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Mary, the basketmaker

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Basketmakers who made baskets years ago were having to work fast to make a living and they had to make baskets a set size for a secific purpose, consistent and with no imperfections. I call my baskets rustic - they look handmade rather than being uniform' Mary Cross

Mary Cross learnt basketmaking when her son Dylan was a baby. She was always making things when she was growing up, so it seemed natural. As she wove a basket in her sun-filled Nunney workshop I made drawings and she talked about her craft. Mary uses traditional Black Maul willow, a robust, all-purpose willow grown since the 19th century for basketmakers, and she also likes the fine rods of Dicky Meadows, fiery Flanders Red and Britanny Green. She unravelled the mysteries of how the natural cut willows can be green and fresh or dried and brown, and then how they can be stripped, boiled or steamed, each producing a different finish. She was weaving steamed willow with buff. She told me how steamed willow is dried brown willow steamed with its bark on. 'It's a lush dark black. It's black because it is left in the gloopy mess of chocolatey water the willows were boiled in, the tannin from the boiled willow leaches into the bark of the willow. And the buff willow is brown willow boiled in big vats to soften the stems to strip the bark off, but the tannin in the bark stains the inner wood a gingery colour which we call buff.' Basketmakers' willows are called 'withies' in Somerset and when they are dry they need to be soaked to be pliable for weaving.

I used to run lots of charcoal drawing workshops in schools, taking a basketmaker with me. The charcoal is cooked willow, the same willow the basketmakers use, grown and produced on the Somerset Levels. The children would explore the marks charcoal makes, and draw the basketmaker as he or she made a basket. They were always quiet as church mice, mesmerized watching the basket grow. As I always am too. There is some magic in these traditional hand crafts, as materials are transformed by human hand. They've found remants of baskets 2,000 years old, made with the same weave Mary is using today.

Mary runs courses and accepts commissions.

Instagram: @thewillowlady

My project 'The Old Craft in Somerset involves painting and drawing craftspeople at work and collecting their stories. There will be an exhibition and book featuring over 20 craftspeople - blacksmiths, farriers, dry stone waller, thatchers, potters, brushmaker, riddlemaker, weavers, hand made paper maker, and many more.

The collection will be exhibited at the Somerset Rural Life Museum, Glastonbury, in Spring 2022. Book launch at the same time. Please add your name to the mailing list for news. My instagram @katelynchartist

The illustrations are: oil painting on paper worked up in studio and two drawings from sketchbook made watching Mary. All finished artworks will be displayed in the Somerset Rural Life Museum March 2022. For invitation to exhibition please send message.



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