Making Traditional Celtic Frame Baskets
On the 22nd and 23rd of January we had a celtic frame basketry workshop at the Woollen Museum. Caroline and Harry spent 2 days making the beautiful Welsh potato basket called the Cyntell (sometimes Wyntell). Ali and Tony spent one day making a simpler Irish frame basket called the sciathog (pronounced skeeog in Gaelic). Both are associated with potato harvesting but also general use on the farm and family home.
The key to making a good frame is preparing a strong a hoop and ribs. The ribs are prepared by splitting and dressing with a knife or using a draw knife on a shaving horse. The hoop can be made of willow, Briar or Hazel (this being the the best). However straight coppiced Hazel is hard to find so we used Willow. The Hoop ideally should be prepared and left in a warm room to dry out otherwise you get an oval rather than a round basket. Yet that does not matter so much as long as the basket is strong and capable of load bearing. In Wales Cyntells were made to be used not to be displayed however in the early 1900’s men began to make the Cyntell to compete in the Eisteddfodd. Then the work became more precise and even more beautiful!
Once prepared the first four ribs of the cyntell must be put on moulds to give the distinctive deep ‘D’ shape . The students were given a set of four dried ribs each (because over night it was too short a time for their own ribs to dry out and take shape). However they did prepare their own ribs for the extra 2 either side of the first four which make a total of 8 ribs. The first four ribs are then attached to the hoop and weaving begins.
In a two day course I would expect most people to finish weaving a cyntell however different people work at different speeds. The good thing about the frame baskets is once all the ribs are in position and a few pointers have been given about weaving the final ‘gap’ the students have learnt all the techniques to finish the basket at home. We had a good two days and hopefully some of the students will make more of these baskets and keep the tradition alive!
It has been a great summer; we have had some decent weather: those long hot days that seem to go on and on. Yes there was some rain but we needed it to make the plants grow and give us a reason to appreciate the sunshine when it decided to appear again from the clouds.
In June we began the Thursday basketry group as a way of encouraging students wishing to explore their own projects for their everyday needs. In West Wales we are fortunate to have a lively small holders community who take seriously sustainability. So we had a small group who arrived with a wish list of baskets, the first on the list was the trug or vegetable basket. Jake, Julia and Marie made some very handsome and practical round shallow baskets. Teresa decided to go for a traditional oval garden basket with an underfoot English base. This base is unique to Britain and found no where else; it needs both hands to construct it and consequently requires the maker to hold the work down with their foot. The initial ‘tying of the slath’ is awkward but once complete the rest of the base can be woven like any other by just using both hands. Teresa was so pleased with her creation she made another one for the second friend from the very active local gardening group. Other projects included a Finnish Bilberry basket, frame basket and berry picking basket. The good weather made it a pleasure to sit under canvas in a field next to Castle Green wood. I hope to run the group next year.
In August we took our annual visit to the Bush moot, a bush craft camping event at the beautiful sand dunes in Merthyr Mawr. All the workshops are under canvas in the woodland that backs the dunes. All participants are camping all around so it is very sociable and friendly. This years new courses were lobsterpot making and cyntell making. They were day long courses even though I knew it may take a little longer for some people. The idea is that as a student you will be able to learn all the techniques you need to finish the basket. If students get fatigued (learning new stuff is tiring!) they can come back in the following week or so to ask for help and get some more materials. This worked well and the students appreciated me being on hand when needed. Fraser and Ian finished their lobster pots and I have had a promise that I will be sent photos of the first lobster or crab they catch in it. We made lobster pots, as their mouth was around 14cm, the old boys did make crab pots too but the mouths were bigger, around 20cm. I suppose it depends on how bigger lobsters or crabs you wish to catch. It was just a joy to teach the making of a pot that would not pollute the sea and contribute to the junk already rocking around in the tides.
There were five for the cyntell making class, all the techniques were taught in a day, most people then carried on during their free time. Everybody had a go making ribs on the shaving horse and a scarp joint to secure their hoop. The cyntell is a big project to weave but once you have the ribs attached to the hoop it is relatively straight forward to get the characteristic deep flat bottomed basket. It can be addictive and Hanneke decided she was not stopping until she had finished the basket. She did not finish until gone 8pm that was a long day.
