Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Day One at the ‘Woven Communities’ basketry symposium

I’ve been lucky enough to take a few days off work to travel up to Scotland for a two day symposium on basketmaking at the University of St. Andrews. The symposium is called ‘Woven Communities’ and has a great line up of speakers, on a wide variety of themes. The project seeks to document basket weaving communities in Scotland, both heritage and contemporary, and to create a publicly available compendium of the vast wealth of information that springs from this process. The idea for the project grew out of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle, and has been funded by a research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The main theme running through today, the first day, was that of different communities associated with basketmaking. So many interesting things were said, with many connections appearing across the talks but I’ll try to give a whistlestop tour of the day – apologies for the length, it was a packed day!

The morning began on the subject of ‘Interwoven communities’ and we all had a go at making a circle out of hair moss, linking them together to form a long ‘interwoven’ chain, followed by an introduction to the project from Stephanie Bunn who’s organising it. 

The next session was on the subject of ‘Curating communities’ and looked at various collectors of baskets in Scotland and the role that baskets have played in life in Scotland. There was a talk from Linda Fitzpatrick at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, which introduced us to some of the wide variety of baskets used in the fishing industry and some of their regional variations, such as the line baskets used for laying out the coiled fishing line (up to a mile long and with 1200 hooks in inshore fishing, and up to 15 miles long and with over 5000 hooks in offshore fishing) which come in a range of materials/shapes/heights/depths across Scotland. Ian Tait of the Shetland Museum and Archives showed us that there was more to Shetland basketry than a woman carrying a peat-filled kishie across her back whilst knitting, talking us through some of the materials and uses of baskets in Shetland. A key thing to pick up on was that the basket known as the ‘willow basket’ in Shetland is not actually made from willow, which has historically never been used in Shetland basketmaking – instead they're cane, which was introduced to the islands in the 1920s.

The afternoon session began with us all having a go at making a piece of rope from two pieces of rush. The smell of the rush was incredible – it’s been described to me, but I’ve never experienced it (and spent the rest of the afternoon surreptitiously sniffing my rope). The theme for the first part of the afternoon was ‘Growing communities’. Caroline Dear, an artist and basketmaker from Skye, introduced us to some of the materials available on the island that she’d been experimenting with, including a project in which she made 100 pieces of rope made from different materials over 100 days. This was followed by two talks from botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. The first, from Greg Kenicer, looked at how little was recorded about plants used in basketmaking by botanists of the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, concluding that perhaps baskets were deemed to be so everyday that no mention needed to be made of them. The second, from Ian Edwards, asked us to consider the time involved in basketmaking – in growing the material, preparing the material, and actually making the basket – and included comparisons of similar baskets from around the world, such as woven chestnut baskets in Spain and black ash baskets in North America.

The final session of the day asked the question ‘Why make baskets?’, kicking off with a talk by Victoria Mitchell from Norwich University of the Arts which considered how far the concept of basketry can be expanded. Graeme Were from the University of Queensland spoke about his research in Papua New Guinea, concentrating on the ‘arawai’ basket from New Ireland. These baskets were originally made as gardening baskets, then the design/construction changed but the function remained the same, and then the old design was reinstated but they are now used as ‘fashion’ baskets. Most interesting is perhaps the fact that the women who make and wear these baskets don’t see it as a cultural revival, but as something new and contemporary. The day concluded with Lise Bech, a Danish artist and basketmaker from Shetland, giving a personal account of her work.

It was a fascinating day, not a dull talk amongst them, and nicely punctuated by good tea-breaks, which always keep you going at these things! It was also great for me to be able to put faces to names I’ve heard so much about over the past couple of years since first getting to know about UK basketry. Look out for tomorrow’s post on Day Two.

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