps dating back to medieval times, were used in their thousands to catch salmon. Fish weirs holding banks of putchers, often three rows high, extended into the river Severn. The fast running tide, which drove the fish into them, made this method of fishing a dangerous and skilful art. Putcher making and fishing was passed down through families, the men making them out of season, in the winter. Today, almost the only evidence of this centuries old industry are the ancient oak posts, now hard as iron bars from the salt water, driven into the rock bed.

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Eel grigs too, with their complicated internal structure of gills to prevent the fish from swimming out are a fascinating form, only made by small group in the fens of East Anglia.

A great British basket, the quarter cran, was made in great numbers up until the 1950’s not by the fishermen themselves, but in large workshops with men working piece-rate, set up to supply the fishing fleets. The boats chased the huge silvery herring shoals from Cornwall along Britain’s east coast as far as Scotland. The makers had to be skilled and accurate as well as fast, as these baskets were an official measure that had to be passed by a government inspector. Fourteen measurements were taken before the basket could be passed and branded fit for use.

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Baskets with feet are a personal favourite. The flower-sellers of Victorian London, many of them very young girls, scraped a small living selling sweet smelling stocks, moss roses, primroses and lavender. They didn’t’ have to pay ‘stallage’ if they used a basket that acted as a portable stall.  The north Devon maund, the lid, supported on a forked stick, used for displaying butter, cream and poultry was used in the pannier markets of Bideford, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe by farmers’ wives who brought them to market in a horse and cart. In both of these baskets, feet, fashioned from stout sticks, kept them above the mud and ensured a flow of air that kept the goods fresh.

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From pottles and sciobs to donkey creels and curling baskets, the New Craftsmen will be displaying this fascinating collection at Decorex , 20-23 September, and the collection will be available for viewing in our Mayfair store from November 2nd. It will also be possible to purchase as a collector’s item in its entirety and there will also be a selection of our favourite baskets for customers to order in store or online.

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Photos courtesy of Hilary Burns sourced from Jacqueline Sarsby and the Environment Agency.

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