Skeined willow working
The making of fine, woven baskets, chair seats, tea pot handles etc. from skeined (split) willow.
|Historic area of significance
|One of our traditional crafts, going back here for several centuries but coming from Europe, probably Germany, originally.
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|0. Those who use skeins do so only occasionally to customers demand.
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|11-20. See ‘Other information’.
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Skeined willow baskets – Skeined work is an ancient technique started probably in Germany in the 15th century. It was highly sought after and very expensive. During the 18th and 19th centuries most of the larger workshops in the major cities, would have one basketmaker who was a specialist in making skeins and using them but it was probably not his full-time work. Many teapot and coffee handles for the London silversmiths were covered with skeins as protection against the heat, a practice likely in other major cities too, especially those with assay offices. Fine 19th century picnic baskets often have beautiful detail using skeins, either on handles or as decorative edgings. G. W Scott and sons, in London’s Charing Cross Road had such a specialist in the early 20th century.
Few skeined baskets are made here now except to very special commission as the techniques are exacting and very slow, with much time spent on preparing the material.
Skeined willow seating – Skeined seating is carried out by a few people when suitable chairs arrive in their workshops.
Skeined baskets – Many of the techniques are the same as those for stake and strand: pairing, waling, randing, but the appearance alters because the material is flat. It has to be turned as it is woven so the ‘good’ aside always shows. Construction is different in that skein stitches are used to hold parts together, and attach stakes to the base. Borders often involve a round willow rim, cut to fit exactly and bound on with skeins. Decorative plaits and other details, binding with leaders and then listing, are often applied. On square work sheets of skeined weaving are formed and are cut to size if it is not exact, before stakes are bound on.
Skeined seating – There are two main types of skeined seating; close skeining and open skein. Some craftspeople use a professional electric skeining machine from former East Germany. Two professional skeined seaters have machines from Hungary.
There is not sufficient skeined work basketry left in this country to establish the presence of local forms. One maker is using skeins in basket siding, having been taught a Spanish regional basket, two others have used German and French traditional designs, seating is mostly on chairs from High Wycombe.
Decorative finishes on some very fine baskets, such as silver handles
Basket siding weaves – used occasionally on side weaving of particular baskets
Chair seats on specially designed delicate chairs, mostly from the 1860s to 80s, are the main use in the UK today.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
It takes a long time to make a finished piece with skeins thus making it all very expensive. Skeining a small bedroom chair seat would need about 200 skeins, which took about five or six hours to make using the three specialist hand tools. These are the cleave, the shave and the upright and no one is now making good shaves and uprights that are good enough and easily available. They can be obtained from Europe with the right contacts but are expensive. Old tools can be found occasionally and can be a delight to use once cleaned and reset.
Skeining for both basketry and seating has probably always been quite a niche occupation and only used for high-end products.
Museum of English Rural Life
Craftspeople currently known
- Mary Butcher – seating and baskets but more or less retired
- Bunty Ball – seating and panels
- Sally Goymer – French basketry
- Rachel South – professional seating
- Anita Vocik – professional seating
- Katharine Woodward – a professional basketmaker using skeins for occasional seating and basket siding
- Monica Cass – professional seating
- Melissa Shinnie – chair seating trainee
Status: The Basketmakers’ Association list around 30 members who offer willow seating but there is no differentiation between those working in skein or whole willow seating. It is likely that many of these only work very occasionally in willow skein as the chairs are rare and only occasionally come in for restoration.
Skeined willow basketry is critically endangered with very few skilled makers. There are more people offering seating but this is still a niche craft skill.
Examples of skein work: Many fine examples can be seen in the Museum in Michelau, Bavaria, Germany. This is near the German School of Basketmaking where they have taught a full year of skeined work, a quarter of the course, to full-time basketry students for many years but no longer. The finest skeined work professionals in Europe have completed this course. Esmé Hofman, of the Netherlands and a former student of Herr Pop at the German school, is one of the finest designers and makers in the world using skeins. Her work can be seen in high-end designer fashion houses, art galleries and exhibitions across Europe.
In France, Musée de La Thiérache, Vervins, may have a collection of skeined work baskets. From the 1880s until well into the 20th century, large factories employed many making skeined baskets in variety, for sale all over Europe. They were available in the UK through the large catalogues of The Army and Navy Stores, Harrods and elsewhere. This was large-scale production, much of it very fine work but some designed to be cheaper, with wider skeins and less fine weaving. This was probably supplanted by exports from China, often work at the less skilled end of production, pieces for a mass market. They may have had a specialist fine market in China but that is not confirmed.
There is a fine tradition of skeined work in Latvia now, created in the 1970s by groups of basketmakers working together and teaching very high levels of skill to produce fine baskets with lids and intricate patterns and decoration, the highest quality work and commanding high prices. These groups also make small, fine frame baskets woven with skeins. All these are baskets of the highest quality.
Dushesne, R, Ferrand, H, and Thomas, J, (1982 and other editions) La Vannerie l’Osier
Wright, Dorothy, (1959 and subsequent editions) The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry (David & Charles)
Michelau Museum catalogue, available from the Museum
Goymer, Sally, and Gabriel, Sue, The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques (David & Charles)
Johnson, Kay, Elton Barratt, Olivia, and Butcher, Mary, Chairseating Book. Techniques in Cane, Rush, Willow and Cords