Basketry in the United Kingdom

Former UK Newsletter Editor Denise Scott Fears explains basketmaking in the United Kingdom:

What I gather from reading the Basket List is that in the USA classes teach specific baskets--often from patterns--rather than general techniques. I may have got it wrong, but that is how it appears from this distance. Our training in basketry is very different.

First of all, in the UK we teach techniques, not patterns. The idea is that once you learn the techniques, you can generate as many variants on those techniques as your own creativity allows. There are people who manage to do it entirely from books: Mary Butcher, Sally Goymer and Dorothy Wright are just a few names that spring to mind of makers who have written very clear and well-illustrated books, and I know of people who claim to have taught themselves from these books who make very acceptable baskets.

For those who wish to go beyond this DIY approach, the Basketmakers' Association is a clearing house for information about courses, as well as organising a number of its own courses each year. The BA Newsletter includes a considerable number of course listings in each issue: these are almost without exception courses taught by BA members (and the BA is currently discussing the development of a qualification in teaching which will ensure that the BA members who teach will be able to teach effectively). The courses tend to fall into two categories: "beginner's willow" (self-explanatory) and courses in various specialised aspects of basketmaking: square work, rush, traditional regional (ie Scottish, Welsh) baskets, coloured willow, hedgerow baskets, etc. These courses can be any length from a single day to a weekend to, occasionally, a week.

The BA is also an association for Chairseaters, and there are also a number of courses teaching the basics of cane and rush chair seating, but I will not deal with these in any detail. The BA also has an accredited Certificate in Chair Seating, which is very rigourous.

The BA organises its own Spring and Autumn courses. These concentrate on basic traditional techniques (which ones depends on the particular skills of the tutor doing the course), and last a weekend. They take place in various parts of the country: the venues are chosen because they have been used before, or because a local member somewhere knows of a particularly suitable (and cheap) place. (Don't forget, the distances in the UK are very much less than in the US). All of these courses are offered to non-members as well as members (but non-members pay more).

The BA Summer School is the high spot of the educational year, basket-wise. It is a week-long residential course and takes place in a 16th-Century (although you wouldn't guess to look at it from the outside) house with large grounds in the so-called Home Counties, just outside London. Last summer there were six classes: Beginners' Willow (which I joined); Rush and Cane seating; Square work for Improvers; Michael Thierschmann from Germany teaching how to make a traditional French winnowing fan (and the French use some very different techniques to the English); coloured willow work (using wonderful Procion-dyed white willow) and Sally Goymer teaching how to make delicate fitched basets. The evenings saw most students bent over their baskets before they retired to the bar or to the pub in the village.

None of these courses lead to any kind of "formal" qualification--students take the skills they have acquired and develop these in their own individual ways. Sometimes the result is increasingly proficient baskets using traditional materials and techniques. And sometimes the basketmaker will begin to experiment with techniques, materials, shapes until something new evolves--this is the genesis of "contemporary" basketry which is celebrated by some and abhored by others--but that is another story entirely!!

The ultimate qualification is formal: the City and Guilds Certificate. There are C&G qualifications in a vast range of occupational and craft skills--from catering to goldsmithing, and they originally date back to the old medieval craft guilds. There are two C&G qualifications in basketry. One ("Basketry") is taught in a series of residential weekends in an old abbey which is now a short course centre and continues until the student has completed the entire curriculum. As these weekends are quite expensive, this can take some time. The other ("Creative Basketry") is taught on one day a week at the City Literary Institute in London. It takes 4 years: 2 for Part I and 2 for Part II. This course covers cane, rush and willow techniques, design, history and contemporary work. It costs #600 a year tuition and most materials. To this you have to add the cost of travel to London for 30 weeks a year.

There you have it in a much-condensed nutshell. In the UK, we don't have patterns in the American sense, so the recent debate on copyright of individual's patterns would never take place in the UK. The emphasis is on technique and appropriate use of materials.

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