Rural skills: oak swill baskets

The skill of hand-crafting traditional Cumbrian oak swill baskets is alive and well with artisan Owen Jones. 

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Owen Jones is one of the very few remaining makers of the traditional Cumbrian oak swill basket. His entire life revolves around the baskets and, by extension, the woods from which he coppices his raw materials. Anything he cuts, he uses, so as well as the swills, he makes shopping baskets, birch besoms, oak gates, hazel hurdles, charcoal and clothes props. He takes a lot of joy from the beauty of the woods, the campfires and the camaraderie of the shows where he demonstrates and sells his baskets. 

 

 

 

 

What is an oak swill basket?
Swill baskets – sturdy constructions made of thin strips of oak woven on to a hazel frame – have been common in Cumbria for centuries. Used for feeding animals and for broadcast seed sowing, demand rocketed during the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, particularly in the bobbin mills of the area. Owen, who was an aviation engineer by trade, was taught the craft in the late 1980s by John Barker, one of the last swillers in the area. Owen says, “I feel privileged to have learnt from someone like him and to be working within the tradition; using the old language”.

Making the baskets
The language used in making an oakswill basket is indeed entirely of its own. The hazel rod that forms the rim of the swill (which might be a ‘half peck’, a ‘li’le nick’, a ‘peck’ or a ‘gurt nick’, depending on its size) is the ‘bool’. The 15 oak ribs are known as ‘spelks’ and the weaving lengths are ‘taws’, and both must be boiled to soften them before they can be riven – a very physical process that involves repeatedly driving a splitting blade into the wood and then tearing it apart to thin it. “It’s only when you’re riving that you really get to know the quality of the wood,” says Owen. “On a good day, I might get 15 to 17 taws out of each piece of wood; sometimes it’s only seven or eight.” Once riven, the spelks and taws are then ‘dressed’ to refine their shape, thickness and feel and only then can weaving begin. Again, it’s the process rather than the end result that is Owen’s focus. “You can’t be too fussy,” he says. “I think about rhythm and grace as much as the finished product.”

 

Useful information
Owen demonstrates and sells at fairs throughout the year and will be at Borrowdale Shepherds’ Meet near Keswick on Sunday 18 September 2016. For a full list of fairs and events, please visit Owen’s website. He also runs several courses a year. oakswills.co.uk

 

 

Words Natasha Goodfellow

Photographs Andrew Montgomery

• Taken from a longer feature in the September 2016 issue (238).

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