The final workshop in the following week was traditional basket making. The beginner is always hard pressed to get a finished basket in a 10-4pm slot. In just one basket you have to learn at least three different weaves: pairing, waling and randing. As well as putting down the border which is the most complex pattern on the whole basket. Everything has to be completed in the day so people can take it away complete. Students often think in the morning they can create a massive project with handles. By the afternoon they are amazed at how long it takes just to get to weave the sides. The class was a real chirpy bunch who naturally helped each other and shared each others food and refreshment. Even at the end of a busy class it is always worth spending time with the student who wants to take it further. No doubt next year there will be the same person telling me what they have made and how it turned out and that’s what it is really all about.
Learning how to make an Irish creel was incredibly satisfying; it was so strong and practical but had a beautiful simplistic nature to it. For starters it is made in the opposite direction to traditional stake and strand flat based baskets. The stakes are put in the ground or a jig and the top of the basket is woven first. The creel does not have a woven border; instead an incredibly tight weave called the mouth-wale is used for the first round of weaving. The stakes are trimmed some two inches above this weave at the end, it clasps the rods so hard there is no risk of it slipping off in use.
The next stage is the knot weave which is a combination of French randing and a knot weave which is again unique to the creel. This can be very confusing to the beginner as the French randing travels clockwise around the basket and the knot weave travels anticlockwise. Each weave is used alternately. Mistakes are not easily forgiven as the work has to be undone until the ‘trapped rod’ can be freed and worked correctly. Once you get into the weave you begin to create solid side walls which are very tough.
Traditionally the Irish creel has a ‘window’ a space created by pushing the weavers a few inches above the last round of weaving. It gets tied in by the next knot weave which clasps the stakes similar to a fitch (a weave designed to grasp the stakes so it can be used to create space above or below it and not move). I guess this feature was put in because it looks good and there are a few less inches to weave!
Finally a ‘top knot’ is woven at the required height, the best I can describe it is a double pairing, which braids itself around each stake to create a firm layer which is used to thread through the bent down stakes at the final stage. The base I feel is the clever part, on a flat based basket the base takes proportionally a lot of time to weave certainly if you want a hard wearing base which will take your stakes tidily and evenly. On the Irish creel this part is omitted and instead the stakes become the base. On the long side (presuming it is a rectangular donkey creel) a warp is created, by folding down the stakes and threading them under the top knot. The short side stakes are woven under and over this warp. Hard work but not technically difficult. Finally there will be gaps so discarded pieces of willow can be used as ‘fillers’. All remains is the strength to pull the structure out of the ground or jig and trim the stakes.
The creel known in Irish as cliabh (pronounced cleeve) was a commonly used basket made for carrying turfs, seaweed and loads to and from market. The creel in Ireland took many forms according to what it carried and where it was made. The rectangular creels were used as donkey panniers to carry turf, also as back creels for people to carry heavy loads. A variation on the back creel was the shoulder creel, more suited to carrying loads short distances with the convenience of being easily emptied. In Western Ireland where seaweed was regularly gathered to fertilise the crops a creel was commonly made with a semi open base to let the water drain out. Similarly another clever variation called the pardog had a hinged bottom for facilitating the load falling out while the pannier remained straddled on the donkey. A clever trick to be sure.
Of course all these types of creel use all the same weaves and techniques, so once they have been learnt you can construct whatever shape or feature you require. The creel even gets close to being used as a cart, the Kish, is a creel fitted on a slide car which the horse pulled. Used up until the 1930’s it was especially used to bring down loads of turf from the mountain bogs. Eventually being replaced by the wheeled cart.
