Let’s take a breath, enjoy the summer sun and discover the work of basketmakers, willow-users and rattan specialists. These secular professions, generally associated with wicker and cabinet-making, have been persevering and holding on, despite the difficulty in finding proper training. To better understand this activity, we have interviewed some European artisans : Claude Cultot and Catherine Romand, in France, Giotto Scaramelli, in Italy, Richard Kerwood in the UK, as well as the headmaster of one of the last schools of willow-using in Europe.
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Moses baskets, bread baskets, vegetal fences, bird perches, chests, nets, window boxes, chairs, sofas, tables… where do all these objects come from ? Yes, mainly from Asia, but also from our regions.
Nowadays, only a few experts remain to grow and braid natural materials, because of their passion for the job as well as … professionally. “In France, from 40.000 professionals at the beginning of the XXth century, we have dwindled to a mere hundred nowadays.” (C. Romand)
“Working in basketry-making was completely unintended for. At 16, I had decided to follow a career as a wood maker, but then, to celebrate Women’s Year, the School of Wicker and Willow of Fayl Billot suggested that I be the first woman to follow lessons on rattan furniture. It was a first for them… Until then, women were employed as “little hands”, just for the finishing touches. I fell in love with rattan and I have remained in the field for 30 years! This is probably also due to the common factors between this field and woodcarving, mostly where tools are concerned…the blowtorch (rattan bends with warmth), the different handsaws, etc…” explains Catherine Romand. She was nominated “1st rotinière de France”, a prestigious French award given to the best rattan-maker of France, and her husband, Christophe Romand, received the title of “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” as best willow-maker in France.
Richard Kerwood, in England, found his call at 35, in a rather poetic way, by listening to the radio to “The man who planted trees” by Jean Giono. With his wife, they quickly realized that willows weren’t extensively grown in Great-Britain, although being quite easy and profitable, and they decided to give a go at growing willows. Soon after, they began making their own objects, also thanks to the “Basket Making and Adult Education Classes” once a week for seven years.
Willow and rattan users only need a few tools: a blowtorch, saws, a marking gauge, a pruning knife, or, as Giotto Scaramelli does it, just use a knife and a bradawl, without forgetting the pruner, of course !
In basketry making, one can use a lot of different materials such as bamboo, chestnut wood, straw, but willow is considered as the best material. Many basket makers have their own willow plantations, like the Kerwoods, who cut up to 250.000 willow branches per year by hand (pruners are, however, authorised!). Willow stems are actually the youthful branches of willow trees, obtained through a yearly cut between December and March. Their shape is slightly conical, and the whole is composed of a single fibre. Some stems are put to dry in bunches, others, such as stems of green willow, are selected by hand and put into water. Willow can be found under different shapes and sizes, whether in a crude state, still green, white or live, depending on the needs. Live willow allows for vegetal fences to be planted, which will continue to grow after their planting. These hedges, dried or living, are easy to ship and are offered by many European professionals.
Rattan comes from palm trees that grow in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Its name and its variety depend on the island it comes from. Rattan is made of several fibers that constitute a full cylinder of regular diameter, contrary to bamboo which presents a hollow cylinder. In their natural state, lianas can reach up to 200 meters in length. Rattan offers the advantage of a waterproof bark and is generally used to make furniture, such as is seen in cafés (when plastic hasn’t taken its place!) This is also why willow-making is associated with woodcarving.
“Traditionally, rattan is found on riversides. There is practically no culture of rattan. It is a plant that has the advantage of growing up really fast. Sticks of 3 to 5 meters long will be cut and put to dry although they will keep certain flexibility. Micro-tubes can indeed be found inside the stem, helping preserve the humidity. All that will be left to do is heat the rattan in order to create steam and then let it all cool down. This flexibility is useful to create complex shapes.” (Claude Cultot)
“Rattan work is more technical than willow work. Everything is in the furniture’s completion, which must remain invisible. Rules are more constricted than with willow, where more freedom can be gained. It starts with a basic shape, for example oval, which is then completed by different ways of weaving or through the use of raw willow, white willow or split willow” (Catherine Romand).
Giotto Scaramelli, in Italy, likes to toy with different materials, rattan and willow as well as olive branches. He insists that rattan and willow are easy to use, whereas olive branches, which unique colour he admires, is harder and can only be employed by expert hands. Olive and willow branches can be found in Italy, but also in Spain, which happens to be a big producer.
Still in Italy, Dino Davanzo goes further and uses swamp bulrush by associating it with wood, in order to create objects and hunting accessories, as is illustrated by his wonderful water animals.
A disappearing profession ? Not yet !
Despite the decrease of artisans during the last century and the current threat of competition, the artisans that were interviewed maintain a certain optimism. Claude Cultot, who works on every type of furniture, noticed renewed interest for natural, non-industrial and custom-made willow objects. Catherine Romand and her husband have been living thanks to their work for the last thirty years. This is probably due to the constant search for aesthetic and creativity that marks their work. Their credo : listen to the clients’ needs while opposing mediocrity and lowered prices when they destroy good-quality work.
