Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The people inside the Book of Forgotten Crafts part 1...

I bought a lovely new book recently called The Book of Forgotten Crafts...
The Book of Forgotten Crafts

The book profiles traditional craftspeople and their crafts, many of which are in danger of dying out because there are so few people left with the specialist skills needed for these crafts. Happily, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in traditional crafts (perhaps boosted by TV programmes such as Mastercrafts and Victorian Farm and the formation of organisations like the Heritage Crafts Association) and this book is just the thing if your interest has been piqued and you want to find out more.

Although The Book of Forgotten Crafts is beautifully laid out and designed, it's definitely not a 'style over substance' book. It's well written and an interesting read, with lovely big photographs of all the craftspeople working on their crafts. I can never help myself around craft books, especially if they feature textile crafts (which this one does), so I snapped it up when it was published in March this year.

When I started to flick through the pages, I realised that I recognised several of the craftspeople featured in the book and that I'd even been on courses run by some of them. So, I thought I'd do a blog post about three of the craftspeople that appear in the book to share what I know about them and their work.

Oak swill basket maker

First up is a very talented basket maker who lives just down the road from me at Nibthwaite, on the east side of Coniston Water. Owen Jones isn't just any basket maker, he's an oak swill basket maker. Oak swills originate from this specific part of south Cumbria (known as 'High Furness') and were used in the local bobbin mills and in agriculture (as well as for storing logs, clothes, babies and various other things around the home).

Because of my job (which involves going to a lot of shows) I see Owen for a chat when he's weaving his baskets at shows up and down the county more often than I bump into him at our local shops in Ulverston :)

Here is Owen weaving away in a fetching hat at the 2009 Westmorland Show...
Owen making a swill basket

In 2008 me and Ade went on one of the many swill basket weaving courses that Owen runs throughout the year. This course was held at Owen's house, which meant we could bike over there each day :)

This is Owen's lovely workshop during the course (deserted while everyone has lunch)...
Owen's workshop

The main thing that we learnt over the course of the three days is that making oak swill baskets is surprisingly complex and very hard work! The baskets have a sleek and simple look to them but they're made from several different components (all with their own name), which have to be individually made to a specific shape.

Here's Ade, 'taw' in hand as he weaves a strip of oak back and forth over the basket...
Ade weaving his basket

The weaving has to be done while the strips of wood are wet, because they're easier to work that way. Here's my damp and partially woven basket...
My damp basket on the floor

As well as the weaving itself, there is also all the boiling up of the wood to consider, the riving (carefully splitting and tearing thin strips of wood along the grain) and the steaming and bending of the hazel bowl rim... not to mention the task of managing the woodland and coppicing the wood for the basket in the first place!

The end result is worth the effort though. I'm very proud of my completed basket...
My finished basket

And Ade was pleased with his too!
Pleased basket weaver

Even though we've done the course (which was lots of fun), neither of us would be able to make another swill basket unaided. The best way to really learn is to become an apprentice, working side-by-side with an experienced 'swiller' for several years, as Owen did when he learnt to make swill baskets.

If you'd like to meet Owen and see him weaving, check out the list of fairs and events on his website. He's not limited to Cumbrian shows and gets about all over the UK, so he might be visiting somewhere near you - track him down and have a natter, he's really friendly!

If you fancy trying your hand at swill basket making, or would like to buy one of Owen's finished baskets (which come in more than one design), have a look at Owen's website to find out more.

So that's part 1 of 'the people inside The Book of Forgotten Crafts'. Keep an eye out for parts 2 and 3, which will be coming soon! :)


  1. Book looks great - I'd like to have a go at basket making. I decided to have a dip into different craft skills recently to learn more and get out of my comfort textiley zone. I'm taking a decorative glass course at the mo, and will blog about that when the course is complete. Lots of love xxx

  2. Its a slippery slope getting into other crafts... there are so many interesting ones out there to get addicted to! Decorative glass course sounds good, hope you're enjoying it. I'll keep an eye out for it on your blog :) x