The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Coiled straw basket making

 

The making of coiled straw baskets from wheat or oat straw, bound together with split bramble, string or other cordage, also known as lipwork. See also bee skep making, Orkney chair making, Fair Isle chair making and kishie making.

 

Status Critically endangered
Historic area of significance Orkney, Shetland, Scotland, Wales
Area currently practised Orkney & Shetland
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income) 0
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
6-10
Current no. of trainees 1
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Not known
Current total no. of leisure makers
11-20
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

Coiled straw baskets emerged from a need to provide a wide variety of containers for domestic and agricultural purposes. Straw was a readily available and low-cost raw material that was used to make robust baskets. They would have been made all over the UK but they are particularly associated with Scotland and Wales.

Lip work baskets, as they are known in England, are now virtually extinct outside Orkney and Shetland but a similar technique is used for making traditional skeps for beekeeping.

In Orkney and Shetland, straw is widely used as a basketry material because other traditional basketry crops, such as willow or coppice wood, are not readily available. Oat straw is a commonly used material but baskets would also have been made from marram grass, docken stalks (dock) and other local materials.

Orkney coiled straw work – the making of coiled baskets and chair backs are often done by the same craftspeople. They are now mostly made as a hobby and to create family heirlooms such as Moses’ baskets and chairs for new homes. Straw work is enjoying a modest revival with more young people getting involved in evening classes.

Shetland coiled straw work – Jimmy Work was a well-known coiled straw basket maker in Shetland who recently passed away in his 90s. In his retirement he made a great number of high-quality straw baskets that can still be found in many homes in Shetland. Although he is often considered to be the last maker of these baskets, he did pass the skills on to Mark Maudsley and Samantha Dennis who both continue to make baskets in their spare time. Mark recalls that Jimmy treated basket making as a full-time occupation until his final illness prevented him from continuing, which meant that he made and sold a considerable number of baskets in his later years.

 

Techniques

Coiled straw work is a basketry technique where wheat, rye or oat straw is made into coils and then bound into shape with strips of bramble, cane, string or other cordage.

Coiled straw was used for a wide range of baskets and bee skeps but also for chairs and chair backs.

 

Local forms

There are variations on the forms and the materials used. Shetland and Orkney baskets were made from oat straw, rush, marram grass and bent grass. Welsh lip work was usually wheat straw.

 

Sub-crafts

  • Straw backed chair making – Orkney and Fair Isle
  • Kishie and Caisie making – Orkney and Shetland
  • Simmans and sookens (straw rope) making
  • Skeklers costume making – straw costumes traditional to Shetland

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Access to raw materials – black oats and other heritage straw varieties are no longer widely grown in the UK. It can be difficult to source the right materials.
  • Lack of demand – the traditional uses for these baskets have disappeared. They are now mostly made as family heirlooms and gifts.
  • Labour intensive to make and so it is difficult to make a profit selling straw baskets.

 

Support organisations

  • The Basketmakers Association
  • Scottish Basketmakers Circle
  • Woven Communities
  • Stromness Museum, Orkney
  • Shetland Museum & Archives

 

Craftspeople currently known

Individual craftspeople:

  • Keith Colsell, Orkney
  • Billy Fotheringham, Orkney – has baskets stocked in The New Craftsman
  • Elsie Wishart – Dounby Straw Working Group, Orkney
  • Joan Whitelaw – Dounby Straw Working Group, Orkney
  • Alistair Harcus – Dounby Straw Working Group, Orkney
  • Felicity Truscott – made some baskets for The New Craftsman from a design by Annemarie O’Sullivan
  • Mark Maudsley, Shetland (learned from Jimmy Work)
  • Samantha Dennis, Shetland (learned from Jimmy Work)

Jimmy Work was a Shetland basket maker who died recently.

 

Other information

The Dounby Straw Working group is an evening group who get together to make baskets and straw work for Orkney Chairs. There is also an evening class in Kirkwall.

 

References

  • Woven Communities, How to make a coiled basket 
  • Between Islands, Makers’ Stories 
  • Ceredigion County Council, museum collection
  • Jenkins, J Geraint, (1965), ‘A Cardiganshire Lip-worker’, Folk Life, 3, pp. 88-89
  • Park, Janette (2017) Simmans and Sookans and Straw Backed Chairs (Orkney Arts, Museums and Heritage), pp 21-26