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.