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The Ancient Art of Basket Weaving

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October 2009

The Society’s October meeting commenced with its AGM, following which Jenny Humphries gave a talk on the ancient craft of basket weaving followed by a demonstration. The demonstration does not lend itself to a written account, but those in attendance at the meeting not only learnt how baskets are woven, but a little of the history of basket weaving, as well.

The first baskets probably began to be made as soon as it became necessary to move goods around in any quantity. Datable historical evidence is, however, hard to come by, as the earliest baskets would have been woven from perishable material such as willow, grass, or papyrus. Woven baskets certainly pre-date ceramic vessels: the oldest such vessels were made using a woven container as a mould, and the vessels themselves bear the imprint of the weave. It is quite possible that clay was initially used only as a waterproof lining for baskets, rather than as a material for constructing stand-alone pots.

One early use of baskets was for burial; evidence of this comes from Ancient Egypt, and also from Arizona, where it was the practice of American Indian cliff-dwellers. It appears to be coming back into fashion in the Western World, with basket coffins becoming more popular. In fact, the word “coffin” derives from the Greek “kophinos”, meaning basket. The word coffer is of the same derivation.

The skill of basket weaving was applicable not just to the fashioning of containers: two rushwork chairs were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the Romans made wickerwork carts and chariot-fronts, chairs and cheese strainers, and even shoes for cattle and horses suffering with tender feet. Wickerwork has also been used for salmon and lobster fishing, as hurdles for containing livestock, and as the wattle panels of wattle-and-daub walling.

In England, as elsewhere, the skill goes back millennia, but the basket makers only got their own guild in 1569. Prior to its establishment many basket weavers seem to have joined the butchers’ guild!

Up until about a hundred years ago most villages would have had a basket weaver, who would perhaps have combined the craft with some other trade. Often the withybeds, where the willow for basket weaving was grown, can be found on old maps. Willow was a favoured material because it grows so rapidly – only the most recent year’s growth is sufficiently flexible to be used for weaving baskets.

During the First World War the basket-maker’s skills were in high demand in the production of cases for the safe transportation of shells, and hurdles which allowed heavy gun carriages to be moved on muddy ground.

Since then the craft has been in decline, but is now enjoying a renaissance, and it is to be hoped that the techniques which have their roots in the dawn of civilisation will survive to be passed on to another generation.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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