Category Archives: Traditional Crafts

Back to the Blog

I’m back!!  Having realised I’ve not been very good at getting my blog posts out on a regular basis recently, I have given myself a bit of a talking too.  Apparently this happens quite often with new bloggers.  People start off all enthusiastic, then get bored and go and do something else.  Now, if you know me in the real world you will know – I am very good at starting things, doing it for a while and then getting bored and going off to do something else.   Well, you will be pleased to know this is not such an example.  I have just been busy sorting out other stuff.

This lovely blog was started as the precursor for Potter Wright and Webb’s  online shop, specialising in the traditional regional crafts of the British Isles.   The blog was meant to focus my mind on getting the shop up and running.  The plan was I would do one post a week, featuring a traditional craft object, which I would then sell in the shop.  But I have discovered I am far more interested in finding out about all the amazing regional crafts from around the country than actually starting a shop.  Having to worry about stock levels, wholesale prices, advertising, featured products and profit makes me go all of a quiver!

I have also discovered most of our traditional Heritage Crafts are in a precarious position.  Often only a handful of craftspeople operate commercially and many of these are simply unable to offer wholesale prices.  So I have slightly shifted my focus.  I’ve decided to put off opening the shop (at least until Angela Merkel and friends have worked out where all the money has gone).  Instead I shall concentrate solely on making this blog the home of all things to do with traditional regional crafts.  I shall continue on my journey around the British Isles featuring all the lovely things I come across, linking to the websites of  the individual craftspeople as I go. Who knows where my meandering will end up!  It has already lead to me writing a post for the November issue of Dulwich OnView about Lambeth pottery, so that is pretty exciting, in fact I had better stop writing this and start writing the article for them!

 

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Bodged Rag Rugs

I have just discovered another variation on regional rag rugging that I was unaware of until today.  In Staffordshire rag rugs are known as bodged mats.  Bodged meaning poked and each of the strips of fabric are poked, or bodged, through the backing material and knotted to hold them in place.

I shall have to update my post on ‘A Bodger is not a Botcher‘ now, as this is yet another meaning for the verb ‘to bodge’!

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The Bodgers of Buckinghamshire

Museum of Rural Life

Its a good job this is a virtual journey around the British Isles, because geographically my journey so far has not been logical.  Starting in Sussex I have zipped up, down and across the country as the whim has taken me.   For this post, as I am going down to the Woodfair at Bentley Wildfowl Museum at the weekend, I thought I would take a look at a woodsman craft and so are featuring the Bodgers of Buckinghamshire. To be strictly accurate they were the Bodgers of the Chilterns, which stretch over Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.

The Bodgers of Buckinghamshire were woodsman who made the rungs, stretchers and legs of chairs to supply the local Windsor Chair industry in High Wycombe. Traditionally, rather than transport the wood to a workshop bodger’s would work in the wood or forest, building a temporary structure to work under and using  a foot powered pole lathe.  Later some had their workshops at home.  They weren’t, as it is sometimes reported, an itinerary band of men travelling  from place to place, picking up work but rather their workshops could be said to be itinerant, moving around within the wood.

The bodger’s craft can be traced back over five hundred years.  Stuart King has written a very interesting article on the last of the Buckinghamshire bodgers who clung on until the 1950s. Thankfully, there are still a handful of people who make a living from hand turning on a pole lathe but they don’t exist by bodging alone, which has gradually ceased to exist with the mechanisation of chair production.  I have written another post on the origin of the word bodger, which has more details, if you are interested take a look.

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A Bodger not a Botcher

The Last Chiltern Chair Bodger (image by Frank Ghysen, copyright Chiltern Society)

In the traditional craft world a bodger is a very specific term.  Craftsman known as bodgers were highly skilled workers, originating in the Chilton’s in Buckinghamshire. Bodgers were pole lathe turners who worked in temporary workshops out in the woods; producing rungs, stretchers and legs for the local Windsor chair industry based in High Wycombe.

