Swill basket making
The making of swill baskets, made from woven strips of cleft oak.
|Historic area of significance||North Lancashire and South Cumbria;
West Midlands and Mid-Wales
|Area currently practised||Cumbria|
|Origin in the UK||15th century – first recorded splint baskets|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||2|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
||Owen Jones runs regular classes, but few participants go on to make more baskets.|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||4 full time, 10 who are knowledgeable|
Oak swill baskets are traditional to the southern Lake District and have been made for centuries. Their origins are unclear, but it is likely that they evolved as a cottage industry which then expanded after the industrial revolution into a trade in its own right. Swills were used on coal steamships, in mines, mills, ironworks and many other industries. They also had farm and domestic uses, but declined rapidly in the post-war years with the rise in mechanisation and plastics.
Swill making became semi-industrialised, i.e. moved from a cottage industry into larger swill shops, during the Industrial Revolution, to satisfy new needs for baskets in the industrial revolution, such as moving large amounts of charcoal from woodland to ships and trains and to help with the local iron ore industry. Swills were also used in bobbin mills, as well as in agriculture.
The craft started to decline after the wars with the rise of wire and plastic replacements and as woodspeople no longer valued their craft and encouraged their offspring into new vocations. Approximately thirty years ago three people learnt the craft from the last of the swillers – Stella Kenyon (now deceased), Mary Ullrich (then Mary Barrett, wrote a booklet on swill that is now out of print), and Owen Jones.
- Managing oak coppice – felling trees, moving, splitting and extraction, pest protection (deer fencing)
- Cleaving oak stems with wedges and maul
- Extraction out of the woodland
- Riving boiled oak with knives and hands
- Cutting hazel coppice for bools
- Steaming and bending bools
- Soaking the oak
- Dressing oak taws with a knife over the knee
- Dressing oak spelks using a drawknife and a swillers mare (a kind of shavehorse)
- Weaving the basket
Historically many variations – produced for any and every need in domestic, industrial and agricultural use.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- The import of cheap baskets puts an unrealistic expectation of cost into the general public’s minds. There is a need to educate customers on the process of making a swill, the durability of the product, the continuation of the tradition and the enormous benefits to the biodiversity of our woodlands. They are not simply buying a basket. Although they might seem expensive, a basket could last for generations.
- Increasingly swills are bought via mail order or through retailers and the extra admin time involved increases the cost again. There is a market for swills but it involves expertise in social media, marketing, administration etc as well as the craft itself.
- Swill basket making involves so many different processes so potential swillers must be able to and want to find and manage the woodlands, fell trees, extract them, process the wood, weave baskets , sell them – its a big mix of skills involved and a lot to fit into a working week.
- Swill making is hard to categorise. The skills aren’t solely of basketry as it involves a lot of wood working. Parts of the process are greenwood working skills and techniques.
- Woodland owners often don’t see the need to manage their woodlands and might expect renumeration for it. Grant schemes, for example the Woodland Improvement Grant and Stewardship schemes, are directed at larger scale forestry operations so to keep swill woodland coppiced either involves coppicing lots more than is needed for the business – resulting in wasting good swill material and spending too much time finding a market for the bi-products – or working for free and having to fund deer fencing etc which puts up material costs.
- Bio-security – tree diseases are becoming more and more prevalent, usually due to the import of plants and slack bio-security at the borders. Many native species are now seriously endangered by disease and there are a few threatening oak.
- Lack of affordable housing and workshop premises in the vicinity of the woodland. Lots of barns and suitable buildings are being converted to housing and new building are unaffordable.
- Basketmakers Association
- Scottish Basketmaking Circle
- National Coppice Federation
- Coppice Association North West
- Bill Hogarth Memorial Apprenticeship Trust
- Cumbria Woodlands
Craftspeople currently known
Owen Jones, Lake District. The only full-time oak swill basket maker in Britain, taught by John Barker.
Lorna Singleton, Lake District. Taught by Owen Jones; Lorna is reliant on Owen’s help and his machinery for the sourcing of her material so her business relies on the viability of his.
The following have made swills but do not do so for their main living:
- Ruth Pybus
- Gay Goodson
- Helen Clarke – trainee
- A good video on the Wray style of swills
- Mary Barratt, Oak swill basket-making in the Lake District (ISBN 0950879606)
- The Basketmakers’ Association sell a double DVD of Owen Jones demonstrating the complete process from felling the tree to weaving the swill.