Those of us lucky enough to get a place on the oak swill course in Arbroath in October were in for a treat. It involved new tools, techniques and materials to most of us. It was a fascinating insight into the process of preparing the material necessary as well as the making of the actual basket. The three day course was one of three offered at the Scottish Basketmakers Circle Autumn Gathering.
These baskets were made in Scotland as well as the Lakes, but many hundreds of Lakes made swills were used in Scotland for the potato harvesting and various other activities where they were known not as swills but as tatty baskets.
We were taught by Owen Jones, who still makes the swills professionally in the Lake District. Owen brought logs of coppiced oak with him of about 20-25 years old. These were split down using froes after sawing the logs to the lengths required. Then the heart wood was cut out. All these logs had to be boiled for several hours. Dressed coppiced lengths of hazel were steamed by placing them on the top of the wood for about 20 minutes. These were then used to make the ‘bool’ or oval hoop of the top of the basket. Owen helped us to pull the hazel around an oval former and nail the end into place.
Owen had brought some material with him which we learnt to dress using saw mares and draw knives. It was amazing that each ‘rib’or spelk piece had its own shape and name, and each ‘weaver’or taw had its name too. An example of each are the broad bottom spelk and the second knot taw.
Once the oak was boiling again the next morning we started splitting down our wood to ever thinner pieces until the oak was so fine it was so supple. This process is called ‘riving’ We soon learnt that we needed to work quickly as the splitting was easiest when the wood was hot. The wood smells amazing! This process involved us preparing our legs to hold the hot billets as they came out of the boiler. Very fetching we did all look in our towel clad thighs, held in place with offcuts of oak from dressing the taws, especially when on walking around the towels would gradually slip down!
The preparation of the materials took a day and a half and so did the making of the basket. Apparently experienced swillers could make one in 30 minutes! Owen took us all along together so that we all finished our baskets together. It was a momentous moment!