From her work­shop deep in the woods, craftswoman Lorna Sin­gle­ton weaves tra­di­tional Cum­brian bas­kets known as swills. One of the last peo­ple still prac­tis­ing the ancient skill, she uses tim­ber from the wood­land she care­fully main­tains

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - words by do­minique cor­lett pho­to­graphs by an­drew mont­gomery

In our con­tin­u­ing se­ries, we dis­cover tra­di­tional skills that are at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing. This month: the swiller

Lorna Sin­gle­ton, cop­picer and bas­ket maker, is sit­ting in her stu­dio, near Kendal in the south­ern part of the Lake District, with the skele­ton of a half-made bas­ket on her knees. The space is filled with the rest­ful colours and tex­tures of nat­u­ral wood – the raw ma­te­ri­als of her craft. Steam-bent hazel poles hang from hooks in the roof beams, while bun­dles of pale split-oak strips are stacked against the white­washed stone walls. All around lie tree stumps and bun­dles of twigs; in one cor­ner is an enor­mous pile of curly oak shav­ings, dis­gorged from the shave horse. Out­side, it’s a foreboding grey day, with the wa­ter­logged sky warn­ing of colder, harsher months to come, but for Lorna, who spends much of her time work­ing in the woods, it’s a good op­por­tu­nity to get some weav­ing done. “This is the time of year when I re­treat a lit­tle bit from the world,” she says. “I go into hi­ber­na­tion and con­cen­trate on mak­ing bas­kets. I’m al­ways so busy in sum­mer, demon­strat­ing my craft at fairs and teach­ing cour­ses, that it’s a bit of a relief when au­tumn comes. I like to do this bit on my own, and will of­ten sit here late into the night when the world’s a bit qui­eter, just lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio and weav­ing my bas­kets.”

The bas­ket Lorna is mak­ing to­day is a tra­di­tional Lake­land ‘swill’, a ves­sel con­structed from oak that has been pro­duced in this area for hun­dreds of years. The name comes from the ac­tion of swill­ing out or wash­ing things – one of the bas­ket’s many his­tor­i­cal uses, along­side broad­cast­ing seed, feed­ing an­i­mals, stor­ing fire­wood and even cradling ba­bies. Swills were used in the fac­to­ries of the in­dus­trial north for stor­ing bob­bins, cot­ton, coal and tex­tiles, and, up un­til World War II, swill-mak­ing was a flour­ish­ing in­dus­try, with a swill shop, em­ploy­ing half a dozen swillers or more, in ev­ery vil­lage of the Fur­ness Fells.

The craft de­clined post-war with the ar­rival of cheap wire bas­kets, and to­day Lorna is one of just four peo­ple still mak­ing swills, and one of only two do­ing it full time. The other is Con­is­ton-based Owen Jones, who first taught Lorna the craft, and is now the per­son she works with to har­vest and pre­pare the oak. But Lorna is not just keep­ing the tra­di­tion alive, she is also us­ing the skills and ma­te­ri­als to pro­duce a more re­fined, mod­ern product – a shoul­der bag, which she sells, along­side her swills, through a few up­mar­ket craft gal­leries.

“Her­itage is im­por­tant to me, to carry on do­ing some­thing that has been done be­fore,” she ex­plains, “but I also want to make some­thing that is seen as con­tem­po­rary.” To this end, she has teamed up with fur­ni­ture maker Se­bas­tian Cox to make a range of benches and stools with wo­ven oak seats.

Lorna grew up in the Lake District, in the vil­lage of Mil­nthorpe, and spent her child­hood out­doors hik­ing around the hills and woods of Arn­side and Sil­verdale. She was al­ways in­ter­ested in en­vi­ron­men­tal and con­ser­va­tion is­sues. “As a child, I used to worry about soap pol­lut­ing my bath wa­ter,” she says, with a smile. Go­ing to Manch­ester Univer­sity to study so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy and ar­chae­ol­ogy, she felt “bur­dened by ur­ban life” and spent the hol­i­days back in the woods vol­un­teer­ing on con­ser­va­tion projects.

She was head­ing for post-grad­u­ate re­search when it struck her that she was on the wrong path. “I just thought, ‘What am I do­ing? This is ir­rel­e­vant to my life. I need to be do­ing some­thing prac­ti­cal and to be out­side,’” she says. So she signed up in­stead for a three-year ap­pren­tice­ship in cop­pic­ing and wood­land crafts with the Bill Hog­a­rth MBE Me­mo­rial Ap­pren­tice­ship Trust. Just be­fore start­ing the course, she at­tended a swill bas­ket-mak­ing work­shop with Owen Jones, and through her ap­pren­tice­ship

con­tin­ued to stay in touch with him, vis­it­ing when­ever she could so that they could make bas­kets to­gether.

