Baskets woven with history
At his workshop in the heart of Cumbria, Owen Jones crafts traditional oak swill baskets using coppiced wood
Afigure can be seen slowly making his way through a woodland in the rugged Cumbrian countryside. In an orderly manner, he moves from tree to tree, expertly selecting suitable oaks and hazel trees to coppice. This is Owen Jones, a skilled craftsman, collecting the materials he needs to make traditional swill baskets. These are sturdy, oval-shaped baskets, formed from thin strips of oak woven around a hazel frame. Oak is ideal for making swills because it splits easily, and its long fibres can be torn apart. Plentiful hazel tends to grow straight, so lends itself to being steamed and bent into shape for the rim. It is not known where their name originates from. They were also called oak spelk baskets, spelk being a Nordic term for a splinter, but locally they have always been known as swills. Making them is a centuries-old craft peculiar to a tight geographical area in the Lake District, called High Furness. This is in the south lakes and lies between Windermere, Coniston Water and the River Duddon, near Broughton-in-Furness. The baskets have been used for carrying all manner of materials, ranging from coal to seed. “I love a day in the woods,” says Owen. “It can be hard work, but it’s spiritually uplifting. What I find particularly rewarding is following through from selecting my material to making a basket, with no need to buy anything else.” He has agreements to coppice in three woods near his home in the hamlet of High Nibthwaite. He pays a small annual fee to the Lake District National Park Authority to coppice in one, but the other two are privately owned, and he pays nothing. In return, he manages these woodlands by coppicing. He developed his skills following the traditional path of simply observing and gaining experience. When selecting oak trees, he looks for fairly straight trunks, 4-8in (10-20cm) in diameter, and seeks five- to eight-year-old hazel trees, approximately 1in (2.5cm) in diameter. “Coppicing involves cutting most of the trees down to ground level and allowing them to regenerate,” he explains. “This process enables another harvest in seven to 25 years, depending on the tree type and the size wanted. I try to work through the woods logically, only cutting what is next to cut and not dipping in and out in a random fashion.”
Owen began making swills in 1988, at the relatively late age of 28. “I left school at 16 to join the army, where I learned to become a helicopter engineer,” he says. After seven years, he
went on to work in north Cumbria and the Shetland Isles, before moving to Cornwall. In his spare time, he made willow baskets. “I taught myself how to make them with the aid of a book,” he says. “The baskets were very amateurish, but I found the process very therapeutic.” Two years later, Owen and his young family moved to the Lake District. Soon after, he was introduced to John Barker, who taught him the swill making craft. “John was the last of a line of swill makers who had been apprenticed in the 1930s in Broughton-in-Furness,” he says. “He worked for his uncle and learned by assimilation. John did a five-year apprenticeship, and he wasn’t even allowed to touch a basket until year three.” Owen’s apprenticeship was considerably faster, as he had a family to support. “John was very happy to impart his knowledge because he didn’t want to see the craft die.” It was the creativity of basket making, combined with working with wood, that attracted Owen. He also draws comparisons between helicopter engineering and swill making. “Both skills involve working with your hands,” he says. “As a mechanic, you are testing something and you feel if something is weak, which is a very similar process to making swills. It’s very intuitive.”
Cutting the wood
Making oak swill baskets is an all-year-round occupation, and in autumn, Owen can be out in the woods coppicing two or three days a week. “The speed I work through the woodland is governed by the wood’s quality,” he says. “If there’s really good swill wood, I work through it very slowly, but if a block of woodland is sparse, with big birches and unsuitable oaks, I work through the area more quickly.” He always takes a friend with him for safety, as he uses a chainsaw to fell the trees. Depending on their size, he splits the wood using an axe and wedges, before taking it back to his workshop. He will usually cut three oak trees per visit into manageable lengths of approximately 6ft (2m). For the swills, wood is used from the first 10ft (3m) length of clean and knot-free oak trunk. This is sawn into various lengths from 2-6ft (0.6-2m). These are split in half lengthwise, then into quarters and sometimes into eighths. Knottier wood is used for firewood or making charcoal. Owen’s swill shop, or workshop, is a former garage built near his cottage. It is crammed full of logs, bundles of birch twigs, willow and hazel. Old wooden chairs and several oak workbenches which he has made, called swiller’s mares, are stacked up. Hanging from the rafters are coils of rope,
twine, tools and an array of saws and baskets. Warmth is provided by a wood-burning stove. At the far end of the workshop sits a 7ft (2m) long metal trough-like boiler containing water, with three separate metal lids on top. Owen uses timber offcuts, shavings and waste material to stoke up the boiler, which is used to soften the wood. A key stage of preparing the wood for weaving is tearing apart boiled oak strips, a process known as riving. Billets, or short, thick lengths of timber, ranging from 2-5ft (0.6-1.5m), are placed into the boiling water from which 12-15 baskets will be made. The billets are left to steam overnight, which softens the wood to make it easier to split. During the boiling process, a sweet, sappy, yeast-like smell permeates the workshop. “I often think the smell is evocative of stewed gooseberries,” says Owen. The following day, he stokes the boiler, then wearing gloves and using a metal hook, removes the wood from the water. Then begins the very physical process of riving. Sitting on a stool, he wraps old towels around his knees to protect his legs from the hot billets. Using a riving knife with a wooden handle, Owen repeatedly drives the blade into the wood, knocking an oak offcut at the end to split it. Then it can be torn into thin strips with his bare hands. “I have to work quickly before the wood cools down, as it makes it harder to split,” he says. “You’re going down the grain of the wood, and I have to make a judgement whether it is fine and flexible enough. A piece won’t work if I get too close to the heart of the wood, because it will be too tough.” Seven or eight thicker, shorter lengths are usually produced from each billet, known as spelks. These form the ribs of the basket. Approximately 14 longer, finer pieces from one billet, known as taws or weavers, are used for weaving. Although the most important part of the swill making process, riving has its challenges. “There are days when it’s blowing a gale, it’s freezing cold, the firewood’s wet, and I’m trying to get the boiler going,” he says. “On top of all this, the wood may not be good, and it’s not riving well. I just have to grit my teeth and keep going.” The spelks and taws are then bundled up for later use. Meanwhile, Owen places hazel rods into the boiling water and steams them for 20 minutes to make them more malleable. Once removed, and while still hot, the rods are bent around an oval wooden block to create the bool, or rim, held in place by two small nails. A wooden frame, called a set horse, is then used to adjust the shape of the bool. The bool, approximately 1in (3cm) in diameter, is left to dry and the rim forms the basket’s distinctive shape. The hazel rods range in length from 4-8ft (1.2-2.4m) depending on the size of the baskets. “On the boiling days, I want to get the pieces as close to the finished material as I can. I don’t want to leave them too thick, as I would have a lot of dressing to do,” says Owen.
