Bas­kets wo­ven with his­tory

At his work­shop in the heart of Cum­bria, Owen Jones crafts tra­di­tional oak swill bas­kets us­ing cop­piced wood

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Amanda Birch Pho­tog­ra­phy: Clive Doyle

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.”

Early ca­reer

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 chal­lenge

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.

Tak­ing shape

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.

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