The word bodger is an example of how, over time, meanings can change.  It is also proof of how difficult it is to actually be sure of the origins of a word.  Having spent quite a few hours trying to get to the bottom of the word I am none the wiser.   I do know there has been many different uses of the word over the years.

At various times in history there has been five distinct uses of the word bodge and bodger, which I have been able to uncover.  Some of these have fallen into disuse and some are still around or have a recognisable link to a modern term;

1.     A “bodger” was a travelling or merchant, referenced in Holinshed’s Chronicles of 1577.

2.    “Bodge” derives from Middle English boccen, which means “to mend” or “patch” which shares this root word with the word “botch”.  Samuel Pepys had his coat botched on Sunday 26th April 1663.

3.    “Bodge” was a Black Country word which meant ‘to poke’ and a stick used to poke holes were known as bodgers.

4.     A “bodge” was a unit of  false measurement in the middle ages,  Interestingly, I have seen reference to a Kent bodge which is similar to a Sussex trug and a trug was originally a unit of measurement.

5.     Shakespeare uses the word “bodge” in Henry VI part 3 Act 1 Scene 4.

“We bodged again; as I have seen a swan
With bootless labour swim against the tide
And spend her strength with over-matching waves”

If you look this phrase up in contemporary study guides, ‘bodged’ is said to mean ‘bungled’, but whilst trawling through google books I found an old Dictionary of the English Language which states that in Shakespearean terms bodge derives from boggle which means to hesitate. Now, if I crank my brain into gear and think really hard about the speech this quote comes from, I think the earlier definition might actually be right. Shakespeare seems to be describing the swan paddling away under the water but not going anywhere, thus it hesitates.

Given all the different uses the term ‘bodge’ has had,  it is no wonder there is confusion as to why chair part turners around High Wycombe became known as bodgers and confusion as to when they became know as such.

Nowadays botch and bodge have very similar, but subtly different, meanings.  A “bodge job” is an emergency repair done by a competent worker who lacks the correct tools for the job but has bodged it together until it can be mended properly.  Whereas a ‘botch job” means a job that has been done very badly.  A botcher is not someone who you would want to decorate your kitchen.  This subtle difference is often lost and the words have become interchangeable, but it is still possible to see the link between these two words and the original bodge and botch – meaning to mend or patch.  Though this meaning of bodge doesn’t really link to the Chair Bodgers.

So tracing the origin of the word bodger and botcher still doesn’t explain why the chair turners of the Chilterns became known as bodgers.  Here are just a few of the possible explanations of the word bodger in relation to chairs;

The bodgers were itinerant workers who travelled from place to place.  It is now accepted the bodgers of the Chilterns were not itinerant workers but were local men with homes to go to at night who travelled to their workshops in the woods each day.  I have found reference to itinerant bodgers, who travelled from town to town to provide a service to regional chair makers, but there were not many of these.  I sopose the bodger’s workshop could be said to be itinerant, being moved around the woods to where the timber was, thus providing a link to the original travelling merchant known as a Bodger.

Owen Dean’s workshop,  Monkton Wood, Great Hampden (image by Frank Ghysens, copyright Chiltern Society)

Bodges, were sacks of corn, closely resembling the packages of finished goods the bodgers carried when they left the forest or workshop.  This has echoes of the old units of measurements, but sounds unlikely to me.

Bodger was a corruption of badger, as similarly to the behaviour of a badger, the bodger dwelt in the woods and seldom emerged until evenings.  How terribly romantic! According to what I have read, bodger’s didn’t go to their workshops until late morning when the dew had lifted, by which time all the badgers would be well tucked up in their sets.

Bodger is a new word made up about 1910 by a journalist.  There does seems to be a few discussions suggesting that bodger is a twentieth century term, but I am not sure about this.  My searches on google books has revealed many books from the early twentieth century which describe the life’s of bodgers and various authors spend much time detailing how their trade has been past from father to son.  In none of these books does the author mention the men have only recently become known as bodgers.  Dorothy Hartley in her book Made in England, spends time discussing the origin of the word and she makes no mention of it being a recent invention.  Also, in the book Country Relics, H. J. Massingham interviews various bodgers and again, does not says it was only recently they have become known as such.  He describes the bodging career of a Mr Rockall who at the time, was 61 and had alway been a bodger.  It is stated, he “lived as a boy at Little Marlow where the wood bodgers taught him the use of the pole lathe” (p.56 Country Relics, Massingham).  This would put the term in use in the 1880′s at least.

