The art of basketmaking was developed at an early stage of man’s evolution. In Britain oak, hazel and willow provided material for making the strong rigid containers necessary in everyday life. Fences and houses, too, were built from wickerwork or wattles.
Early baskets were probably much like those found in the farms of highland regions until the second half of the twentieth century. ‘Frame’ baskets were constructed with wild materials on simple but time-consuming principles, and in these areas basketmaking mostly remained a seasonal job reserved for the dark days of winter. In lowland Britain the weaving of willow, using different techniques, developed into a profession and ultimately a sizeable industry.
The number of craftsmen employed and the output of their labours must have been immense, but such are the temporary nature of willow and the humble status of the basketmaker that the evidence of the scale of production has all but disappeared. In practically every instance where today one needs cardboard, plastic or plywood for packing material, two hundred years ago this need would have been met by wickerwork. Fruit and vegetables were gathered from the fields into baskets; fish, poultry and dairy produce were all packed into wicker for the journey to the town markets. Jobs requiring the transport of bulky materials such as manure or rubble needed baskets, and not only were rural items such as animal muzzles, bird traps and beer strainers made of willow, but so were the travelling trunks, hat boxes and umbrella holders of the well-to-do.
The distribution of workshops depended on local demand and favourable conditions for growing willows. In certain counties these factors combined to create a concentration of makers, often within a small area of several villages. At the beginning of the twentieth century East Anglia and the East Midlands, the plain of York, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Kent, Bedfordshire and the Thames Valley supported a fair number of country workshops, making for the most part simple agricultural baskets. A greater variety of produce was to be found in the important centres of Lancashire, Somerset and the Trent Valley (Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire), while the largest and most sophisticated workshops were found in the towns.
Guilds of basketmakers were formed. Records show that the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers of the City of London was established before 1469. This company was eventually granted a royal charter by George VI in 1937, but by then its old responsibilities had long since been taken on by the trade unions.
Decline of the basket trade has continued throughout the twentieth century for many economic reasons. An economy in which time has much value and quality very little has no place for a durable product that is extremely labour-intensive. Moreover, where the use of wicker has still been viable, the cheapness of foreign labour has often led to basket importation. British basketmakers, as members of an industrially advanced country, started to experience the undermining of their trade in the second half of the nineteenth century. Imports from the Netherlands, Germany and France severely affected the makers of agricultural work up to 1939. Wartime renewed the demand for baskets but since then competition in the domestic market has continued from the products of Spain, Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, and the Far East. Consequently between 1945 and 1980 the number of ‘twiggies’ (as some makers call themselves) fell from seven thousand to about five hundred, of whom two hundred were blind and working under subsidised conditions.
Today, accomplished basketmakers are few. The blind workshops still produce articles of a robust nature superior in strength to importations, although not necessarily very refined. In comparison many other makers, in attempts to beat importation on the same ground, have taken short cuts and generally lost the merits and quality of traditional willow work.