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There can be no more appropriate place to weave the Northumberland Fishwifes’ creel than Holy Island, or Lindisfarne. Once part of the rich cultural heritage of the coast they were common in the nineteenth century from Cullercoats to Berwick but are now included on the Red List of endangered baskets in the UK, according to the 2020 report on heritage crafts produced by the Heritage Crafts Association, the Basketmakers’ Association and the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers. Fewer than five makers are believed to have the necessary skills to create them today. A group of nine eager students met at the St Cuthbert’s centre one weekend in early November to learn the craft from professional basket maker Anna Turnbull to stir some memories and add to the total number of creel makers.
Such baskets are left over from another age; they are ephemeral, made for a purpose, repaired and replaced as required, but once no longer needed, as in this case when fishing practices changed, they become forgotten and were cast aside.
Thanks to Liz Balfour who researched and rediscovered the creel we can reproduce the design based on an example she found hanging above the bar of the Old Ship Inn in Seahouses. This example was woven entirely out of cheap cane, imported from the Far East from the early eighteenth century onwards as packing material for imported goods, and recycled with little effort once soaked to make baskets. Modern examples are made of willow.
Once ashore from coble boats the fish were transported in creel baskets, carried on the backs of women, and sold in the market or door to door. Sometimes called a ‘back creel’, larger versions were carried as panniers on donkeys. Child size creels were also produced and a replica made by Alan Winlow was a poignant reminder of the use of child labour at that time.
The first day comprised an introduction by Anna to the parts of the frame basket and the weaving techniques to be used. We spent many hours over the next two days scrutinising the beautiful sample baskets provided. The fitting of the various ribs and the rim to the frame, in predrilled, accurately sized and tapering holes, created a three dimensional jigsaw onto which we began to weave the finest willow. We started from each corner, and added the front and back ribs as the weave progressed, while attempting to maintain the all important symmetry. This was the major task. Keeping the weave even and taking care where floating ribs were added and joins positioned required deep concentration. Packing each rounded side, to gradually bring the weaving towards the centre of the basket, was done by running extra rows of willow around the rods without going over the rim again, maintaining the required symmetry. This was the most taxing part of the weave. The best willow was reserved for the curved central panel, which was done last and on view.
Such a course requires meticulous preparation. The course organiser, Anne Otley, kept everyone informed by email and dealt with the B&B accommodation at the Lindisfarne Hotel, arranged the venue and lunch on both days, and dinner at a local pub. Timing was all important as the tides dictated our arrival and departure times. Some of us made an exciting escape to beat the Sunday afternoon incoming tide.
Anna Turnbull planned the two day course as well as preparing the beautifully mellowed willow, and the perfectly curved ribs. Guidance notes by Anna and Liz were supplied as well as a copy of Liz’s booklet, ‘The Fishing Baskets of Northumbria’. Alan Winlow produced the top wooden frame, or batten, to precise measurements, to which the curved ribs are connected, and supplied extra frames for those who planned to make a second basket.
The course provided a unique opportunity to learn new forms and techniques but also to use familiar associated skills, all requiring great concentration and dedication. The basket is complex and difficult to complete in two days; evening working on both nights was a welcome option. At the same time we ate well and laughed a lot. Highlights included the many cakes consumed throughout the day, and the delicious raspberry gin provided by one participant. Walks around the beautiful island coastline relieved our aching legs and backs. Even in November we ate lunch outside.
On the Sunday morning we welcomed a visitor, one of many interested in our efforts, who sang an old Aberdonian song sung by fish wives’ in her community. No doubt there were many more songs from the fishing communities around the coast that have been lost in time. Unfortunately none of us knew the Cullercoats fish wives’ song of strength and resilience, ‘Through Thick & Thin’, to sing in response. Perhaps next time.
A detailed history of the research and rediscovery of the back creel can be found on the NBA website at http://www.northumbriabasketrygroup.co.uk/history.php and on Liz Balfour’s website at https://www.lizbalfourbasketmaking.com/the-fishing-baskets-of-northumberland.html.
The booklet, ‘The Fishing Baskets of Northumbria’ (2019) by Liz Balfour can be purchased by contacting Alan Winlow who holds the stock of the books for the basketry group. email@example.com
Elaine Blackett-Ord December 2022