The making of baskets and basketwork items, made with one of the seven basket construction methods (looping, knotting, plaiting, coiling, weaving, twining and assembly).
|Craft category||Wood; Straw; Plant fibre|
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Mesolithic|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Basketry is widely believed to be the oldest craft in the world, dating back ten to twelve thousand years and predating pottery. It is also the most ubiquitous, found in some form in almost every part of the world. Baskets were an everyday life essential throughout the centuries, used for containing, storing and transporting items, as well as for fishing. They were of such necessity that each village or district had local basketmaking artisans.
The Romans often used willow for the craft of basketmaking. Britain was renowned for skilled basketry, and large quantities were exported to Rome. Somerset, with wetlands suitable for willow beds, was the heart of Britain’s willow industry. Hazel and oak were also used in Britain for basketry. The Industrial Revolution heavily influenced willow production and basketmaking, creating a higher demand of willow. This lead to the plantation of over 3,000 acres in the early 1800s. “[…] by the end of the 19th Century there were hundreds of willow growers, willow merchants, basketmakers and furniture makers on the Somerset Levels and Moors.”
According to Lynch, “Baskets were standardised, and the 1916 British Amalgamated Union listed precise measurements and quantities of willow for many items, including hawkers’ baskets, plate baskets, scuttles, wool skeps, and linen baskets, as well as pheasant hampers, bread trays, sieves, pickers, cycle crates, homing pigeon baskets and even bath chairs.”
Harvesting was arduous work, and once harvested, it needed to be stripped by hand until ‘the willow stripping machine’ was first used in the interwar years. The introduction of plastic in the 1950s led to a decline in the willow basket industry. Lynch reports that there are now only 300-400 acres of willow land on the Somerset Levels and Moors, and about a dozen apprentice-trained basketmakers. Little has been altered in the craft of willow weaving and basket-making, since the Iron Age. “Willow growing and basketmaking continue to play such an important role in Somerset’s rural economy, maintaining an unbroken tradition begun thousands of years ago.”
The number of basketmakers began to fall in the nineteenth century: 14,000 professional basketmakers were recorded in 1891, falling to 5,500 by the mid-1930s. It is unclear how many professional basketmakers there are today, but the numbers are thought to be around 200. Basketry suffered particularly from the availability of new materials and from new methods of storing and transporting items in industry, agriculture and domestic life.
There are generally acknowledged to be seven construction methods in basketry: looping, knotting, plaiting, coiling, weaving, twining and assembly. These constructions methods are generally recognised as the defining characteristic of basketry. Baskets are traditionally made with plant fibres, with construction methods developing to use whatever material was to hand; other materials such as paper, plastic and metal are popular in contemporary basketry.
There are numerous types of traditional regional basket and special-purpose baskets and basketwork items.
- Lipwork – a coiled basketry technique using straw. Was used extensively in the past to make furniture, baby baskets etc, but is now only practiced in relation to bee skep making and Orkney chair making.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Craftspeople currently known
The Baskermakers’ Association has a list of makers on its website.
Bichard, Maurice, (2008) Baskets in Europe (Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Fyfield Wick Editions).
Butcher, Mary (1999) Contemporary International Basketmaking (London: Merrell Holberton), p.11.
Collins, E J T (ed) (2004) Crafts in the English Countryside: Towards a Future (Countryside Agency)