Friday, 13 February 2015

A Family of Baskets

Knowing I am interested in old baskets, Neil, a  friend and professional electrician, brought these baskets for me to look at. He spotted them in the loft of an old farm in Charente, Limousin that had just changed hands and where he was working on the renovation.  The previous owners were 'paysans' and these baskets were  obviously made to be used on the smallholding.

It is unusual to come across a collection like this. Baskets that are thrown into lofts and forgotten are usually destroyed by woodworm.  Coiled straw baskets tend to survive in  the Charente because woodworm are not very interested in straw, though they will have a go at the bramble stitching. Sadly the two large frame baskets had either had something damp left in them or been sitting under a leak. As a result the chestnut frame work has become a filigree of worm tunnels in just a couple of places on the bases and are now ready to crumble away. The worms like their wood damp, I guess its easier on their teeth!

Eel traps

Not only is it unusual to find a group like this in relatively good condition but the variety is intriguing. Among them are chestnut eel traps and baskets, one for harvesting root crops which acts as a sieve and a little rectangular one with a pegged base and rim, possibly for egg gathering. Then there are several chestnut and split willow frame baskets, three of which have been made by someone who has done many of these and knows exactly how to do it. The very small one without a handle is beautifully made.

 At first I thought it had lost its handle but in fact the ribs have been carefully cut to a point where they meet on each side so perhaps it was never intended to have a handle. But  I cannot  be certain, as someone may have shaped the rib ends after the handle had broken. There is also a tiny frame basket, again chestnut ribs and split willow like  the bigger ones, but it was never finished. I almost burst into tears looking at it as my first and slightly bizarre thought was that the maker had died before finishing it. Since then I have rationalised it as a "teaching aid" for the grandchildren which makes me much happier!

It seems highly unlikely that these baskets were all made by the same person, though possibly by two generations of the same family, and the person who made  the three brown willow baskets obviously never had access to the 'teaching aid'! These three  look much more recent and are great examples of someone just having a go,  without much prior knowledge, and arriving at something that functions.  It wasn't without a mega struggle though, and if the maker won in the end, the willow certainly  put up a good fight.

In a way I love these baskets as much as the perfectly crafted ones. They seem to prove the theory that  basket making is innate in all of us, not the arty farty, tidy,  tightly controlled kind of basket making that I and many others engage in, but a raw, energetic, wrestling with twigs to make a basket to gather the crop in before  it rains or the winter sets in.  How the basket looks being of zero importance in this context.

There is a similarity with music making which also appears to be innate in all of us. Thomas Brennan, my Irish father in law had only one question for people who said they could play a musical  instrument... "can you get a tune out of it?" He wasn't interested in whether they knew their scales or could read sheet music, all that mattered to him was whether or not they could play a tune he could dance to. As far as Thomas was concerned, music was for dancing to, just as these baskets were made for carrying crops and nothing else is therefore relevant.

Sometimes it seems as though too much knowledge suffocates the life out of things.


  1. hi Lois, it's Zoila. Very interesting discovery! I totally agree with you about the value of spontainity in basketry, music and life in general

    1. Thank you Zoila, I hope you are enjoying being a mother. Children are of course expert in the art of spontaneity! Lx

  2. Hi Lois
    Thank you for this. It is lovely to see the functionality and purpose of these baskets.

    1. Thank you Kester, see you soon if all goes well.