The Craft of Basket Making with Rachel EvansKate Stuart
Rachel Evans of Wheatcroft Willow is a basket maker based in North Staffordshire, UK. No Serial Number writer Kate Stuart asked her to tell us the story of how she came to the craft, what she loves about it and what advice she would give to someone at the beginning of their basket making journey. Here is what Rachel had to say.
“I started my basketmaking journey at the age of 21. After I graduated I worked in the outdoors, managing nature reserves and teaching environmental education to young people. After meeting a few colleagues that made baskets as a hobby, I was intrigued and went on a few day courses to learn how to make round baskets.
I did some lovely courses at the Wyre Forest Discovery Centre, playing with natural materials gathered in the forest such as rush, plant dyes and willow. I became hooked on using foraged hedgerow materials, dogwood, ivy, dog rose and bramble (never again!!). Susy Vaughaun’s book, Handmade Baskets From Natures Colourful Materials was my bible. As I progressed, I started buying in professionally grown willow from Somerset and my practice evolved. I did courses with Mandy Coates, Jenny Crisp, Peter Glew and Jenny Pierce.
A friend persuaded me to run a course at her craft centre in 2008 and after loving that experience I decided to set up my own business on a part time basis, later taking the plunge to leave my job and it became my sole income. Over a few years I did some intensive training with Adrian Charlton, a fantastic maker from Norfolk (now lives in France) and I learnt how to make quality baskets and work faster. I was actually starting to make money.
At present I am lucky enough to rent a lovely workshop near my home, an old visitor centre by the Canal at Froghall Wharf, in the Staffordshire Moorlands which I share with my husband Martin Evans, a green woodworker.
I make baskets to order, from traditional baskets for shopping, logs, washing, bread etc, made to measure baskets for kitchens to more contemporary work such as small and large sculptures and woven forms for gardens and galleries.
I particularly like to make solid frame baskets, bending sturdy rods of willow, hazel or ash into frame shapes, adding ribs and weaving around them with willow. Some of these shapes are very traditional, the designs dating back hundreds of years. My favorite basket of all is the Welsh cyntell basket, bending massive thick willow around formers into 20” hoops, shaving the ends of the hoops with a draw-knife on a shave horse and nailing them together. Splitting thick willow or hazel rods down into half and shaving and shaping the ribs, then again attaching to the former. Drying the big hoops takes 9 months, or you can cheat and do it in an hour in a low oven. Following traditional patterns, the sides are woven in willow. I like to make these in different sizes and they are really popular with children as they are like little nests or coracles.
I love using different varieties of willow with varying bark colours to make my baskets stand out. My favourite varieties are Wizzender, a lovely golden butter colour, soft to work with but a sturdy thick rod, Dicky Meadows, a slender light coloured rod and Green Dicks a slender variety for fine baskets.
I grow a small amount of willow myself with a friend, we are trying to grow the more interesting varieties that are difficult to buy. There are a few people near to me who grow small amounts too, so I buy as much as I can from them to reduce transport miles. The rest of my willow I buy from Somerset, usually Musgrove Willows, who have some lovely willow that is all beautifully grown and sorted into neat bundles. Of course, basketmaking is the ultimate renewable craft, the willow is cut every year and grows back again for next years crop, willow is organic and if a basket is unwanted it will just rot down on a compost heap or burn.
I also teach basketmaking to others. I enjoy the process of teaching and passing on skills to enthuse beginners. Part of my teaching work involves working with a small number of students who want to take it further and work through a programme and gain skills so they may become makers themselves. I encourage them to train with other makers also so they can learn as much as they can and then amalgamate that knowledge and find their own style. There are no short cuts in basketmaking, you have to put in the hours and learn from others and your own mistakes to be a great maker. I am certainly not there yet, but I’m working on it. I will never stop learning, there are so many techniques and ways of working, it will keep me going for a lifetime.
If you would like to learn how to make baskets, I suggest trying a course with an experienced maker, a good start is looking at the Basketmakers Association website and look at the makers directory. You can put in your postcode and find makers and teachers in your area. I teach at my workshop in the Staffordshire Moorlands but also at Greenwood Days, Leics, The Gardeners Bothy, Staunton Harold, the Greenwood Centre, Coalbrookdale and The Black Country Living Museum, Dudley as well as a few other smaller craft centres.
In 2017, I set up the Froghall Weavers Group of makers and we meet once a month at my workshop. We all have very different skills and ideas and it is great fun learning from each other. We have been passing on skills in using rush and bark this year, which I had never used before and I am hooked on stripping bark at the moment.
If you are interested in buying a basket, attending a course or discussing a commission please look at my website www.wheatcroftwillow.co.uk or contact me on 07779121031.”
**All images supplied by Rachel**
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