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
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 snug-gallery.com, mooregallery.co.uk and thenewcraftsmen.com. For more information, visit lornasingleton.co.uk.
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