Bodger derives from the old french word ‘bouger’ – to move about.  This is a suggestion put forward by Dorothy Hartley.  I guess it’s a possibility, I will look into this one, but with so many possibilities within the English language it seems unlikely that the word would be plucked from another language.

Bodger was a derogatory term used by the carpenters in High Wycombe who considered themselves better craftsmen than the chair part maker’s who worked in the woods.   But this doesn’t really fit.  If they were being derogatory then they would call them botcher’s. Maybe they called them bodger’s because they were craftsman but couldn’t complete the whole chair because they didn’t have the right tools in their workshops in the woods. This explanation would fit with the true meaning of the word bodge.  I actually quite like this theory as it fits on more than one level and would explain why the term was applied just to the bodgers around High Wycombe.

Finally and this one is my one suggestion which I have no idea if it is right, if a bodger was a stick used to poke holes then a bodger would bear a remarkable similarity to the sticks, rungs and legs made by the chair part turners.  Maybe they were called bodgers because they made bodgers.

Anyway after all this research, I still don’t really know how the Chair Bodgers of the Chilterns got their name. What I do know is the discussion is far from over.  Bodger is now beginning to be the term used for all pole lathe workers, of whom there are but a few. Amongst themselves there is discussions as to whether they should call themselves green wood workers or allow the term bodger to be their collective name.

If one was to be pedantic the chair bodger’s pole lathe differs from other woodworkers such as bowl turners, because the driving string is wrapped directly around the material to be turned and the lathe is not equipped with a chuck.  So strictly speak the job title is defined by your equipment.

However I must say that if I met a man in the woods wielding a big, sharp tool who said he was a bodger I would be inclined to agree with him, even if his lathe did have a chuck!

 

 

A dictionary of English Language, in which the words are……….. Vol 1 – Samual Johnson 1932

A dictionary of weights and measures for the British Isles: the Middle Ages to the twentieth Century  -  Ronald Edward Zupko 1985

Traditional Country Craftsmen – John Geraint Jenkins

Made in England – Dorothy Hartley – 1939

Country Relics: An Account…….H. J. Massingham – 1939

www.chilternphoto.org.uk

www.pepysdiary.com

www.worldwidewords.org

www.bodgers.org.uk

www.stuartking.co.uk

www.shakespeare-literature.com


Posted in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Heritage Crafts, Oxfordshire, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Proggy, Proddy, Peggy, Clippie and Hooky Too!

Lovely proggy cushion by Debbie Siniska

All these names refer to the humble rag rug!  Before anyone had even thought of the term recycling, people were cutting up their worn out clothes and recreating them as cosy rugs to keep their toes toasty in the days before central heating.  Known as tab or peg rugs in Yorkshire, Clootie Basses in North East Scotland, proggy mats in County Durham and Northumberland and going by the name of proddy, clippie and peggy mats in other regions.  All are a variation on a similar theme.

Nowadays the method of proggy and hooky rug making is very much associated with the Northern counties of England, especially Northumberland and County Durham, but rag rug making was once common throughout the whole of Britain.  I remember my Nan used to make them and she was born and bred in Sussex, down south we simply called them rag rugs.  But, as I meander around the counties of Britain looking at traditional crafts associated with different regions, I thought I would stop at Northumberland and feature their version;  the proggy mat.

image from Beamish Museum Peoples Collection

But what is a proggy mat? And what has proddy, peggy, clippie, tab and hooky got to do with anything?  Basically proggy, proddy, peggy, tab, clippie and clootie mats are all regional names for the same thing.  Hooky mats are slightly different, but all the names refer to how the mats are made or the tool used to make them.

