I'm just back from an Oak Swill basketry course run by Owen Jones. I've had a fabulous time! It was in a stunning setting in the Lake District & the weather was roasting hot (in a spring kind of way!).
Above is Owens workshop where we made the baskets. I had the sun on my back pretty much the whole time & we were surrounded by birdsong. I'll never mistake the song of a Nuthatch now!
We started off by clefting the large pile of Oak logs on the right of the photo with a froe. Owen rents a woodland from the Lake District National Park where he coppices the Oak that we used. He took us to see it one evening & could show us the exact tree stumps where he had felled our trees the week before! It's fantastic to follow a process from beginning to end.
Once the wood is cleft & sorted into size it's put into the boiler below (the long tank at the back of the workshop. The tank is filled with water from the beck until its about a couple of inches above the Oak. Then a fire is lit underneath the tank & its brought to a rolling boil & left like that for about 6 hours or so.
Once the boiled Oak is ready it's time to split it down even further. This is where I hit myself on the nose with a bit of Oak... I played it cool though!
The shorter cleft Oak is then riven down to make spelks (the ribs of the basket). Each of the spells have their own name (which I can't remember right now!) These then go on the mare (shaving horse) & with a draw knife are roughly thinned & shaped.
The longer pieces of boiled cleft Oak are riven down to make the taws (weavers) & are then dressed by hand using a knife to make them really fine & pliable. That's where I got my lovely big thumb blisters!
The bool (oval rim) of the basket is a coppiced hazel rod that is steamed & then bent into shape on a mould. Here you can see that the main spelks are in position tied on with a couple of taws. With some of the spelks poked in ready to be added later.
When you get weaving it's really easy to see what the finished basket will look like. It's quite tough on your hands but I suppose that's to be expected when you're weaving Oak! Such a beautiful material to work with tho. We were all commenting on how odd it felt to be using Oak in this way. Amazing really!
There are a few different weaves that go into the different sections of the basket & all fairly logical (although I admit to wanting a bit more time to get them into my head!). The toughest part is pulling it tight enough, I tried copying Owens technique & when I finally got it it it was much easier on the hands. Technique is everything!
The handle is so simple, a little bit of a twist in the tarr gives it a smooth finish so the edge doesn't catch your hand as you use it. I love touches like this. So simple but a thoughtful attention to detail that makes a difference.
The group was without exception absolutely lovely & I'm hoping to have some of them come to visit me in Exmoor soon! It was just a gentle & beautiful atmosphere to work in enhanced by Owens clear, kind & friendly teaching style. There was a lot of chatting as we worked, the nature of some of the preparation lends itself to it!
So here it is all finished, I am passionately in love with it and I'm in talks already about getting a tank made up that I can use to boil the Oak with. I'm justifying it by saying I need a proper willow soaker anyway & so it'll have a double use!
So.. I reckon that Oak swill baskets are beautiful, incredibly strong & satisfying to make. Just my cup of tea.