Teacher: Linda Lemieux
From: Chagford, Devon
Lesson: Basket Weaving
Former ski champ Linda Lemieux has devoted the last 25 years of her life to natural hand crafts, namely basket weaving. Taking inspiration from the rugged wilderness of Dartmoor – the place she calls home – Linda creates baskets and other woven items to sell in her shop in Chagford, Wood and Rush.
Taking a holistic approach to her craft, Linda grows, cuts and cures her own willow and harvests rush from nearby waterways using a handmade coracle. Her connection to the natural world and dedication to minimising her impact upon it is evident in all the pieces she makes, and it’s something that she’s keen to share with anyone who attends her workshops.
On arrival at Linda’s home in Devon, she showed us her willow beds, the chicken coop and the various workshops that she shares with her husband. An authentic, natural feel, fills the place, which we all found deeply moving. Rather than simply having a lesson in basket weaving, it was clear from the moment we met Linda that she had so much more to teach about priorities and the true value of human life.
Fortunately for us, basket making is a time consuming process. We had all day to ask Linda questions while fiddling with willow, twisting it under and over the hazel frame and ribs she provided for us.
What do you do?
I’m a basket maker. I grow willow and rush, which I weave into basket, bags, hats and mats to sell in my shop, Wood and Rush in Chagford. I’ve run my business in partnership with my husband for 25 years now. Pete makes tools to sell in the shop, which we run as a cooperative with a few other local artisans. In addition to making things to sell in the shop, I also teach these crafts, particularly to children.
What are you teaching us today?
How to make a frame basket for fruit or bread, like the ones used hundreds of years ago in agricultural work. We’re using classic frame made from hazel and weaving with willow I grew myself, using lots of different varieties so we can get different colours. This kind of basket can be made in a day, or expanded upon over several days to make something bigger.
Why do you like basket making so much?
Basket weaving the maker in touch with the natural world because you have to handle a natural material. You get a real feel for the fibers of the wood while making a container. In a funny way, you’re putting everything in that container in an invisible manner – handmade baskets are full of intentions and what you’ve been thinking while making them.
Making things with our hands empowers us. It gives vent to that creative feeling and by moulding something beautiful it also provides something intrinsically useful. I’m quite wedded to the practical things of life, so if I can carry whatever it might be, mushrooms, berries, nuts or fruit in a basket I’ve made, that’s brilliant.
What level are you at?
Basketry doesn’t come overnight but, on the other hand, you can just fiddle with a bunch of twigs or some grasses and make something, so there’s a huge spectrum. Beginners can get great enjoyment out of making something very simple, but I’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century. I have tried many, many different techniques and loads of different materials, which has enabled me to define it down to what I really want to do. This gives me a great feeling and enables me to persist with a craft which, let’s face it, is never going to make me rich. I subsist on a very low wage, but I feel in control of my life and my passions. I grow my own materials which enables me to cut out miles in my product, make it in my workshop, then sell it in my shop to someone who really wants it, closing the loop. I’m happy with my life and I think that’s quite a difficult level to get to.
How and when get into it?
I was born with a desire to fiddle with twigs. I think we all are and that it has something to do with genetic memory, but me perhaps more than most. My mother used to say I was always out in the garden on my own making dens and nests, but I didn’t realise how important it was to me until quite a lot later in life, after I’d been distracted by skiing and other jobs.
When I sat down and really thought about what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to make stuff with my hands out of natural materials. I tried a bit out of books, learning through trial and error but wasn’t very successful. I think basketry is one of those things you really need to be shown and guided by somebody who can inspire you. I took myself off and did a couple of courses and eventually found the Basketmakers’ Association in Britain, which is full of very friendly people who really know what they’re talking about.
Have you been influenced by one individual in particular?
I’ve had a couple of particularly great mentors, including an amazing Irish guy called Joe Hogan. He really inspired me at the beginning and introduced me to Celtic Agricultural Baskets, which are now my favourite to make. They’re the baskets I feel truly belong to this land, among the wildness and ruggedness of Dartmoor.
It’s also been great doing something with my husband, because we’ve buoyed each other up so much. He’s made so many things for me – my shave horse, my tools – whenever I get stuck with a particularly tough job or a commission that’s different, I chew it over with him and he’ll tell me how we can overcome the challenges. I don’t think I could have done it without him.
What’s the piece you’re most proud of?
Because needs must, I always have to sell my pieces. I’m very proud of something for a year or two and then I make another one that I prefer, or I learn another technique that really resonates with me. If I have to choose one though, it’d be my coracle. It’s the most amazing workhorse and I use it to harvest all my rush. I’m on mark 4 or 5 now, and it’s so much better than the first one I made.
How much teaching have you done?
I ran my first course in 1993 in a village hall because we didn’t have our workshop then. Interestingly, one of my first students’ daughters came to do an apprenticeship with me two years ago. She used to tell me how much her mum used to talk about the lessons she had with me, and it was then that I realised I’ve actually done quite a lot of teaching! I mainly teach in school because I’m passionate about introducing children to real crafts, not just glue pots and tissue paper but making stuff with real tools. I believe you can teach a child anything, especially at an early age.
Do people find easy to learn?
It depends on how dextrous they are and how they look at things. Sometimes people overthink it and say things like, ‘well you said go over and under, but how do I go over and under?’ I once tried to teach a High Court Judge who was so analytical that he couldn’t let himself go and never got the hang of it. Basket making is something that needs practise – it’s not for nothing that apprenticeships last seven years – you can’t get the lay of the willow immediately and if you’ve never had much to do with wood, you need to learn how the fibres feel and act.
What are your top tips for anybody just getting into basket making?
Find someone who inspires you and go to learn with them. Also find a material that resonates with you. If you live in a forest, you might like to use wood, but it you live in a city you might find that you prefer using recycled materials. It doesn’t have to be natural materials – that’s just my personal preference because I love nature and being outdoors.
How long before we could make our own?
It depends on the technique you’re using. Frame baskets require just one type of weave, which you’d be able to master quite quickly. I think though, if you wanted to be an all round basket maker, you’d need a decade. There are just so many techniques to master.
How have we been?
You had a really good, sunny, willing attitude and you’ve been on the ball, which is lovely.
Is there a skill you haven’t got that you wish you had?
In my life I’ve spent a lot of time grieving for things I haven’t got, and once I gave up doing that I suddenly started appreciating the things I have got. I’ve got a huge extended family with loads of wonderful nieces and nephews and loads of people here in this community in Chagford. I think if I hadn’t chosen to live here in the way I do, I’d spend longer wondering about the things I don’t have.
One thing that can really help beginners is to buy willow that’s been skinned and boiled. If you take the ‘spite’ (as they call it) out of the rod, you won’t have so much trouble preparing it for work. If you’re growing it yourself, however, that’s a whole different ball game!
What we learned
- ‘The cooperation of many twigs pulling together makes a good hold’
- Evidence suggests that people were weaving baskets using natural materials over 20,000 years ago
- If you choose a simple weaving technique, it’s possible to create a fruit bowl-sized basket in just a day, even as a complete beginner
- Willow weaving was a huge industry in England a few hundred years ago, but the introduction of plastic has all but completely replaced its use in everyday life