To­wards the end of the ap­pren­tice­ship, Lorna was still un­sure of her path, but the love of weav­ing had stayed with her. In spring 2013, she at­tended a course in Devon, learn­ing to make con­tem­po­rary bags from wo­ven ash. It was a piv­otal mo­ment, when she re­alised there were things other than swills that she could make with wo­ven oak. It was also around this time, through a men­tor­ing pro­gramme run by the Small Woods As­so­ci­a­tion, that she was in­tro­duced to Se­bas­tian Cox. Lorna con­tin­ued to work with Owen, and grad­u­ally her business mak­ing bas­kets and other prod­ucts from cop­piced oak be­gan to take off.

All the oak Lorna uses for her weav­ing comes from a patch of wood­land she shares with Owen be­tween Lakes Con­is­ton and Win­der­mere. Their work be­gins in Jan­uary, when they go into the woods one day a week to cut down the birch that grows along­side the oak, leav­ing just the oak trees stand­ing. “Over the next few months, we will clear the area com­pletely,” Lorna says. “This lets the sun shine down onto the wood­land floor. The new trees rise up for the light, so you get th­ese long trunks with no branches, and tim­ber that is use­ful for mak­ing things.”

Sur­pris­ingly, Fe­bru­ary is Lorna’s favourite time in the woods, when she in­sists there are bright days. “It’s the first sun you’ve felt on your skin all win­ter, and, be­cause the days are get­ting longer, you can stay and work a bit later,” she says. “Ev­ery­thing’s on the

“I will of­ten sit late into the night, when the world’s a bit qui­eter, just lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio and weav­ing my bas­kets”

verge of burst­ing into life; the trees are start­ing to bud and the birds are com­ing back. You can al­most feel the excitement in the world that spring is com­ing.” From April, Lorna and Owen be­gin the process of ‘peel­ing the bark’, a sat­is­fy­ing job that in­volves slit­ting the outer shell of a felled trunk from top to bot­tom, then shuck­ing it off in one big piece. The trunks are split length­ways into quar­ters or sixths, then taken to the boiler at Owen’s work­shop, where they are left overnight to stew.

“The next morn­ing, when we open the boiler, the smell is amaz­ing,” Lorna says. “Like ap­ples, or fruity vine­gar.” A busy day of ‘riv­ing’ fol­lows, when the steam­ing sec­tions of soft­ened wood are pulled apart by hand along the grow­ing rings to pro­duce strips of oak, some as thin as ve­neer.

The process of mak­ing a swill be­gins with an oval-shaped rim of steam-bent hazel, se­cured with a nail and known as a ‘bool’. Three ribs (also known as spelks) are added as loops un­der­neath the bool and held in place with ‘knot taws’. Two more spelks are then added and wo­ven in with a ‘taw’ and so it con­tin­ues; adding two spelks and weav­ing them in with a taw, un­til the bas­ket is com­plete. Af­ter seven years of mak­ing th­ese bas­kets, Lorna can pro­duce one in four hours – her shoul­der bags take two days.

“It is a dif­fi­cult way to make a liv­ing,” she says. “There aren’t many things that are so labour-in­ten­sive. You don’t of­ten get pot­ters who dig up their own clay! But that’s also the joy of it – it’s such a soul­ful way to live. The trees I’ve felled this year won’t be cut for an­other 25 years. It is a much longer cy­cle than we’re used to work­ing in th­ese days. I like that pace – it’s very still­ing. And there’s some­thing about the oak it­self – the feel of it, the smell, the way it looks, with all the dif­fer­ent colours in it. It’s hard to ex­plain, but it’s a con­nec­tion that goes deep. I just need oak in my life.”

Lorna’s bas­kets and bags are avail­able at, moore­ and the­newcrafts­ For more in­for­ma­tion, visit lor­nas­in­gle­

ABOVE Even the more con­tem­po­rary of Lorna’s wo­ven oak de­signs, such as her cov­etable leather-trimmed shoul­der bags (top), are made com­pletely by hand, us­ing tra­di­tional tools and tech­niques that have re­mained un­changed for gen­er­a­tions

ABOVE The trunks of the lo­cal oak trees that Lorna fells are split length­ways into quar­ters or sixths, then soft­ened so they can be pulled apart by hand to pro­duce the thin, ve­neer-like strips, which are wo­ven to­gether to cre­ate her at­trac­tive bas­kets

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