The creel is a basket worth making today. It can be used for storing vegetables, moving vegetables, as a back carrier for wood collection (imagine going for a walk in the woods and slinging the small branches in your back creel). I have been told by Joe Hogan (the accomplished Irish basket maker who taught me) that the creel makes an excellent bike basket. I would not say it is an easy basket to make, but I have taught the creel to a range of people and find that if we give our selves enough time to go steady, the baskets secrets unfold and the troubling knot weave eventually embeds in our brains
.As a landbased worker it is well worth taking the time to learn these weaves to make useful tough baskets. It is even more convenient if you grow the willow yourself. The farms in Ireland always had a sally bed in which the willow was grown. Each year it was cut as soon as the willow was dormant during November to March. The cut willow was stored for 4-6 weeks until it was semi green. This meant it had partially dried but was still flexible giving them the best of both worlds. For another 4-6 weeks the willow would remain pliable and the farming people could make all the baskets they needed for the coming year. This naturally coincided with the quiet period on the farm.
Using this window of time to the best advantage means you do not have to re-soak the willow, considering big stuff in its dried state can take more than a day per foot to soak this saves more work. These simple ways often highlight how farmers worked with nature in a symbiotic relationship that harmed little and cared a lot more. Plastic boxes are incredibly useful but if we can replace even a proportion with 100% biodegradable crates and baskets we can make and repair with our own hands then we will be doing a service to ourselves and future generations.
Ref Basket Making In Ireland Joe Hogan
In the spring, here in West Wales, we have the huge pleasure of seeing lots and lots of bluebells in bloom. When they are out in full bloom, it is always like Mother Nature is smiling.
The classic British wildflower, Bluebells are one plant that nearly everyone can recognise. But did you know that more than one species can be found in our woods and that bluebells aren’t always blue; there are white ones and some are pink.
Perfectly adapted to cope well in our woodlands, Bluebells flower before trees grow their full canopy of leaves, so while they flower, there is more light even under the trees. Since they grow so well in ancient woodland conditions, you may be treated to seeing massive drifts of them.
Bluebells are found in many more places than just woodlands, they grow along the coast, on sea cliffs, along shady banks, in fields, grasslands, along the roadsides and in our home gardens. The environment Bluebells prefer is moist but well drained soil. They will grow in dappled shade as well as in bright sunshine.
Spanish or English?
Spanish Bluebells are charming, but English Bluebells are the more fragrant. Since the woodlands of Wales and over all of the United Kingdom, often contain lots of deciduous trees, these unassuming, beautiful little bulbs often pop up and flower during the month of May. Where our native birches grow, the contrast of the blue flowers and the birches’ white trunks is truly spectacular. In the garden, the blue flowers can create a striking contrast when planted near emerging foliage, such as Cotinus coggygria, a red-leafed shrub, variegated hostas and many of the hybrid tea roses.
Britain has more than just one species of these delightful plants, in fact we have two species and a hybrid. English and Spanish bluebells are often confused and may be listed as wood hyacinths or blue squill. The many botanical name changes hasn’t help the confusion. Scilla Hispanica is native to Spain and Portugal, but are also grown here. The thicker, straight stem with bells all around are the Spanish bluebells. While the hybrid has a slightly drooping stem with bells all around.
Regardless of which type you have – English or Spanish, spring has truly arrived when the bluebells are in bloom. Information on the Natural History website can help you identify which bluebells you have.
Plant the bulbs in the autumn and you’ll get to enjoy the fruits of all that hard work when spring arrives. Spring flowering bulbs are among the most rewarding plants to grow. They don’t really need much attention once planted but after a few years, they may need dividing or moving.
To get more clumps of these delightful flowers, propagate them by dividing the larger clumps and planting them in drifts. Once their leaves have turned yellow and gone limp, dig up the clumps of bulbs, separate them into smaller clumps or keep them as singles and replant.
And, if you want to see fairies at the bottom of the garden, you might want to know that Bluebells are considered to be the most potent of Fairy Magic plants, especially in ancient woodlands. Woodlands are after all, a place of enchantments and spells woven by the fairy people.
The strongest magic of the bluebells is that whether you are young or old, these charming flowers attract us all with their magical blue carpet.
In 2016 we intend to hold a rural skill camp which will include basketry, charcoal making, woodworking and small forge work. If you are interested in this get in contact and give us some input into what you would like to learn.
In 2016 I will also be running once a week a basketry/rural skills group throughout June and July. We ran it in the summer of 2015 and it went really well. The sun always seemed to shine on a Thursday! As the pictures testify. We were under a shelter next to the woods which felt so relaxed. So come and join us next year.