December 2017

How did you first get into basket weaving?

People assume I’ve been to art college but I haven’t and I hadn’t even woven a basket until I was 30! I had an epiphany when I saw a basket making class advertised and I suddenly thought, “I have to do this!” And whilst my friends said they’d join me, no one ended up booking it so it was just me on the course. Isn’t that always the case?! After that very first class, I went to bed dreaming of baskets and weaving away. It was a real awakening and I found I was completely absorbed by it. There is something very miraculous about making something with your hands out of sticks, only with the help of a knife.

I find something about drawing a line out of sticks over and over again incredibly appealing; it’s just you, your hands and something directly from nature. When I’m creating a basket I feel like I’m creating a beautiful line and working towards perfecting it. And then all the lines become a texture. It took me a while to understand why I became swept away by this thing but now it becomes a way for me to see the world, it’s a visual language, and also how I connect with the world. It’s endlessly appealing in its way it connects me to people now but also people in the past. I couldn’t do this work if it weren’t for people in the past. All the technical details have already been worked out and it is a craft that has been handed down to new craftsmen and women to be regenerated for the present day. The fundamental skills haven’t changed over time, they are the same as they were thousands of years ago. I’m just picking up the ingredients and drawing and arranging that line in a different way.

How does the surrounding nature inform your work?

I grow about twenty different types of willow in a half acre patch near my studio in Sussex, as well as buying in willow from Somerset. And it is the process of planting, growing and harvesting willow which ties me to nature and connects me to the land. But it’s also the history of the surrounding area which informs my work since the area was once a site for iron smelting. We use a lot of sweet chestnut too in the weaving process which was traditionally used in the iron smelting industry around Sussex. We harvest sweet chestnut to use in some of the products, for example trays, and this provides another strong tie to the history of the land simply from once being a part of an ancient industrial practise.

What is the process the willow goes through before becoming workable?

I cut the willow in quite a wet area of land so I can’t get it back to my studio very easily during the winter so it is left out there in big bundles until March time. It’s then sorted into lots of different sizes; 3ft bundles, 4ft bundles etc and then it dries undercover for at least six months. Once I have decided what length of willow I need for each project I count out the amount I need and submerge it into water. If the piece is 3ft long it gets left in for 3 days; 4ft long, 4 days etc. It requires a lot of planning and is a year-round process.

I like working with a particular type of willow, called salix purpurea, they’re very thin which means I work with them in relatively small bundles giving the final basket a real textured effect. I could use up to 300 rods of willow per basket.

You have worked with furniture maker Gareth Neal in the past; how do you find the creative process with other makers?

The basket is seen as a simple, lowly product and historically it was a lowly disposable product; the material isn’t especially valuable and so I love collaborating with other makers as this provides a wonderful platform in which to elevate the craft. I also find it’s a very good way to promote basket weaving. It’s an endangered craft with very few of us professional weavers out there. Therefore in raising the profile of this craft, I’d like to think I am playing my part in keeping it alive.

I loved working with Gareth and working as part of a furniture making process as it was so varied. It’s great to see the blend between something so simple as woven willow and the elevated design of a beautiful, clean chair.

Do you see yourself as an artist or a craftswoman?  

I think I am both. Every piece I make I am grateful for the people who made it before me and I see it as my quest to refine my skills for future generations. In this sense, I see myself as a craftswoman and the process as a craft. However, if I stand back and look at the pieces I create, especially the pieces on a small scale, it takes on an art form. These collections sit together and form a beautiful piece of art. It really is both and I can’t draw a line between the two.

Has the rise in sustainability and the fashion for drawing on nature shaped your business? How do you see traditional crafts fit into our ever advancing technological world?

Definitely. I’ve noticed in the last five years or so a huge momentum in my work that wouldn’t have been had consumers not latched on to the rise in awareness for sustainability. Had I started 15 years ago it would have been very different. There’s a real sense of satisfaction about coming into my studio, abandoning technology and putting your phone away and simply using your hands to create something beautiful. It’s a bit like child play and everyone likes to re-experience that once in a while!

Do you take courses for keen amateurs?

I teach a little bit but only a small amount as it can eat into my making time but I do teach at my studio to small, private groups and at City Lit in London. Both get booked up very quickly and I have found that many of my students are returning so there’s a nice little group of us who regularly meet now.

Do you work on your own or do you have a team?

My husband joined me full-time about a year ago and helps with the growing of the willow, its harvesting and preparing the willow for weaving however, at the moment its only me doing the weaving. My husband is slowing learning to weave some parts of the basket. 

If you could go back, would you do it all again?

Absolutely, however I would have gone about it in a different way. I wish I had known about it earlier. I wish I could have gone into it via an apprenticeship and learnt at the feet of a master craftsman, studying their every move and trick, rather than enrolling in group classes with lots of people. But this did provide me lots of chances to learn from my mistakes, which there were many! I am still learning now and took up a QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) scholarship last year which provided me with amazing opportunities to work with different kinds of makers from all over the world. I’ve just got back from Australia where I went into the jungle and weaved with Aboriginals using palm leaves. Next on my list is Japan which has the most incredible master craftsmen, employing the very finest and intricate of weaving skills. Each place in the world uses different techniques which makes basket weaving an incredibly exciting craft and one which is always evolving.  

Photography © The New Craftsmen, Jo Crowthere, Alun Callender & R&A Collaborations
annemarieosullivan.co.uk 
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