Dressing involves refining the shape, thickness and feel of the spelks and taws, and is considered the hardest part of the process. “I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years, and I still find I have to get into the groove to do it,” he says. “It’s very precise and instinctive. If I’m interrupted in the middle of the process, the equilibrium is disturbed.” Before dressing, Owen places a bundle of spelks and taws in the beck outside his workshop. They are left to soak overnight to soften. The spelks are dressed to an even thickness on the mare using a drawknife, a traditional shaving knife with a handle at each end.
However, dressing the taws is more challenging than dressing the spelks. It is done on the knee, which is protected by a piece of leather. The taws are pulled through a knife, which is held in a fixed position against the leg. Slight changes in pressure or angle are required to dress the taw quickly and fluently. This becomes an instinctive process that requires many hours of practice. The oak at this stage is very supple, almost like leather. “I have to get the taws to the required flexibility so they don’t crack and are easy to weave, with no lumpy bits,” he says. It is a slow process which demands great proficiency.
Before the weaving can begin, the drawknife is used to remove any rough edges on the bool. “Every single bit in the swill has its own name, and there are set sizes of bool,” he explains. These range from a half peck, a peck being 24in (61cm), to a gurt nick, 26in (66cm). Owen is making a 22in (56cm) basket known by swillers as a li’le Nick. Li’le sounds like isle and is dialect for little. The tools used for weaving include a pocket knife and a bodkin, which is an enabling tool and has a slightly curved blade. Each basket requires 15 spelks and 21 taws of differing shapes and sizes. The lapping spelk, or master, gives the basket its shape and depth. This is tied onto the bool first, using a knot taw similar to square lashing. The bodkin is then used to make a split in the knot taw and a split in the bool where the narrow bottom spelk and the broad bottom spelk are threaded through respectively. “While I weave the spelks and taws, I use my pocket knife to trim and neaten the ends. I also tap the ends with my knocker to even them up.” He compares the weaving build-up to completing a symphony. He has reached a point where he is unaware of what his hands are doing. The first turn-down spelks, which curve down towards the bool, are woven in, and once all the longer ones are in, the taws follow. Near the end of the weaving process, the taws are twisted over the bool at each end to create the traditional integral handholds. The basket is hung to dry by the stove to loosen the weave. It is finished off later, as this makes for a tighter basket in the long term. It takes Owen less than 2 hours to weave a standard 22in (56cm) swill. The sizes of the swills are governed by the use they are put to. He sells his baskets at outdoor shows, fairs and online. “When I think back to my first swills, I shudder at what they were like,” he says. “I feel as if I’m still learning. I enjoy the variety and non-repetitive nature of swill making.” He has no plans to down the tools. “Physically, it’s a demanding occupation, but I would like to continue making swills until I’m in my 80s,” he says. For a long time, he was the only swiller in England. Thankfully, there are now several others who Owen has taught. “When I started, it was at the tail end of the industry, and the few swillers I met had retired,” he says. “I’m hopeful that swill making won’t die out, as these old trades are very important to the region and its heritage.”
Oak logs are wedged into a support and stripped and split to a workable size for making the swills.
Out in the woods, Owen Jones cuts hazel rods for his oak swill basket rims. If coppiced, hazel can live for several hundred years.
Hazel bool, or rim Oak spelks, or ribs Oak taws, or weavers
Owen sits in a wooden stool as he dresses a taw in his workshop. Bools hang from the rafters, and heaps of baskets and oak strips surround him. ›
Tools of Owen’s trade include a knocker, measuring stick, knife and bodkin.
Owen begins to weave. Each strip has a different name, including narrow working up taw, a kessen, tacker and first straight’n.
A selection of finished baskets maintaining a South Lakeland tradition that has endured for centuries.
The master or first rib is attached with a secure knot and the bodkin used to cut a slit in the rim for the weave to pass through.