Made in Munster: Art and craftmanship woven together in age-old tradition

Made in Munster: Art and craftmanship woven together in age-old tradition
Bastkemaker Diane Carton at her home in North Cork, working on a basket. Picture Dan Linehan

North Cork basket-maker Diane Carton is optimistic that a growing interest in sustainability and climate change will help revive what was once a flourishing Irish craft, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

In her workshop at her home in Lyre, North Cork, Diane Carton is making a shopping basket. She talks through what she’s doing as she deftly weaves pre-soaked willow twigs in a pattern known as the three-rod wale.

“It’s basically knitting with twigs,” she said with a smile. “See, I’m bending the willow in front of two and behind one. I’ll build up about four rows of the three-rod wale for strength before changing to another weave, and then I’ll finish it with a bow handle. There’s about four hours work in one of these.”

Diane is originally from Warwickshire in England but settled in Ireland almost 25 years ago. A plumber by trade, she took up basket-making 15 years ago and has a deep respect for traditional Irish basketry.

On her wall hangs a nine-windowed cisóg she made, a traditional potato basket from the Galway-Mayo area. She also points out a design known as the cisín: a small basket with a wide base and a narrow neck, traditionally used for carrying lunches on the Aran Islands.

“The story goes that the child would be given their dad’s dinner to take out to the fields to him,” she says. “They’d be clambering all over the stone walls and they reckon the tapering was so they didn’t lose dad’s lunch on their way out across the fields. It’s a very old design.”

Diane and her husband Anthony, who works in the pharmaceutical industry in Ringaskiddy, bought their five-acre plot in Lyre, near Banteer, in 2001. Half an acre is now devoted to growing willow for Diane’s basket-making.

“Willow is harvested in the winter and left to dry out. It’s harvested as a crop when the leaves are off and cut right to the ground, after the first year’s growth. It’s dried, and then I grade it into lengths,” she explained.

Made in Munster: Art and craftmanship woven together in age-old tradition

Stored willow twigs are then soaked for up to six days to make them flexible enough to weave with, and “mellowed” for a further 24 hours before they can be worked.

The time-honoured craft of basket-making used to play a vital role in Ireland’s material economy; from shopping baskets to creels carried by donkeys for transporting turf or seaweed, to log-baskets at every hearth, before the advent of synthetic alternatives and cheap imports, baskets woven from willow and other materials were the go-to option for storage and transport.

“There are so few of us that we pretty much all know each other,” Diane said of the Irish basket-makers still working today. We have an agm once a year and try to promote the craft as much as we can.Ireland had an amazing basket-making tradition and I’d like to see that live on.

“I’ve repaired baskets that are over 100 years old; I’ve had someone say, ‘this is my great-grandmother’s shopping basket, can you put a new handle on it?’ and I can see the weaves they used, and the techniques are pretty much the same today.”

Global economics, as well as a reliance on alternative materials such as plastics, has played a large role in the downturn in home-grown crafts, Diane says.

“There’s no such thing as automated basket-making, so if you see a basket, a person has made that by hand,” she said. “If you buy a basket for €5, that was made by someone in Indonesia or somewhere, they were probably paid 10c for it.

“People don’t think about the manufacture of something, they just pick up something that looks nice and buy it without a thought. Very few people say, ‘well, I can buy this for 20 quid or I can ring this lady up and she’ll make me the most beautiful log basket I’ve ever seen and it’ll last the rest of my life, but it will cost me €80.’”

But she is optimistic that the upsurge in interest in sustainability and climate change could see interest in her craft restored; basket-making is not only carbon-neutral, she points out, but willow actually absorbs carbon from the environment in its growth phase too.

“This is the most eco-friendly and sustainable craft you can imagine; soil, sunshine and rain is all you need,” Diane said

There isn’t even any waste. If you have little scraps and leftovers, or even an old basket that’s beyond repair, you can literally put them under your hedge and they’ll return to the earth.

A mother to two girls, aged 15 and 26, Diane is still a part-time plumber but would like to transition to basket-making full time. She teaches workshops in the craft and exhibits at country fairs and does craft stalls, including at Ballymaloe House, at Christmas time.

Being able to charge a price that covers the cost of such a labour-intensive craft is an issue, she says; she charges around €40 for a simple shopping basket, which amounts to around €10 per hour, and doesn’t factor in the time she’s spent cultivating, harvesting, grading and preparing the willow.

“I don’t want to charge too much for them and end up keeping them all,” she said. “I want to go to a show and sell them, and there’s only so much people will pay. €40 for a shopping basket is what I can charge. I do add more for more complex pieces.”

There’s no shortage of demand for classes, though, and Diane enjoys sharing the skills she’s learned and keeping the craft alive.

“The sense of accomplishment of coming home with a basket at the end of the day is lovely. It’s a shame it’s not taught in schools. I think it’s an important craft, and that all crafts develop creativity. Basket-making is very therapeutic, like a form of meditation; I think it’s to do with the fact that it’s repetitive patterns,” she added.

As well as teaching, Diane hopes to diversify and add value to her basketry through innovation, and, with the encouragement of her local enterprise board, has been working on a series of high-end tote bags she hopes can tap into the emerging trend for sustainable fashion. Learning from the past, Diane believes, is the key to a sustainable future. And restoring crafts like basket-making will play a vital role.

“For me, sustainable business is the way to go. We need to simplify things and I think the whole climate change thing is making people aware of that. Plastic is the reason this craft died out in the first place.

“If they banned single-use plastics, people would return to materials like this. And there’ll be more of us making baskets, and we’ll grow our willow in Ireland, and harvest it to make things that are beautiful, strong and sturdy that will be used for years. It’s so simple.”

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