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February 2015: Exeter Dialogue with Science workshop 4 - Learning craft skills: Basketry and related plant management

Monday, 23 February, 2015 to Friday, 27 February, 2015
Linda Hurcombe
Number of Participants / Visitors / Audience: 
10 participants (Exeter, Calafell, St Fagans) and with follow up activities at St Fagans, Foteviken, AOZA and Lejre this Summer

The first evening Theresa Emmerich Kamper and Linda Hurcombe met Jasna Lesnjak (Calafell) and Elen Bowen (St Fagans, National Museum of Wales) to take them to a meal in the city centre overlooking the cathedral. We discussed what they wanted to achieve at the workshop and their preferences for flexible activities on the Wednesday.
On Tuesday a minibus picked up participants and drove them to the fringes of Dartmoor where professional basket-maker, Linda Lemieux has her workshop. Linda L has many different kinds of materials and basketry technologies in her workshop so the day started off with discussions of different materials and the main kinds of basketry traditions. The latter ranged from coil, to frame baskets, and stake and strand, as well as plaiting and cordage technologies. Some of the Exeter student participants came from America and Europe and Linda L has baskets from all over the world, so the discussions were wide ranging and diverse but common themes and principles were drawn out: harvest materials in the right season, if necessary dry them, store them, and then soak or prepare them ready for use. The wonderful collection of baskets hanging from the ceiling proved a rich resource for the workshop and everybody soon had sore necks because they couldn’t stop staring at all the wonderful baskets hanging from the workshop ceiling.
Linda L discussed her rush beds in Somerset and the willow varieties she grows so the group then went outside to her fenced enclosure to harvest some willows growing from coppice stools. It was important to harvest the material so that the stump would have good new growth and to clear out leaves and other matter to keep the stump healthy. Linda L explained the difference between the varieties and why some willows were grown as coppice (cut at ground level), while others were pollards (cut at waist or head height as the stump grows into a tree).
After lunch participants got down to making the first item – a rush mat. The mat taught chequer weave, paired weave, joining in techniques, and how to make a simple border. This project took the rest of the afternoon and before heading back to Exeter everyone discussed what they would like to make as projects on Thursday. Linda H. met Elen and Jasna for a meal in a pub on the Exe estuary in Topsham a short distance down river and we discussed some specialist terms which Jasna went away and worked on further because many of the basketry terms are not well known by native language speakers! We discussed what we would do the following day in order to follow individual interests.

Wednesday was spent in the University. We started off with looking at some of the books borrowed from Linda L. and those brought in by Linda H. so that the participants saw some of the archaeological and ethnographic material relevant to their interests from all over the world. Some time was dedicated to giving each person an opportunity to search subjects in all of this literature which is not normally accessible. This was greatly appreciated. Then since participants were interested in the cordage theme we talked through different materials and two ply and three ply cordage and rope manufacturing. Samples were made in rafia, flax and willow bark. A simple bracelet was demonstrated with a loop start and knot button end as a fastening for children to make and take home for themselves. The other theme there was special interest in was bramble (Rubus) and processing techniques for it for cordage and basketry. Together we processed some small sections, removing thorns and splitting stems using different techniques, before finally making some skeins of the kind used as the stitching material in coiled bee skeps. Discussions also highlighted an interest in flax processing so we used the equipment in the department and some retted flax to go through the entire process: first the flax break to break up the stem pith, then scutching to remove the last pieces of pith, then combing (heckling, or hatcheling) using progressively finer combs to align the fibres and prepare them for spinning.
After dinner participants made an evening trip to Dartington Hall to attend a lecture on an immersion course in Stone Age technologies and looked through some of the equipment and clothes used.

The last day saw participants together with PhD, and MA students return to Linda Lemieux’s workshop to learn new techniques not covered the first day. Progressively more complex techniques were covered. One group used willow to make model coracles as a way of furthering their understanding of the techniques necessary in building watercraft, with an eye to building a full size skin covered watercraft later in the summer. Other participants practiced a variety of techniques using multiple material types according to their interests including diagonal weave rush boxes, round rush and bark baskets and a willow fish trap. At the end the day Linda L. demonstrated a frame basket making technique which had been specially requested. The approach of Linda L. in using a soft material to start out the learning process is very effective in that each person learns numerous techniques including over one under one plaiting, twining and a simple border. These techniques can then be extrapolated to other material types, and give each person the knowledge base to learn more complex techniques with less forgiving materials on the second day. The skills learned can then be taken away and built on by the participants into the future.

On the last evening Jasna helped to translate some Iberian literature which covered specific rush rain cape technologies which will be undertaken as experiments over the course of the summer at various Openarch partners.

During the evening meal participants were asked for personal feedback which was very positive.
Some aspects of the workshop which were especially noteworthy included the unique opportunity to combine in a relatively short time, high level academic subject knowledge with practical skill acquisition activities. This combination is rare in skill based workshops. To be able to consult an expert on details of individual interest was invaluable. Another valuable aspect of this international gathering was the networking achieved between participants and organisers at all levels from many areas of Europe. The excellent organisation and personal involvement on the part of the organisers make this workshop unique.


The group cut and sorted willow as part of...
Model coracles and diagonal weave boxes...
Learning basic techniques by making round...