Thursday 26 April 2018

Weaving a career out of basketmaking in the middle of a digital age

Scoibs were traditionally used in many parts of Ireland to strain the cooked potatoes. The potatoes were tipped into the basket which was then placed back over the pot to keep the food warm
Scoibs were traditionally used in many parts of Ireland to strain the cooked potatoes. The potatoes were tipped into the basket which was then placed back over the pot to keep the food warm
Basket-weaver Kathleen McCormick grows her own willow on her Kildare farm
Kathleen McCormick, basket weaver

Fiona McBennett

Willow is a material that has been a part of Irish culture from the earliest times. Some of the first Irish dwellings were fashioned out of willow and mud, and utensils made from willow, such as traditional lobster pots, are still used today.

While we live in an era of mass production and technology, the age-old tradition of willow-basket weaving is still alive in modern-day Ireland.

Kathleen McCormick, a basket-weaver from Kildare, has been working with willow, which she grows and harvests herself on her farm, since 1999.

While she originally trained as a nurse, McCormick had a love of making things since she was a child.

"I was born this way," she says. "My grandfather was a master carpenter, my father worked with his hands and my mother used to make clothes for myself and my siblings."

"From the very beginning, we were always encouraged to make or do things like knitting or sewing. We used to make dolls from sticks and mud and we also had the use of my father's tools so I loved chiselling, whittling, cutting, sewing and working with leather."

Following a short period practising nursing, McCormick married her first husband and left the profession to have three children, however, crafting was still a part of her life.

"During that time I took great interest in restoring second-hand furniture - I always had to be making something. I liked to feel I could make a financial contribution to the household but I had no way of nursing with three children, so I took up dressmaking for money."

However, when McCormick's marriage ended and after she met her second husband, a tragedy meant she was forced into a completely new profession.

"My second husband was a farmer. Sadly, shortly before we got married, he was diagnosed with cancer. He lived for a little over a year after we got married - and in that time, I had my fourth child. When he died, I was suddenly in charge of the farm and I didn't know what I was doing. I had to put my youngest on my back, head out to the fields - and just learn from there."

After years of successfully running the farm, McCormick decided to pursue a lifelong ambition and signed up for a basket-weaving course, which she says was a life-changing experience and a turning point for her.

McCormick travelled to Loch na Fooey in Galway, to renowned basketmaker Joe Hogan - who has been making baskets since 1978 and has served as an inspiration for McCormick.

After four days learning the technique with Hogan, McCormick returned home to start her own basket-weaving business.

She began by planting willow trees.

"You really have to grow your own willow in this country if you are serious about basketmaking," she says. "The UK is the only place to get willow from - and usually you are buying willow that is not of good quality. All the rods are same. With home-grown willow, each rod will almost have its own personality."

According to McCormick, a quarter to a half an acre of willow is sufficient for a professional weaver. However, while it is easy to grow, it is vital to cut it at the right time so that it is suitable for use.

"It needs to be cut in the winter when the sap is down in the root and the leaf has fallen," she explains. "It's a lot of work then, as you have to cut every single bit of willow, whether you are going to use it or not, because it doesn't carry over until the year after and will grow branches.

"We use the new growth that grows straight and single and has no branches."

McCormick is a member of the Irish Basketmaker's Association and has honed her skills by training with many international teachers, as well as by bringing her designs to fairs across Europe and America.

Alongside private commissions, McCormick also teaches one-to-one basket-weaving classes at her home. She says the classes give her a chance to revise and reflect upon her own skills.

"It's usually very rewarding for the person who comes to make a basket with me, as they get to go home with something that they have made themselves and it's rewarding for me too, as teaching others helps me to realise how much I actually know."

Years of practice and experience means basketmaking now comes naturally to her.

"Judging how much willow you will need, or the gauge of willow you should be using to make a basket is something that comes with time. It's like asking how much salt to put in the gravy - after a while you don't measure, you just know."

"You can't just pick up any piece of willow and use it, it has to be the right one - and the more you do it, the more you realise what willow will make a good basket. It's something that becomes part of your psyche almost. You don't know you know it, but it's there in your mind."

Willow baskets often come in an array of attractive colours which are popular among clients. According to McCormick, the colours occur naturally in the wood.

While log baskets and Moses baskets remain her best sellers, she says that the recession did not affect sales.

"The requests for baskets never decreased during that time. I think people felt a certain sense of reassurance and comfort if they had fuel in their shed and a basket beside the fire."

While McCormick still exhibits her work at events such as the National Crafts and Design Fair at the RDS and Bloom festival, she has found that having an online presence is the best way to maintain a regular client base.

"Having a good website is great, as people can see my work and contact me directly and order whatever they want. I do have computer skills but I have no interest in that side of the business, so I have a web designer - Fintan Blake Kelly - who takes care of all that. I also work with a local photographer - Ruth Foran - who takes great pictures for the website."

While McCormick has observed an increase in interest in basket-weaving in recent years, she says that earning a living from it is very difficult.

"There are definitely more people interested in taking up traditional crafts these days. I think it provides some stability in people's lifestyles. However, it is difficult to make it a full-time job. Most professionals would have a partner who can financially support them, or it would be a way of life they that were born into."

The hands-on nature of basket-weaving is something that McCormick enjoys. However, as she is responsible for every step involved in the making of her baskets, the work can be tiring at times.

"It has been stressful at times as I don't work with a partner, so everything I have done I have done myself. If I am working on a log basket, I will get up at 7.30am and feed my hens, my horse, the dogs and then myself, before getting to work at about 10am until 7pm that evening. I would usually leave the finer details, like the handles, until the next morning when I'm not so tired."

A combination of challenging herself and working hard to promote her work has helped to establish McCormick's reputation and success as a basket-weaver.

"Over the years I have spoken up and put my hand up for whatever job was going and if I didn't know how to make something, I would learn how. I remember being asked to make my first lampshade - and though I said yes, I hadn't a clue how to do it. "Once I started making it, I realised I had all the skills needed and I did know how."

"I have never made a single thing in my life without thinking that it could be sold. It's not so much for the money, I just like that I can make an item that someone would need or would like to have."

McCormick has recently expanded her collection to include a form of basketry known as bark work, and hough she turned 71, she has no plans to slow down any time soon.

"I am busier than ever these days. I see it as a hobby that became a job and it's all-consuming in a good way. Basketmaking has ticked a lot of boxes for me in life and I am very happy doing it."

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