“Many use plywood! I chose to go back to paying attention to details and aesthetics. And it works. I collaborate a lot with creator-designers and architects. I also do restorations. Right now, I ’m working on an extremely rare suite of 4 armchairs “Tit-Melill” designed by Matheir Matégot in 1953 and sold at Tajan (Auction House). They’re in a really bad shape and I shall have to dismantle them and re-build them entirely. This will cost more or less 500 Euros per chair, but the auction starting price was… 14.000 for the four.” (C. Romand)
Claude Cultot confirms that the crisis has increased the demand for object restorations and antique furniture. Frontiers don’t seem to be a stop either. “I actually go to Belgium regularly to restore the Giants of Ath. “La Ducasse d’Ath” is a folkloric event which consists in having wooden giants parade throughout the town. This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages and beneath the giants’ skirts, structures made of wood, rattan and willow can be found, all of which demand regular interventions.” “We supplied willow to the Technology Center at Cranbourne, in Dorset. They are currently using it to reproduce Neolithic huts. On another subject, we are deeply interested by the willow works of Scandinavian people and we hope to go there soon.”
Regarding the crisis, the Kerwoods insist that the last six months of 2014 showed increased prospects.
Providing know how transmission
If basket making schools are few, happily artisans such as Giotto Scaramelli, Claude Cultot and the Kerwoods are there to pick up teaching and pass on the art to younger generations. Amongst their students, one meets people who appreciate nature, tradition or manual work, especially amongst women but also amongst children and young adults.
For Giotto Scaramelli, who went into this profession following the family tradition, the main revenues come from teaching basketry. A quick glimpse of the past allows us to learn that baskets used to be made inside the family circle, during wintertime, as rain or snow made fieldwork impossible. Since then, the thousands of pupils he taught make him say that, despite the disappearance of the peasantry world, these last years have witnessed increased promoting of his activity.
Some advice to better protect our objects ?
Generally, it is better not to leave rattan or willow objects outside. They do not require much maintenance but it is essential not to varnish or lacquer armchairs made of rattan marrow. The product must be allowed to breath otherwise it will become as breakable as glass. Truth be told, a brush and water with soap are enough to repel dust. If rattan bark tends to become grey, one mustn’t hesitate to let it shine again thanks to some bleached water. And if willow tends to creak, it’s because it’s very dry. In order to get rid of the noise, just spray some water on the furniture.
The big meeting of Basket Makers
It is without doubt in memory of the poor basket maker Vincent, that the Vallabrègues village celebrates to this day the “Basketmaking Fair” to which an international audience participates. The novel that gained Frédéric Mistral the Nobel prize in 1904, tells the impossible love story of poor Vincent and beautiful and rich Mireille, whose family separates from her beloved, causing her death. Both lovers came from this French area. Hopefully, times have changed and the wonderful acts of basketry-making finally receive the acknowledgement they deserve.
Willow Planting and bio-engineering : a careful eye on the environment…
Willow cultivation and works are the results of life choices and an approach to nature that are quite specific. Claude Cultot and Richard Kerwood are concerned about everything to do with bio-engeneering, often in regard as to the restoration and stabilisation of embankments, or the reinforcement of slopes eroded by water and bad weather. “When the earth is gone, we draw the previous river bed. I then plant stakes every 5 meters, linked by braided stems, and made out of old acacia or chestnut tree. These stakes will be thrust in the river bank and roots will start again on their own. It is a proceeding that is often used in mountains, where water furrows down the hills.” (C. Cultot)
The Kerwoods have had the idea of creating green willow structures that, filled with earth, allow for the earth sliding down the hills to stabilise, all the while letting roots grow naturally. “It is a concept that has to be further developed…”
It is actually quite easy, when one isn’t a professional, to call an expert and order green willow structures ready to be installed. It is much more aesthetic and ecological than masonry. One just has to think about it!
Some links for Maintenance of embankments and hills.http://www.windrushwillow.com/pages/bio_engineering.html
The national school of wicker and willow users in Fay Billot – France
Here are some questions asked to Mrs. Josiane Moilleron, school headmaster. See also our page dedicated to the school.
There are only two schools left in Europe, one in Germany, the other at Fayl Billlo in France. You must have many foreign students, correct ?
Yes, although our lesssons are only given in French, so knowledge of the language is essential. It limits the number of candidates, although we retain several hundred students a year.
What is the typical profile of students you encouter ? We have basically only adults, especially since the school depends on the Ministry of Agriculture and not on the Ministry of Education. Hence, our diplomas do not correspond to those given to high-school students. Most of the time, we meet people who already have some experience and wish to enhance their knowhow. Furthermore, the teaching staff is completely adapted to these type of demands, and is entirely composed of professionnals.
What type of trainings does the school offer ? First of all, we offer trainings that lead to a recognised certificate. There is the “brevet professionnel”, which brings knowledge on management concepts, concerning people who wish to lead agriculture industries and establishments. There is also a certificate of professional aptitude, which focuses solely on mastering basketry-making. Otherwise, there are training qualifications or complementary trainings, the last one applying only to individuals who already have knoweldge in the field. And I have only mentioned the courses centering on willow-users, there are many others…
How long do your trainings last ? They depend on our students’ demands. They can last from a few days to one year. It is important to know that we only give lessons to small classes (maximum 8 people). Very often, we give individual courses as many students require specialisation in one particular type of creation. People can come, for example, because they have been asked to make one sort of basket and they need some refreshing before making the real one.
What tools and materials do you use ? We insist on using willow. Other than that, there are many different tools: pruners, puning knives, bats, soldering iron, bradawls, etc…
Did you feel the crisis ? Professionals have most certainly suffered from it, although only a few hundred remain in France, which means this corner of the market is rather sheltered. As such, our school did just fine. Indeed, because of the crisis, many people choose not to travel to foreign destinations, but rather to find something locally. They tend to go back to amusing and original activities, such as basketry-making.