While working in Manchester, Lorna Singleton yearned to return home to South Cumbria to do something practical, creative and to spend more time outdoors. WWoof-ing’ confirmed her desire to reconnect with the landscape of her childhood. ‘WWOOF’ stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and while on the farm, Lorna was introduced to greenwood crafts. Today she is one of only a handful of remaining swillers in the country.
Lorna began an apprenticeship with the Bill Hogarth (MBE) Memorial Apprenticeship Trust for three years of intensive tuition in coppicing and greenwood crafts. Bill Hogarth started working with wood in mid-1940s, aged 14, dressing and tying hazel for ships fenders. As traditional markets for coppiced hazel dried up, Hogarth was the last coppice merchant in the Lake District by the 1980s. He dedicated himself to sharing his skills, stories and knowledge of woodland management. In 2000, a trust was set up to continue sharing knowledge of traditional coppice woodland management.
Coppicing, a traditional form of woodland management, is the practice of cutting young tree stems close to ground level. New shoots emerge, and, after a few years the coppiced tree, or stool, is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again. Opening the canopy and increasing light to the woodland floor allows plants to thrive, and as sections of woodland, or coups, are coppiced in rotation the practice creates a variety of habitats.
Lorna’s passion for weaving oak swills, traditional baskets unique to the Lakeland grew. Willow, a more familiar basket material does not thrive in the bracing climate and rugged terrain of Cumbria, so the population had to work with the materials they had to hand, oak. The oak is hand-coppiced when it is about twenty-five years, much later than other woods are coppiced, but early in the life of oak.
Lorna cleaves, or splits, the green wood, along its grain into strips. The strips, or spells, are boiled overnight and soaked in water until they becomes supple (see right). Splitting the wood along its grain, keep
s the fibres together retaining the strength of the tree. Pieces of hazel are steamed over the boiling oak, and bent into the frame of the basket. Once softened, the cleft wood is riven into even thinner strips, around 2-3mm, before it is hand-woven into baskets. A single swill basket takes about a day to weave. The strong, hard-wearing swill baskets were often used to collect potatoes and other crops, but their uses are not limited to the garden, making fine washing baskets, storage for root vegetables and carrots in a larder, logs, newspapers, or toys.
Through working with the coppiced wood, Lorna has become intimately familiar the material’s properties and limitations. She describes how, in time, the craft becomes a familiar, almost meditative, ritual, with the tools feeling an extension of the hand, and the craftsman’s body moving unconsciously to make and mold the material.
I caught up with Lorna during the London Design Festival
where she was maker-in-residence at the New Craftsmen
gallery, surrounded by new pieces from a collaboration with Sebastian Cox
. The two met at a National Coppicing Federation
workshop. Sebastian’s experience of re-interpreting traditional crafts and products, and with a contemporary twist provided invaluable insights for Lorna as she grows her retail offering. In turn, Lorna introduced Sebastian to the practice of swilling, and a collaboration was born.
The resulting ‘Swill’ ceiling lights, made of oak swill skilfully woven into cylinders cast a cross-hatch light when illuminated. The lights can be clustered into groups of three, five or seven, priced from £195 for the trio (9cm
x 9cm (d) x 12cm (h)).
The ‘Swill’ bench and stools pair silver grey swilled oak spells with a glue-less ash frame on fine, tapered legs for an elegant, strong seat. The bench, £595, and the stool, £355 are both available from the New Craftsmen (pictured above in situ). The seat of each bench or stool has a unique pattern reflecting the texture, colour and width of the individual spells.
The ‘Swill Hanging Shelves’ also combine ash and oak swill in a harmonious pair (priced from £75 for a small shelf, 10cm
x 30cm (d) x 2cm (h)). Lengths of swill are spilt, wrapped through an ash shelf and pinned with copper rivets. The shelves are exceptionally lightweight and strong and can be hung in tessellation or alone. The shelves do equire a slight DIY intervention, as you have to soak the swill coil in water for 15 minutes, then hang the shelf on the rail with some books to weigh it down, to ensure the swill dries straight. What better introduction to this timeless craft.
Image credits: New Craftsmen Gallery where not my own.