While it’s widely acknowledge that basket making is one of the world’s oldest crafts, it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint just how old. This is mainly because the materials used in basket making – woods, grasses and other natural materials – decay and decompose naturally, leaving virtually no evidence behind.
That’s not to say that there are no examples or traces of early baskets. Some remains have been discovered in Egypt and carbon dated to between 10,000 and 12,000 years old, making it one of the oldest craft in the world. In the absence of actual remains, historians and archaeologists have found imprints of basket weave on fragments of clay pots, which give some indication of techniques involved in early baskets.
Here in Ireland there is a long history of basket making. Traditionally baskets were used as a functional farming and household object for carrying everything from vegetables to tools. Typically every farm would have several baskets and some farmers who were skilled at making baskets would supply them to local small holders.
Now a small, but dedicated group of basket makers continue to practise the craft here. The Irish Basket Makers Association was formed around 20 years ago with the goal of uniting those interested in the craft and promoting it around the country. Cathy Hayden, a long-time member of the guild, has been making baskets since the early 1980s. She started out learning the basics at a night class, and caught the bug. Cathy then took an apprenticeship with well-known basket maker Joe Shanahan for a year where she expanded her knowledge.
Basket making hasn’t changed dramatically in thousands of years. There are three core elements to every basket – the base, the walls and the rim. Most baskets begin with a base. The next step is called ‘stacking up’ where stakes are inserted into the base to form the foundations for the walls of the basket. Then three rods are woven through the stakes near the base of the basket – this is called waling. This gives a basket its strength and structure. Next comes the randing phase where individual rods are woven in between the vertical stakes until you are happy with the size. Repeat the waling again for a round or two to add that extra bit of support. Typically a basket is finished off with a rim which is formed by bringing down the stakes and incorporating them into the rim.
“Every basket maker begins by learning the basic, traditional techniques. Once you’re familiar with the structure and method you can start to play around and be more artistic,” says Cathy.
As we’ve discovered with many traditional crafts, like tapestry weaving, felting and indeed knitting, many of these crafts have evolved creatively. And this is the same in basket making, according to Cathy, who regularly plays around with different textures and materials. “I’ve been known to introduce materials such as willow bark which has a lovely texture and ever bicycle tyre rubber. In modern basket making there are no rules, it’s very creative.”
By and large though willow is the material of choice for most basket makers. And many, like Cathy, grow and harvest their own willow crop. Cathy herself grows 12 different varieties of willow which she selected based on their size and colour. Harvesting time is during the winter months and Cathy usually cuts hers just after Christmas.
Once cut, the willow is sorted by height and then left to dry outside and then stored. In order to be able to use the willow, basket makers need to make it more pliable so it is soaked and anything from seven to 18 days (the length of time depends on the variety of the willow). The willow needs to be flexible enough to bend without snapping during the weaving process.
Despite the introduction of plastic bags for carrying, traditional hand-made baskets are still in demand. And Cathy also works on artistic or sculptural pieces. Members of the basket making guild are also keen to pass on their knowledge and regularly teach workshops and visit schools around the country to pass on their love of this most traditional of crafts.