This is a lady making a proggy mat – note – they are made stretched on a frame and worked with the wrong side facing up.  (Image from Beamish museum)

Proggy mats are made by taking a old burlap, jute or hessian sack and prodding lots of small strips or clips of material through the sacking to form a pile.  This is done with a wooden tool called a progger or simply with a sharpened clothes peg.  Hooky mats are slightly different and are made with longer strips of material which are pulled through the sacking with a hooked tools to create lines of small loops.  The image below is a selection of very simple progger tools which are all you need to get started in rag rug making.

The craft of proddy mat making is still very much alive and well.  It is both a hobby craft – where mats are created by many for the pure joy of it and it has also been elevated into an art form by some textile artists.

There are oodles of resources out there for those who wish to learn more. Courses and online tutorials are also available.

www.makings.co.uk - For all your rag making needs

www.beamish.org.uk - large collection of proggy mats and run workshops and demonstrations.

 www.oldandinteresting.com  –  This website is great!! It is my new favourite

www.fishingarts.co.uk - This had some interesting info on regional variations and traditional patterns.

woolshed1.blogspot.com - Describes how the proggy mats used to be made in Northumberland.

 

 

 

 

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Suffolk Puffs or as some may say – YoYo’s

image courtesy of raitantiques.com

To state the blatantly obvious, Suffolk puffs are traditionally associated with the county of Suffolk.  American’s call these little gathered circles yoyo’s and may never of heard of Suffolk, a county to the east of London, which is famous for lovely beaches and low rainfall but in the UK they are Suffolk puff’s. A puff is simply a circle of material gathered in on itself to form a smaller double thickness circle.  The gathers make it look rather puffy – hence it’s name.  The puff’s can also be stuffed for extra puffiness.  (Over use of the word puff/puffy in this paragraph me thinks!)

Ruth Singer - Suffolk Puff Queen

The history of the Suffolk puff is unclear.  There is mention of puff’s as early as 1601 and the technique of making little gathered circles has cropped up all over the place since before the Victorian era.  I have read that the practice of using puffs made from scraps of fabric and sewing them together to make quilts developed in Suffolk during the 19th century and it was a method of reusing old material and creating something useful and decorative, popular with the rural poor of the county.  I have also read the technique may have been named after the fact that the puffs were often stuffed with Suffolk sheep’s wool.  I guess if the latter is true then the chances are those sheep were in Suffolk somewhere.  Whichever version you prefer, by the beginning of the twentieth century the technique had become well established and was known as Suffolk puff patchwork quilting.

Lovely use of Suffolk puffs from Knit Purl and Stitch

Suffolk puffs are very easy to make, simply cut out a circle from a piece of fabric, approximately double the diameter you require and then run a running or gathering stitch all around the circle, about 4mm in from the edge.  When you have done this, gently pull the thread, the circle will come together to create a sphere, or puff!  Here is a full tutorial if you would like further instructions or suggestions with what to do with your puffs.

As you can see I like to use my puffs to decorate clutch purse’s

Quilt Museum  –  examples of Suffolk Quilts

Planet Suffolk -  All things Suffolk related

Ruth Singer –   My favourite Suffolk puff’s

RachelClare – More on Suffolk Puffs and what to do with them

 

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The Weird Wizards of the Yorkshire Dales

Yorkshire really is enormous!  Well, in British terms it’s enormous.  If you are used to the open plains of America or the Sahara Desert it is actually quite tiny, but as far as the counties of Britain are concerned – it’s huge.  So it follows that within the Ridings of Yorkshire there are many interesting traditional craft stories to tell, one huge story, which I will only be able to scratch the surface of here, is the story of the hand knitters of the Yorkshire Dales.

