Carolyn O'Grady gets to grips with basket weaving in Herefordshire
A patchwork of corn and dark woods, beautiful rural Herefordshire is a good place to learn crafts. Perhaps because of its borderland mix of cultures, the county seems to attract crafts people like bees to honey.
The craft to which I am to be introduced is basket weaving, at a weekend course in Lyonshall, a tiny village within 30 minutes of Hereford and 20 minutes of Hay-on-Wye, the small border town which every May hosts an international literary festival. Nearby also are the so-called black and white villages with their picturesquely lop-sided timber-framed buildings.
I was put up at Upper Newton Farm in Kinnersley a few miles from Lyonshall. A sprawling, timber-framed farmhouse, set off the road, it is being meticulously renovated by the Taylor family, with pretty rooms and breakfast even on the morning when a thunder storm knocked out the electricity.
Arriving at the small, fairly isolated hall on Saturday morning I am initially disconcerted to find that I am the only one doing basket making. Usually, many more students come on the courses, I am told.
On the other side of the hall, sisters-in-law Helen and Eileen are working with another tutor on curtain making. One-to-one tutoring, I fear, may be a tad lonely, not to say pressurised. On the other hand, I tell myself, I won't be shown up by more dexterous students.
I needn't have worried. Shirley Edwards, my tutor, is a delightful companion and patient teacher. An ex-primary school teacher, she took up cane work 22 years ago, and specialises in making exquisite miniature furniture for dolls houses, which are sold all over the country. The cane from which these things are made is the centre of a creeper which is imported from the Far East. It is bought in large bundles called "hanks" and comes in different dia-meters. When dry it is like a bendy stick. Soak it for a while, however, and you can splice it, weave it in a vast number of ways and generally depend on it to stay in place.
It can be hard on the hands, mine ached at the end of a day, and there are irretrievable mistakes you can make, of course, but less I suspect than in, say, calligraphy or even curtain making, about which I am acquiring a rudimentary know-ledge thanks to fellow craftswomen Eileen and Helen.
We start by making a long oval bread basket, my choice of object. The base of a cane basket is the hardest thing to make, so it is decided that my first attempt will have a ready-made wooden base, available from craftshops. In this way I won't be discouraged and will have something to show for my first day's toil. The next day I make a base which is then converted into a flower basket by adding a border, bending it and giving it a twirly handle.
As in knitting, what gives a basket its character is the type of weaving you do, whether it is just in and out, or behind one and over two (called "three rod waling" basket weaving has its own colourful terminology). It also depends on how many canes you weave with at a time and the type of cane you use. The bendy sticks come in sizes from 000 (doll's house furniture size) to 14 (for really big baskets), though charts will give you the size in millimetres. There are also different types: some are flat; some flat on one side, rounded on the other.
Like all crafts, basket making can be taken through years of experience to heights which make it an art form. Needless to say I only reach first base. But after my two days I am fairly confident that with the aid of a good book, a good supplier the first rule is to buy your cane from a good importer of craft materials and three or four tools, I could make simple baskets. I left with two with which my family seemed genuinely impressed. I can see the mistakes, and Shirley could doubtless spot many more, but I was well pleased.
The two-day course in basket making run by Acorn Activities cost Pounds 82, including lunch (materials Pounds 5-Pounds 7 extra). A one-day course in basket making (cane included) costs Pounds 35. Acorn Activities, PO Box 120, Hereford HR4 8YB. Tel: 01432 830083. A national supplier of cane, books and tools is: Jacobs, Young and Westbury, Bridge Road, Haywards Heath, Sussex RH16 1TZ. Tel: 01444 412411