by Lady Amie Sparrow
Kingdom Arts & Sciences Festival
Persona Pentathlon Competition
March 7, 2009
Baskets have been made in the British Isles for well over a thousand years. How long willow baskets have been made there is anyone’s guess because baskets disintegrate as any organic material does. However, “Basketry is implied [in the Iron Age, 800 B.C. to 5th Century A.D. in England] by the impressions of basket-work on a pot from Dun Croc a Comhdlhalach, on North Uist, and some kind of matting made from rushes was found in a pit at Worlebury, Sumerset. These few survivals do scan justice to the fact that basket-making and matting must have been common occupations during the prehistoric period, particularly in those areas in which pottery was scarce.” (Barry Cunliffe, Communities in Britain, Fourth Edition, 2005 pg. 488.)
There is a quote from about a wicker (willow) boat being used in the 6th century, “The bay in which St. Columba and his followers landed in Iona is called ‘the bay of the wicker boat,’ from the description of the vessel in which they crossed from Ireland in the year A.D. 563.” (W. Maxwell, Iona and the Ionians, 1857, pg. 13.)
The name of the earliest known basket maker in England is Johanne Hoo, who was found in the Suffolk Poll Tax records of 1381. References to “basket-makers” in London have been found in church records dating from 1479 to 1486. A basket-maker’s wife gave an altar cloth to St. Margaret Patterns.
“It an noder Awter cloth of byrds eyen werke wt a crosse in the mydds And writt undr neith of the gyft of Bowenpersons wyff baskett maker.”
[Item: Another altal cloth of birds’ eyes wok, with a cross in the middle, and written underneath of the gift of Bowen-person’s wife, basket-maker.]” (H. H. Bobart, Basketwork Through the Ages, 1936, pg. 107.)
While basket makers were members of the Brewer’s List in the 13th century, they did not become an officially recognized guild, The Basketmakers Company, until September 1569 . (ibid, pg. 112) Some of the names found in the early records of basketmakers are Wyllyam Johnson, Jasper Basketmaker, Willlm Smythe, Awdryan Awdrianson, Vander Valloy, and Anthony the Basketmaker…all men. From this evidence (and other evidence I will present later), I will claim that my persona bought her basket from a professional basketmaker in the city. Further, I will claim that my persona bought her basket somewhere in the parish of St. Andrew Hubbard, where vestry books record that several basketmakers lived. (ibid, pg. 111)
Paintings and illustrations show baskets of many different shapes and sizes used for everything from boats, making cheese, to gathering apples, to holding sewing kits. Before paper and plastic, baskets were the all-purpose container and means of carrying belongings. This documentation focuses on a market-style basket made similarly to the baskets shown in the following list of paintings by Joachim Beuckelaer (1530-1574).
- The Four Elements: Earth, 1569
- The Vegetable Market, 1567
- Market Woman with Fruit, Vegetables and Poultry, 1564
- The Vegetable Seller, date unknown. Sometime before 1574.
The basket that I have reproduced is made from willow, which is a fast-growing material commonly used in the British Iles. Examples of other basket materials used at the time include oak “splits” or “splints”, bulrushes, vines, and grasses. However, willow was and is the most sturdy and longlasting natural material available for baskets. As I discovered, willow is sturdy for a reason: it is thick and hard to bend. There is nothing recreational about making a willow basket. The willow basket on display is without a doubt the most difficult basket I have ever constructed. I have read in several books that willow baskets were almost always made by men. After making my basket, I do not doubt the truth of those claims.
Willow is a characteristic species of swamps and low meadows. It is also found in forest openings, open forest understories, and along forest margins. It prefers rich, moist soils and is found on floodplains and wetlands. The willow I used in my basket is a red osier grown on a private farm in the midwest.
Willow should be harvested in any season except winter. It is dried to let it shrink, and then soaked for a day or two before the basket is woven to make it pliable.
I have made a common carrying basket using an eight-spoke base with thin lenths of willow twined around them. The photos below show the views of the base, inside and outside.
For the sides, I used the “French Randing” technique as shown on page 40 of The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry by Dorothy Wright. In this weave, there can be any number of stakes. The rods should be of the same length and circumference, as far as possible. The butts of the rods lie in side at the start and rods are worked outs to the usefule parts of the tips which also end inside. The rows were pushed down with the side of a screwdriver. The ends were cut with craft scissors sturdy enough to cut willow. The photo below shows a closeup of the randing technique. It also shows the main stave of the handle stuck inside the basket.
The handle is made from a sturdy stave shoved into one side of the basket. Then, a bunch (literally) of rods are inserted with the stave, and twisted around the stave. Then the entire bunch with the stave in the center is bent over and inserted into the other side of the basket. All the Beuckelaer paintings shown in this documentation contain baskets with the exact same style of handle.
The handle is secured in place on both ends by a god’s-eye weave with thin willow wands, which is not shown in the paintings. My guess is that the artist did not include that small detail or the handles were secured in a different way. The technique is unknown to me, if indeed the paintings are accurate on that point. I did not find a reference to it or a sample in any of my research of techniques.
- Bobart, H. H., Basketwork Through the Ages, Oxford University Press, London, 1936.
- Cunliffe, Barry W., Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC Until the Roman Conquest, Routledge, 2005.
- Harris, Karen. http://www.larsdatter.com
- Lautenbach, Konrad (text), Amman, Jost (engravings). Women’s Fashion: Im Frauwenzimmer Wirt vermeldt von allerly schönen Kleidungen, 1586. http://inky.library.yale.edu/medwomen/fashion.html
- http://www.basketassoc.org/ (England)
- The Medieval Health Handbook by Tacuinum Sanitatis. Translated and adapted by Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook from the original Italian edition by Luisa Cogliati Arano. George Braziller, New York, 1976.
- The Worshipful Company of Basketmakers (The Basketmakers Livery Company, est. 1569), http://www.basketmakersco.org/
- Wetzel, Sherry, Medieval Baskets, The Compleat Anachronist, Vol. 77, The Society for Creative Anachronism, Milpitas, CA, January 1995.
- Wright, Dorothy. The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry, David & Charles, Redwood Press Ltd., Great Britain, 1992.
- The Vegetable Market by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1567
- Market Woman with Fruit Vegetables and Poultry by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1564 http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/beuckela/market_w.html
- The Vegetable Seller by Joachim Beuckelaer (Painting undated. Sometime before 1574.) http://www.wga.hu/art/b/beuckela/v_seller.jpg
- The Four Elements: Earth by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1569