Owen Jones learnt his craft from a retired swiller at a time when nobody else would take it on and has single-handedly kept it alive for nearly 20 years. The swill is a Lakeland basket and they are regularly pictured in Beatrix Potter’s books. Designed for tough farm use such as picking potatoes, they later found a large market hauling bobbins round the Lancashire cotton mills. Today they make the perfect laundry basket, holding just a washing machine full.
The difference between a swill and any other basket is that it is made from oak. First Owen has to cut and split his oak into sections about an inch square by two, three and four foot long, then he boils them for many hours. The next morning is riving day – he fires up the boiler again and when the water is hot he picks out the bits of oak one at a time and whilst still hot he tears the oak apart again and again until he has thin strips. These then have to be dressed by scraping them with a knife before they are ready to weave. Compared to most basket makers who can buy a bundle of willow ready to weave it is incredibly time consuming.
Owen has taught around 1,000 people over the last 15 years how to make a swill, but once people see how much work goes into one few ever think about setting up to make more. Over the last couple of years Owen has managed to pass the skill on to one other maker who had been doing quite well but sadly he has been suffering from problems with his wrists. This all goes to show how potentially fragile a craft is when you only have one or two makers.
Last year Owen was filmed making a basket on the popular Victorian Farm program and since he has had a great demand for his work by mail order and all his courses are fully booked. He never struggled to sell all he could make at the price he charges though and is now finding he struggles to find time to do the other important stuff in life like tending his veggie garden and going for bike rides.