The Costume of Yorkshire Illustrated By A Series of Forty Engravings - George Walker, 1814

Hand knitting was an important cottage industry across the Yorkshire Dales from the end of the sixteenth century right through to the beginning of the twentieth century.  Sheep had been an important part of the local economy since way back when, and it followed that spinning, weaving and knitting industries developed in the area. Yet, it wasn’t just in Yorkshire that hand knitting was an important cottage industry.  During the seventeenth century, hand knitting had been a major source of income for the pauper classes throughout the United Kingdom.  Up to 13% of the very lowest earners across the country scrapped a living by knitting stockings. Thinking about it, it’s not surprising really, as everyone wore stockings back then and someone had to make them. However, by the beginning of the eighteenth century hand knitting as a cottage industry on any scale had already begun to decline due to mechanisation.  But hand knitting continued in the Dales of Yorkshire, because it was a poor, isolated area with little other options and people were able to combine it with farming.

Knitting in the Yorkshire Dales developed in a very distinctive style.  Descriptions from the 1840′s stated that knitters sat rocking to and fro like weird wizards!  On each rock of the body, both hands engaged in a variety of little motions which together formed a uniform tossing action.  Needles were pricks and crooked, with one attached to a knitting stick tucked into the belt called a cow band.  The technique was known as swaving and it enabled the knitter not only to knit very fast but also to knit one handed and this was vitally important as to scrape a living the knitters had to work day and night to make it worth while.

bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld

Knitting stick - often carved by young men for their sweet hearts.

All members of the family would be required to knit, children started as young as three or four and they would have to knit practically all the time.  Men would knit as they milked the cows and drove the wagons and once the days work was done, families would gather at each others houses, taking it in turn to host their neighbours.  Knitting throughout the evening by the light of the peat fires rather than waste candles, telling stories and singing to pass the time.   The Vicar at Dent even complained the women were knitting during the Sunday church service.

The items that were knitted varied greatly.  Stockings were the most important item but bonnets, hats, gloves and undershirts were also produced.  The wool, called bump, was thick and greasy.  As the industry developed a ‘bump’ master transported the wool to the villagers and took the finished articles either to market or back to the mill to be dyed.  Gloves and stocking made of finer wools were also made and it was these that displayed the distinctive Dales patterns.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the hand knitting tradition of the Dales had waned as a cottage industry but knitting for domestic use continued and luckily the traditional patterns and styles are well documented.  To be honest, whilst it is fascinating to read about a craft so strongly linked to an area, it is easy to understand why it’s not really a career choice today.  Hand knitted clothes are now reassuringly expensive to reflect the amount of time it takes to knit a jumper or even a pair of socks!  It is still not easy to make a living from this traditional craft in Britain but easier than it was.

image from Dent Village Heritage Centre

And here are lots of links if you want to know more,

Click’n’knit   -   Sue Carne knits tradition Yorkshire Dales gloves so if you need a pair she is your woman!

 www.vam.ac.uk

theknittinggenealogist.wordpress.com  - soon to release a book on the history of Yorkshire knitting!

 www.daelnet.co.uk

www.outofoblivion.org.uk

www.yorkshiredales.org.uk

Lesley O’Connell Edwards –  Working Hand Knitters in England from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries, Textile History, Volume 41, Number 1, May 2010 , pp. 70-85(16) (accessed online via ingentaconnect.com)

William Howitt - The Rural Life of England in Two Volumes, 1840, p307  (accessed online via google ebooks)

Posted in Heritage Crafts, Textiles, Traditional Crafts, Yorkshire | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Sussex Pimp!

The Sussex pimp is a little known traditional coppice product, a small bundle of kindling – twenty five small lengths of birch tied up with tarred string.  Made by woodsman in the area around Petworth, used locally and also taken up to London by the cart, lorry and train load.   There is still one man who produces pimps and this is Alan Waters who is based near Chichester and sells through woodland fairs.  There is a nice video of him making some pimps and explaining the use of faggots and benders here;

www.coppicegroup.wordpress.com/gallery/

A pimp is used to light a fire.  There is two other related coppice products;  a faggot, which is a larger bundle of sticks used to fuel ovens and now also utilised in the regeneration and protection of  river banks and a bavin, which like a faggot was used to fuel a fire.

Well there you have – what more can I say.  I did try to find an image for this post but when I googled ‘Sussex Pimp” all I got was a picture of a nasty looking man on the run in Brighton!

