Owen is one of my craft heroes. He learnt the craft from a retired swiller at a time when nobody else would take it on and has single handedly kept it alive for nearly 20 years. The swill is a Lakeland basket and they are regularly pictured in Beatrix Potters books. Designed for tough farm use such as picking potatoes, they later found a large market hauling bobins round the Lancashire cotton mills, today they make the perfect laundry basket, holding just a washing machine full. Actually I have about 15 of them and they are all used from kindling baskets, to a lovely poannier style one we use for picknicks and baskets for carting bowls around. Many of them have been crammed into the back of my van and thrown around for 15 years and still going strong.
The difference between a swill and any other basket is that it is made from oak. First Owen has to cut and split his oak into sections about an inch square by 2, 3 and 4 foot long, then he boils them for many hours. The next morning is riving day, he fires up the boiler again and when the water is hot he picks out the bits of oak one at a time and whilst still hot he tears the oak apart again and again untill he has thin strips. These then have to be dressed by scraping them with a knife before they are ready to weave. Compared to most basket makers who can buy a bundle of willow ready to weave it is incredibly time consuming.
There was a Derbyshire swill and another in the Black Country, both slightly different and both died out. Owen has taught around 1000 people over the last 15 years how to make a swill, I did a course with him 5 years ago and it was a wonderful experience. The thing is once you have seen how much work goes into one few people ever think about setting up to make more. Over the last couple of years Owen has managed to pass the skill on to one other maker who had been doing quite well but sadly he has been suffering from problems with his wrists. This all goes to show how potentially fragile a craft is when you only have one or two makers. The report “Crafts in the English Countryside” suggested that any craft with less than 100 practising craftspeople should be considered “at risk”. At shows Owen sits working all day to make 3 baskets from his prepared material, watching him here is Debbie Booth, a highly talented willow basketmaker.
Last year Owen was filmed making a basket on the popular Victorian Farm program and since he has had a great demand for his work by mail order and all his courses are fully booked. He never struggled to sell all he could make at the price he charges though and is now finding he struggles to find time to do the other important stuff in life like tending his veggie garden and going for bike rides.
This link to a blog post I did in January has some video of him making a basket and a link to his website. It is always thought provoking spending time with Owen, he has such a good attitude to life, work, family, everything in balance, and he normally has his kelly kettle brewing for tea too.