The role of willow crafts and contemporary basket making

From 1990 Littoral/Projects Environment has been developing crafts projects in support of the work of environmental organisations, and in line with regional objectives for Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is the initiative adopted internationally, following the Rio summit of 1992, in which world leaders, including Britain, concerned about global warming and environmental change, committed themselves and their countries to achieving minimum targets for ecological and environmental sustainability.

Amongst the objectives of the Agenda 21 programme is promotion of community involvement in recycling schemes and initiatives for regional environmental sustainability. We see this as an opportunity to restore the region's historical willow growing industry, as well as to invest in contemporary and traditional basket making, and as an important cultural, economic and cultural resource through which to promote Agenda 21 in the North West.

The Projects Environment Crafts and Environment programme came about through involvement in Groundwork Trust and Community Forest initiatives in the North West in the 1990s. Designed to deliver Agenda 21 and other Government priorities for urban and urban fringe renewal and greening, these agencies sought new ways of involving communities in environmental action, and to bring about cultural change in line with Agenda 21 objectives for sustainability and recycling.

Willow growing, basket making, and associated crafts projects were developed in response to these needs, and were intended to show how crafts and environmental art could be deployed in support of regional environmental, economic, social and community initiatives.

Willow Tree Sculpture, Rossendale Groundwork Trust, Rawtenstall, Lancs
Artist Ian Hunter, with children from St. Mary's Primary School, 1987 - the woven structure, charcoal kiln, and bloomery Willow Tree Sculpture, Rossendale Groundwork Trust, Rawtenstall, Lancs
Artist Ian Hunter, with children from St. Mary's Primary School, 1987 - the woven structure, charcoal kiln, and bloomery

The Littoral Crafts and Environment programme has three objectives:

  1. To develop new contexts for the crafts and new employment opportunities for craft workers, in particular the role of basket making and willow crafts in environmental and multicultural education in inner city schools and with regional environmental organisations and local authorities.

  2. To restore the North West willow growing, willow crafts and basket making traditions as an important economic, cultural and environmental resource; and to develop a regional programme for sustainable green energy, and new creative industries, that would also address environmental goals such as carbon sequestration, community sustainability, and local economic and job creation projects.

  3. To develop a new crafts programme that would reflect Agenda 21 priorities for the region, help realise Government and regional policies for environmental and social change, and at the same time offer an alternative to craft practices and policies based on the production of high cost, energy-inefficient, non-recyclable, unsustainable, consumer goods.

Littoral/Projects Environment has been developing the Crafts & Environment programme through a series of pilot projects, exhibitions, and conferences. The trust has worked with farmers, energy specialists, architects, artists, and and engineers in promoting new applications for willow in: energy production (short rotation coppice for bio-mass energy); bio-engineering - riverbank reclamation and eco-friendly engineering; public art; architecture; and farming. We have organised conferences and workshops bringing together farmers, growers, artists, basket makers and engineers to explore economic, environmental and creative applications of willow and willow crafts.

Littoral has also been active in helping to document and respond to the willow growing and basket making traditions in the North West of England. Following the pioneering work of basket makers such as Molly Rathbone, and traditional willow growers like Hubert Pilkington, the trust has established a number of crafts residences and willow fellowships for basket makers, aimed at profiling the leaders in the restoration of traditional and contemporary art basket making traditions in the region.

In this context Littoral has also been supporting, with the help of North West Arts Board, the establishment of the North West Willow Workers network, and future conferences on willow growing, marketing of regional willow products, and new contemporary basket making projects, are planned for 2001 - 2003.

The trust is now negotiating with the University of Liverpool and other regional partners to set up a regional willow crafts training and marketing centre.

The pioneering project for Crafts and Environment was the Willow Tree sculpture project at Rossendale Groundwork Trust, which carried out from 1988 through to the present. This model is still being managed by the trust in partnership with Groundwork Rossendale, and is bow being replicated by environmental and arts groups in Sweden, Denmark and in Germany.

Willow Tree Sculpture, Rossendale Groundwork Trust, Rawtenstall, Lancs
Artist Ian Hunter.  Growing tree sculpture, summer 1990 Photo:  Patricia Macdonald
Willow Tree Sculpture, Rossendale Groundwork Trust, Rawtenstall, Lancs
Artist Ian Hunter. Growing tree sculpture, summer 1990
Photo: Patricia Macdonald

The Tree of Life
Outdoor environmental education project

The project centred on developing a new creative interface where people could experience working and caring for trees in real-time seasonal cycles, and experience the slowing down of human actions to mesh in with ecological time frames. The project involved a group of local 8 year olds and teachers who planted and managed a small willow coppice project over a two year period, making weekly site visits. In order to archive a full growing cycle in one year it was decided to use willow, which is a common tree locally, and has the added advantages of being quick growing, suitable for many craft uses, and (most important of all) is resilient to vandalism and the cold climate in Rossendale.

One of the aims of the project was to turn the educational experience inside out, by adopting the idea that trees can teach people, rather than taking the tree as an object for study. Having established the willow coppice, the school developed a cross curricular study programme with the artist, for which the rapidly growing willow provided a rich source of information. The growing willow leaves and branches were measured regularly and their growth plotted as a mathematical exercise. Insects found on the willows were the focus for ecology and biology studies. Traditional songs, poems, and stories about the willow became a source of cross cultural study, as English stories were translated into Urdu for the Asian children.

At a later stage basket makers, charcoal makers and artists were brought in to show the children how willow is coppiced, and woven into all manner of craft objects, as well as large scale architectural structures and living shelters. The project also had a economic and practical orientation, and drawing charcoal was produced by the children for distribution to other schools in the neighbourhood. The charcoal was also used in combination with local iron ore and limestone, to make iron in a traditional bloomery, which was built on site beside the Willow Tree sculpture. In the longer term it had been the intention to continue make iron and charcoal, and with the help of a local blacksmith, to make it into pruning knives and a spade for on site use. The willow patch could then have been tilled with the spade, and the new willow coppiced at the end of the season with the knife. Lack of time and funding prevented completion of the economic and cultural cycle of the tree. Ten years on Projects Environment is still hoping, with the help of the Groundwork Trust, to make this circle complete!

Education for life; a tree-shaped class room;
As the project went into its second year (1989/90) it was decided to construct an outdoor classroom or shelter woven of willow, and the idea of a tree-shaped living willow classroom emerged. Educational psychologists talk about the importance of imprinting in the early years of child learning. It is pointless to try to teach children about living with trees through books, wall charts and computers used in overheated school rooms. The Rossendale Willow Sculpture was the first experiment in tree-centred educational imprinting in Britain; and it works! Over the spring and summer of 1989/90 the children, in addition to carrying out routine weeding, tree maintenance and gardening duties on site, developed various cross curricular study projects and learning games based on the physiology of trees (explaining such concepts such as carbon cycles and photosynthesis), insect counts, local history studies (Iron and charcoal making), geography, arts and crafts, basket making and architecture.

The Willow Tree sculpture was planted in 1988/89, and is flourishing, and still in active use eleven years later.

North West Willow Growing and Crafts Initiative
Crafts development programme for environmental and economic sustainability.

Since 1990 Littoral has been advocating the role of the arts in ecological sustainability, and developing projects for artists in support of regional initiatives in response to social, economic and environmental change. The Rossendale Willow Tree, and associated crafts, economic, energy, engineering, cultural and ecological programmes, provides a metaphor for these ideas, and a framework through which artists and craftspeople can work together with communities, farmers, growers, schools, and scientists. Willow is a particularly flexible, creative and forgiving medium through which artists and craftspeople can developing artistic and aesthetic insight, and develop employment opportunities for their skills, working with environmental organisations, schools and communities.

As early as 1987, working with the Groundwork Trusts in the North West of England, we recognised that there was a need for 'tree-centred' training for artists and environmental workers as a counter to the short-termism of most development. The Willow Tree at Rossendale Groundwork Trust was the first outdoor willow crafts-based environmental education centre designed to train artists and environmental workers in the creative and educational uses of willow. Willow projects have been developed with schools throughout the North West, and since then we have exported the skills learnt in Rossendale to schools and communities in Denmark, Ireland and Sweden.

New Forms in Willow, July 1991

In the early nineties a natural overlap occurred between the work, of leading craftworkers such as David Drew, and ecologically orientated artists such as David Nash, Richard Harris and Andy Goldsworthy. In addition to promoting the sale of surplus biomass willow, by promoting large scale environmental sculpture, Projects Environment brought together international and British basket makers and environmental artists to work alongside willow growers, farmers, botanists and scientists at a four week workshop and conference programme exploring creative, environmental and economic uses for willow.

New Forms in Willow and the subsequent willow conferences, 'Willow in Wales', 1992, and 'Sustainable Markets for Regional Willow', St Helens, 1994, explored further bioengineering, bioenergy, educational, and architectural applications for regionally produced willow, craft skills, and products.

New Forms in Willow, 1991

Willow sculpture by Danish artist Annette Holdensen, New Forms in Willow,
Willow sculpture by Danish artist Annette Holdensen, New Forms in Willow, 1991

Following New Forms in Willow Projects Environment, with support from North West Arts Board, created residencies for regional craft workers and environmental artists to continue the research into new economic, environmental and creative applications for regional willow. In 1996, in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University, we established the first research fellowship in basket making at a British University. The fellowship went to Mary Butcher, who with the Basketmakers Association has been working to record, document and promote the best of basket making in Britain.

North West Willow Growing and Crafts Initiative

Littoral is now entering the second phase of willow development work, and is about to launch the regional willow growers and makers marketing initiative. In response to the changes in agriculture we are exploring the possibility of setting up a 5 year (2001 - 2006) willow marketing initiative for makers and growers. We hope to create new markets for farm-grown willow, and expand employment opportunities for regional craftworkers and artists, without undercutting existing makers and growers. We want to achieve this through a five year development programme linked to a regional willow makers and growers cooperative.

At the core of the initiative are the Agenda 21 and NFFO (Non Fossil Fuel Obligation) objectives. The proposed North West initiative will include trials of new types of willow for basket making, and a willow coppice project for bio-mass energy, alongside research projects exploring options for other forms of sustainable farm-produced energy.

For more information about this, and other projects with willow, please contact Littoral/Projects Environment.