Posted in Heritage Crafts, Sussex, Traditional Crafts, Uncategorized, Wood | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dorset Buttons

Ok I am back!  Been on holiday but now itching to get back to my journey round the British Isles and right now we are in lovely Dorset, looking at Dorset buttons.  The Dorset button industry started when a man called Abraham Case moved to Shaftesbury, Dorset.  (The other thing Shaftesbury is famous for is the Hovis advert, the one where the boy pushes his bike up the hill.  I always thought that advert was filmed in Yorkshire.  I was wrong, it was filmed in Shaftesbury by Ridley Scott no less).

Hovis boy pushing bike up Gold Hill in Shaftesbury

Anyway, back to buttons.  Abraham Case came to Shaftesbury after a career as a soldier, during which time he travelled in France and Belgium and admired the European Buttoner’s art.  After leaving the army, he found himself in need of employment.  It seems he was in the right place at the right time for button’s in the 17th century were very much a status symbol and there was a high demand for intricate and ornate buttons for gentlemen’s waistcoats.  Having seen the buttoner’s art in Europe and finding himself in an area where buttons were already made on a small scale,  Abraham Case saw the opportunity to develop a Buttony industry in Dorset.

image from This is Dorset 

The earliest buttons produced by Case were High Tops, conical in shape and Dorset Knobs, similar but flatter (the famous Dorset Knob biscuit is named after a button!).  Disc’s of horn from Dorset rams were covered with linen and worked over with fine linen thread forming the distinct cone.  It seems likely the technique he adopted combined the techniques he had seen on the Continent with the techniques which had existed in Dorset for centuries.

Abraham Case’s business quickly grew and by the early eighteenth century buttony had become a cottage industry employing thousands of people and bringing in a revenue of twelve thousand pounds per annum, which I must say was a great deal of money back then.  When Abraham Cash died, his sons Abraham Jr and Elias took over. Production grew and grew and the family managed to keep much of the business in their own hands by paying their workers in goods not money to stop them branching out on their own. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there were depots in many Dorset towns for the outworkers to collect the materials from and sell their finished buttons to.

image from 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make by Nancy Nehring

One of the most important developments in Dorset Buttony history occurred during the reign of George II (around 1750 for those of you who can’t remember your kings and queens).  Buttons based around a wire ring, rather than the disc of horn, were introduced and quickly developed into many different styles.  Blandford Cartwheels, Ten-Spoke Yarrels, Basket Weave Honeycomb Cross Wheel of Spiders Webs, Spangles, Birds Eye and Mites to name but a few. These wire based buttons are the ones that are now more well known than the original High Tops and Knobs.

image from Aquarius blog

Production of the Dorset Buttons continued apace.  It was a popular source of income among the rural poor of Dorset, a good Buttoner made between six and seven dozen buttons a day and could earn up to 3 shillings  as opposed to the 9d that could be earned as a farm worker and it had the advantage of being a home based activity, which was more attractive than being outside in all weathers.

Unfortunately all this ended abruptly in 1851, almost over night the Dorset button industry collapsed and the thousands who relied on the industry were suddenly penniless and on the brink of starvation.  All this happened because of a button making machine which made handmade buttons redundant – they just couldn’t compete.  The inventor was a man called Mr John Ashton and he exhibited his machine at The Great Exhibition.  And here is a funny thing, those of you following my blog will recall that a Trug maker from Sussex called Mr Thomas Smith had a very different experience of the Great Exhibition.  Queen Victoria brought his trugs at the Exhibition and he went home a very happy bunny.  Yet in Dorset an exhibit at the same exhibition caused misery and starvation, three hundred and fifty families from Shaftesbury alone were forced to emigrate to the Americas and Australia as a result.

image from downunderdale.blogspot.com

(I absolutely love this button, I have searched the web and decided – this is the best!)

So the Dorset Button industry ceased to exist.  It went through a brief revival at the beginning of the twentieth century initiated by Lady Lees but the outbreak of the First World War put paid to her attempts to put the buttons back into production.  Nowadays the tradition is kept alive by the Verwood branch of the WI and by the many courses being offered to teach the art of buttony.

