Mary Butcher, currently the Victoria & Albert museum's artist-in-residence, wasn't always a basket maker. She used to be a zoologist, then a stay-at-home mum. One day, she walked into a basket maker's studio outside Canterbury, where she lived, to buy something and he took her for a student. Too embarassed to admit she was simply looking for a bargain, she got her first lesson in basket making and from then on was hooked.
I met up with Butcher at her studio at the V&A, a wide, open space with examples of her work adorning the walls and materials in various states of preparation on a large table in the room's centre. During a half-hour interview, a number of my misconceptions about basket making were firmly dispelled.
First, that it was historically a craft practised by women. In Britain, the basket making industry reached its peak in the 19th century, when there were 14,000 basket makers in England. But they were almost all male.
'One tiny town near Manchester could have 200 basket makers. Baskets were used to carry all sorts of things - from farm to factory goods,' she says. The introduction of cardboard, then plastic, containers led to a steep decline in basketry, and a transformation in baskets from necessary to decorative objects.
Enter Mary Butcher, and a host of other contemporary basket makers, reviving the craft with new ideas, perspectives and materials, while also staying mindful of basketry's traditional roots.
Butcher's 'baskets' are experiments - with their loose ends and abstract forms they are not containers in a conventional sense. Alongside the traditional willow, she has worked with willow bark, holly, palm leaves, jute, plastic-covered washing line, metals and bamboo. Butcher has cross-fertilised basket making with other disciplines, such as jewellery making, and textiles and has expanded her repertoire with techniques such as dyeing and gilding.
'Traditionalists may not completely approve,' she says. Nonetheless, Butcher brings a fresh approach to a craft in danger of stagnation.
'It is very, very low-tech. You need a good knife and some water-soaked, supple willow. An experienced basket maker could make one in an hour.'
Asked if she could tell the difference between a basket made by hand and one made by machine, she didn't miss a beat in correcting me: there are no machine-made baskets because no machine exists to do so. As one of the world's oldest crafts, with examples found in Iraq thought to date to 5000BC, basket making, by and large, is also one that has been left largely unchanged over centuries.
Butcher is grateful to have found an apprenticeship when she was starting out, as they are hard to come by: elder artisans are now few and far between. She became a willow specialist, producing two technical manuals on the subject; she has held various teaching posts and was Chair of the Basketmakers' Association from 1993-98.
But the turning point in her career came while she was a Research Fellow in basket making at Manchester Metropolitan University from 1994-97.
'I had an office in the embroidery studio in the textile department and was exposed to a lot of different types of work, which was really inspiring. I began to look at basketry differently and became more experimental.'
Butcher divides her time between teaching, curating exhibitions and studio work. 'It is absorbing. Sometimes I find myself not realising the day has gone by because I'm working on a piece'.
Origin: the London Craft Fair
Baskets as useful objects are enjoying a revival, in part, due to the current backlash against plastic and the rising demand for more sustainable packaging, but artists like Butcher are challenging perceptions of just what baskets are for.
Her appointment as the V&A's artist-in-residence coincides with the Origin Craft Show's decision to focus on contemporary basketry. Now in its fourth year, Origin (which runs from Oct. 6 -18) brings together 300 makers from 18 different countries all under one roof. Everything from millinery to sculptural glassware is on sale directly from the people who made it.
For the Origin show, Butcher and the Crafts Council have selected eight leading basket makers to present a unique object in a series of curated interventions, there will be an interactive exhibit on 'Hybrid Basketry' allowing the public to engage with basketry techniques as well as family workshops and master-classes on basketry.
Decorative, resilient, sustainable and hand made - but not quite basketry as we know it.
For more information:
Origin: The London Craft Fair at Somerset House, London on 6-11 and 13-18 October 2009. See www.craftscouncil.org.uk
City Lit, in central London, offers basketry courses
The Soil Association offers courses in Willow Sculpture
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Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor