Kathryn Bradley-Hole meets Owen Jones, the only full-time oak swill basket maker in Britain. Photograph by Richard Cannon.
You could travel many miles to find someone who relishes his working day as much as Owen Jones enjoys creating oak swill baskets. Their ancient design combines down-to-earth practicality with elegant form.
For centuries, they’ve been a speciality of the southern Lake District and it’s in the region’s coppiced broadleaf woodlands that Mr Jones continues a tradition he learnt as a young man in his twenties. Today, he is the only full-time practitioner of the craft in Britain.
Nobody knows the baskets’ precise origins, but it’s believed they started as a cottage craft that expanded in usefulness to carry coal in steam ships, mines, mills, ironworks and many other industries. Farmers also made use of the design for broadcast sowing, harvesting root crops and carrying animal feed.
These days, the oak swill basket has adapted once more to serve a stylish domestic market, used in the home for everything from laundry to logs and large versions are sometimes used as Moses baskets. ‘With a sheepskin rug in the bottom, it’s a perfect little nest for a newborn baby,’ advises Mr Jones. ‘For people with the confidence to use it that way, it gets passed around the family and becomes a bit of an heirloom.’
Centuries-old coppiced trees in the forest provide the wood; slender oak trunks are cut, boiled, torn into thin strips and woven round a hazel rim.
‘The days spent in the wood are just lovely,’ says Mr Jones. ‘Time seems to have a different dimension there and it’s always an uplifting experience. I enjoy the whole process and, even after 30 years, it’s still a challenge; every tree is different and each batch of baskets has its own journey.’
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