I am very pleased to say, I shall be attending one of these courses myself.  Fibrefest in Devon is running a workshop on Dorset and Yorkshire buttons which I am very excited about.  I shall keep you posted on how I get on.  And I have decided I am going to develop a Dorset Button brooch for the Potter, Wright and Webb range.  By the way – the website is coming along nicely – still aiming to have all these lovely things available to buy from October!!



Posted in Dorset, Heritage Crafts, Textiles, Traditional Crafts | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Cumbrian Oak Swill

image from oakswills.co.uk

Ok, having begun my Traditional Craft journey around the British Isles down south in sunny Sussex, I am now going to head up north to take a look at the Cumbrian oak swill basket.  Again, I have purely personal reasons for choosing Cumbria as my second destination.  It is my favorite place ever and no it doesn’t rain all the time.

The Cumbrian swill is an oval, wooden basket and it is closely related to the Sussex trug, as they are both spale or spelk basket, (spale or spelk being the thin strips of wood, which in the case of the Cumbrian swill are cut from 25 – 30 year old oak coppice).  But whereas the Sussex trug is made by the wooden strips being layered and nailed down to create the form, the Cumbrian swill is made by weaving them.  The origins of the Cumbrian swill is buried in the depths of time but it is similar to other regional variations of woven spale baskets.  Skuttles were produced in the Wyre Forest in Worcestershire and other baskets went by the name of whiskets and slops.

Skuttle basket maker in Worcestershire 1935

Photographed by Marjorie Wright (1889-1973), Image from Museum of Rural Life.

How long swills have been part of life is unclear but similar baskets were used to carry corn in the Iron Age and throughout history they have found use in various industries; mines, mills, ironworks to name but a few.  On farms they were used for sowing, harvesting and feeding animals and in the home they were utilised when ever there was a need for a large receptacle.

Cumbrian swill making centred around the Furness area of Cumbria or Cumberland as it once known and this location would have been a major factor in the success of turning a cottage industry into a trade in its own right.  The woods of  Furness Fells would have provided the coppiced oak for the swill makers and there was a ready market for the swills in the mills, mines and farms throughout the North.

Swill makers from Backbarrow

Image taken from www.levenvalleyhistory.co.uk/woodland-industries

The swill makers were so successful that some intrepid Swillers, as they were called, from Ulverston, Kendal and Gatehouse-of-Fleet moved lock, stock and barrel up to Gargunnock in Scotland in 1865, probably encouraged to come by the local Laird, setting up a rival Scottish Swill making industry.

So what about now?  Fast forward through the twentieth century, passed the World War’s, passed the introduction of production lines and plastic and on to the present day. How are the Cumbrian swill makers doing?  To be honest…..it’s not good!  If there was list of endangered crafts at risk of extinction, then swill making would be on the top of the critical list.  There is only one full time Cumbrian swill maker left and his name is Mr Owen Jones. If you google his name, there are numerous articles on how he is the last in a long unbroken line of swillers and how he has single handedly kept the craft of swill making alive.  I won’t duplicate all that here as there really is a wealth of information on Mr Owen Jones.  There is a particularly lovely video of him making a swill on the Museum of Rural Life website (will post a link when I have worked out how!)

Anyway I do sincerely hope the oak swill is not like the Quagga (that funny zebra with just a few stripes)  the last one died on the 12th August 1883 in Amsterdam zoo.  The world watched and only after it had died did people sit up and say ‘Oh dear, they are all gone – too late now!’

But I like to think there is hope and the oak swill is definitely not as dead as a Dodo. There is an increasing appreciation of traditional regional crafts and their role in our material cultural heritage and a growing willingness to protect associated traditional skills.  I won’t bang on about the importance of Heritage Crafts here, as this is a post about the Cumbrian oak swill but I am planning on giving it a whole post all to itself. Well actually I am going to give it a whole page all to itself!

Next up – I am going to Dorset to take a look at Dorset buttons!!

Posted in Cumbria, Heritage Crafts, Traditional Crafts, Wood | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments