The variety of baskets in the world — with their distinct shapes and materials and techniques and uses — is endless. In the way that history can be told in words, so too can it be read through craft — objects ingeniously fashioned out of necessity from whatever was on hand. Almost any plant whose parts are pliable, or can be made so by soaking in water — including roots, vines, pine needles, grasses, stems, even trees — can be turned into a basket. Broad materials, such as palms in the tropics, are plaited like braids; narrow materials, such as grasses on the Savannah, are coiled like ceramic pots; while stiffer materials, such as willow in the lowlands, are woven like tapestry. Trade, migration and war have meant that techniques and styles spread and have often mingled. There is a beautiful spiral weave done in Burkina Faso that somehow made its way to the Dordogne in Southern France, where it was used for garden baskets. In South Carolina, the Gullah, descendants of slaves, made sweetgrass baskets using a coiling technique brought from West Africa by their ancestors.
Few places in the world, however, have as enormous a variety of basketry as England. Most are made of willow, a wonder material that is at once flexible, lightweight, strong, endlessly renewable and easy to cultivate. (Cut the tree to the ground and it will resprout; push a branch into the earth and it will take root.) In the way that Eskimos have 50 or so words for “snow,” the British have nearly 200 for their baskets. There were seven different types for the herring trade alone: for trapping, for sorting, for holding ice, and one, the quarter cran, made to precise government specifications as a measure for pricing. Each particular need — whether agricultural, industrial or domestic — would be resolved by a basket uniquely configured for the task. Well into the first half of the 20th century in Britain, there were wicker prams and mail carts; butcher delivery baskets (distinct from bakery baskets); carriers for messenger pigeons and ammunition drops; and containers for broadcasting seed and hauling brick.
We tend to think of basketry as a rural endeavor, which it mostly was until the 1800s, when Britain began to rapidly urbanize. Industrialization, rather than signaling basketry’s demise, heralded a peak, as baskets were required to service the factories and towns. Basket-making became professionalized and specialized, with weavers — distinguished for the first time from growers, preparers, salespeople and repairmen — laboring side by side in workshops. This new breed of journeymen weaver underwent five to seven years of apprenticeship; each became proficient at many different baskets (sometimes over a thousand if you include all the variations). But during World War I, cheaper baskets imported from poorer countries, as well as wooden crates, were becoming more readily available; and by the 1960s, the English basketry industry collapsed under the weight of plastic.
Of course, industry demands efficiency, but along with basketry’s diminishment comes the disappearance of the enormous breadth of knowledge embodied in those weavers. Just two of the men (they were all men) who trained under that 19th-century system — Colin Manthorpe, 80, and Terry Bensley, 79 — are still alive. They are sought out by some of today’s best makers, such as Adrian Charlton and Hilary Burns. The Devon-based Burns recalls that observing Manthorpe weave a herring cran was like “watching a dance; there was no wasted movement.” Despite the loss of this know-how, what had already vanished long before was something more profound, namely, the connection of a maker to his landscape, and the life that entails.
AFTER THE LEAVES drop from the willow, in January and February, O’Sullivan and McWalter, along with a few friends who have come to love these yearly outings, head into the cold, wet field to harvest the rods with secateurs, or pruning shears. It is physically demanding work, both the cutting and the stacking, as well as the carrying of the heavy bundles, and yet “it is easy to sound nostalgic,” O’Sullivan says. “There is this gentle connection to the land — and to one another. In the midst of the drudgery, which it is, you look up at blue sky or birds or you have a cup of tea. You pass each other and have an intense conversation for 15 minutes, and then you drift apart, and after a while you lose each other completely in the tall willow, and then you find your way back to one another.”
Between March and May, the willow is sorted by variety and size and left to dry. On the short path between kitchen door and studio is the open shed where these satisfyingly neat bundles of willow — yellow, lime green, mocha, black — are leaning. After soaking the reeds for a day or two, O’Sullivan begins her work on the floor, using her knee or foot to hold the rods in places as she creates a base. Pushing long pieces in all around it, each of which she scores with a knife and bends upright to form the structure, she builds every basket stick by stick.
O’Sullivan’s decision to fashion her life in this way is a choice that a country basket-maker in the past would not have had the luxury of making. Steeped as her work is in tradition, it is driven by her design sensibility (she invents her own forms), and her desire to live lightly on the land in an increasingly imperiled environment. A basket’s perishability is part of its beauty — it will last a few lifetimes before disappearing back into the ground. Until then, “I want these baskets to become part of people’s lives, to get battered, to be polished by their hands,” she says, “and to have crumbs and bits of wood in the bottom of them.”