Basketry dates back twelve thousand years and baskets were made in many different shapes and sizes to carry and store things and catch aquatic creatures such as crabs, lobsters and eels. Traditional wicker baskets were made from plants and trees growing locally with willow, which is widespread, being the primary source. Hazel, oak, ash, sweet chestnut, pine, elm, reed and straw were also utilised and methods included looping, knotting, plaiting, coiling, weaving, and twining.
The Somerset wetlands were the heart of Britain’s willow (also known as osier or withy) industry. Willow grows rapidly with the new flexible growth being harvested in the winter. Sometimes it’s used with the bark on but more often it is stripped. The rods are then left to dry for storage but need immersing in water for several days before use to regain their flexibility. Baskets are made by using rigid willow rods to create the shape and weaving thinner, flexible ones round the structure. The Industrial Revolution created a high demand, in 1891 there were 14,000 professional basket makers producing household shopping and storage baskets as well as trays, hampers, delivery baskets on bicycles and hot air balloon baskets. Traditionally there were a few rural variations of basket types made from local grown wood. These involved using larger timber cut or cleaved into thin strips. This method required the wood to be boiled or steamed prior to use.
The Sussex trug became very popular after Queen Victoria purchased several when she visited the Great Exhibition in 1851. Willow, cleaved to preserve the natural wood grain, was cut into thin boards, shaved smooth with a draw knife and soaked in rainwater for half an hour to make them pliable. Two split sweet chestnut hoops, previously steamed and shaped round a block, with the ends nailed together, created the frame. One was used horizontally to form the rim, the other vertically for the base and handle. The boards were fixed lengthways with copper nails to these and the ends trimmed to shape with a knife.
Swills were made in the southern Lake District. Coppiced oak 6 inches in diameter was used which was sawn into the required lengths then split by hand so the naturel fibres of the wood were followed. The strips were then boiled in water for several hours so they became flexible before being split (riven) again while still hot thus reducing them to only a fraction of an inch thick. Hazel rods were bent into an oval shape to form the frame of the basket and the thin oak strips woven in and out. A space was left either end as a handhold. No nails were used.
The Devon Maund
Splints of pine were attached to a wooden base. Traditionally this was made from elm but following Dutch elm disease other wood had to be used. These were nailed vertically to three bands of ash to give it its shape.