The New Craftsmen & Inigo Present: Willow Basket Weaving with Hilary Burns

Women In Craft 

Our mission to support meaningful making-methods and traditional craft feels more prescient now than ever. And so, with great pleasure, The New Craftsmen have joined forces with Inigo in order to highlight brilliant work from a variety of makers and disciplines.

In this first installment of our collaboration with Inigo, we visit master basketmaker Hilary Burns, at home in Devon as she harvests, soaks and bends her homegrown willow.

Hilary discovered basketry over 30 years ago, having initially trained as a fabric weaver. In 1985, after taking up basket-making full time, Hilary planted several willow beds in order to grow her own material sustainably. Since then, she has refined her techniques and today provides inspiration to others intrigued by the craft.

Functionality is often at the heart of Hilary’s designs, as is a commitment to endorsing the old methods of making that are now sadly fading from cultural memory. Not only does Hilary promote traditional basket-making, but she is finding new and innovative ways to protect the old methods of weaving by incorporating them into her contemporary practice and teaching the next generation of basket weavers.

We invited Hilary to tell us more about how she approaches her craft.

What motivates you to make?

It’s a need to keep the hand and brain moving, a need to see a piece of work materialise. I am not happy if I am not creating something and get itchy fingers if I have left it too long. When there’s an idea in my head that I have been mulling over or developing, then I’m eager to make it a reality. I mainly make pieces that are functional and pleasing to use, unless it’s an idea for a non-functional sculptural piece.

Hilary Burns

What and/or who are you most inspired or influenced by?

I am inspired by natural things. Living in Devon I’m surrounded by a lovely rolling landscape, close to the sea and moors. I also have my collection of beautiful willow varieties to draw from. Once the leaves have fallen in the autumn, the colours of the stems develop from green to a range of oranges, purples and dark browns/black. Each variety has its own characteristics and I look forward to being able to use them.

The craft of other cultures also inspires me, particularly those of Japan and Africa. Basketry is essentially three dimensional, so I love the challenge of re-interpreting interesting forms from other crafts using my own European basketry techniques. Surface and pattern in both nature and the built environment feed into the texture that I create through different weaves.

Hilary Burns

What is your unique approach to your craft and how have you honed your skills?

Practice, practice, practice. This is a very slow craft that is honed over time and by working with others to maintain traditions. There are some unique regional methods of making that fascinate me, and I like to collaborate in order to keep these practices alive while also finding new ways of using them. I have learnt techniques from older makers which are now fast disappearing, and I try to keep some of that alive in my work.

What is your defining or proudest moment as a maker so far?

In recognition of services to the craft of basketmaking, I received the ‘Maker of the Year’ award from the Heritage Craft Association in 2016. Having founded Basketry and Beyond, a not-for-profit company that promotes aspects of basketry though festivals, events and courses, I regularly attend events such as the Contemporary Craft Fair at Bovey Tracey. I also work with the University of Hertfordshire on the Basketry Then and Now project, and I was really pleased to have been involved in the Baskets of Britain project with The New Craftsmen in 2015 – a poetic collection which highlighted basketry skills, forms and materials; and now is suspended above the bar at the Firmdale Hotel ‘The Whitby’ in New York.

Hilary Burns

What is your dream project?

Something that shows off the possibilities of the material in a quiet but effective way, on a large, possibly architectural, scale. Collaborations with makers from other disciplines are always exciting too.

Hilary Burns

Photography by Tom Griffiths

Explore Hilary's Work