Northern Isles basket making (kishies and caisies)
The making of various items from straw and other plants in the twined technique, especially the back-baskets kishie (Shetland) and caisie (Orkney), traditionally used to fetch peats.
|Historic area of significance||Shetland, Orkney and Caithness.|
|Area currently practised||Shetland|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||0|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||2|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
The kessi (phonetically, kishie) of Shetland and the caisie of Orkney is a twined back basket usually made of straw and common rush (Juncus effusus). Other plants were used, especially marram (Ammophila arenaria) and dock (Rumex longifolius). The tradition, unique in the British Isles, was a consequence of the local ecology, where there were few durable materials for basketmaking, as well as a dearth of timber. Baskets were used to carry a multitude of things – especially peat – and they were used on the backs of packhorses, or borne by humans. The name kessi is a reflection of the Norse heritage of the Northern Isles and comes from the Norwegian kjessa and Icelandic kassi.
Kishie making requires preparing the materials: harvesting, thrashing and cleaning the straw; cutting and drying the rush or marram. Making involves hand-twisting a rope of (approximately 27 metres if making a kishie); weaving the basket by twining the rope round bunches of straw or dock; stitching a border with a home-made needle; trimming and singeing the basket.
The form was quite similar across the region, and the appearance differed little across makers. The baskets and other items were never made commercially, but by the farmers themselves, so quality could range from quite rough to superb craftsmanship. The standard shape of basket was vee-profile, but some makers preferred a conical form, and in some contexts a flat profile was desired. Being functional on a farm, but made from relatively impermanent materials, meant baskets were not expected to survive beyond a few years’ use (twined productions in other contexts, like items in seasonal use or for indoor architecture, could survive much longer).
Specialist baskets were made for such tasks as gathering eggs from sea-cliffs, storing salt, or keeping fishing bait. The same twined technique was used to make other items such as fish traps, winnowing mats, building partitions, masquerade costumes. All these constructions used the twining method, with variation seen through the choice of plant and the shape of the finished object.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Many of the activities these basketry crafts were used for are no longer done. Where tasks are still carried out that formerly used basketry constructions, mass-produced products are employed instead. There is little demand for such objects, because they were functional, not decorative. Availability of material is an issue concerning the straw; grain cultivation has declined (especially in Shetland), and black oats have virtually disappeared. Farmers aren’t inclined to grow this crop, and prospective basketmakers cannot buy material: as in the past, a maker must be a grower. The last generation that made twined basketry through unbroken ethnographic tradition is now gone; the only people with knowledge have learned it through a tuition setting. The skills are readily transferable, but this Medieval tradition is virtually extinct.
- The Scottish Basketmakers Circle
- The Basketmakers’ Association
- Shetland Museum and Archives
Craftspeople currently known
- Ewen Balfour
- Lois Walpole
- Ian Tait – Shetland Museum and Archive
- Helen Balfour – trainee
There are a lot of people who have done a course with Ewen and maybe they make them on an occasional basis.
Shetland Museum and Archives (Dr Ian Tait) is actively encouraging growth of black oats (Avena strigosa) for use in thatching. Aets have been supplied to them this year. This will help to preserve growing raw materials which could also be used in basketmaking.
Lois Walpole is currently writing a book about Shetland straw craft that will include kishie making.