Owen Jones

Oak Swill Basket Maker

E-mail: owen @ oakswills.co.uk;       Tel: 01229 885664

 

What is an Oak Swill?

oak swill 

Oak swill baskets are traditional to the southern Lake District and they have been made in this area for centuries.
Their origins are unclear but it is likely that they evolved as a cottage industry which then expanded post the industrial/ agricultural revolution into a trade in its own right.

Old SwillersSwills were used for coaling steam ships, in mines, mills, ironworks and many other industries. On farms they were used for broadcast sowing, harvesting root crops and for feeding animals. Their domestic uses included , laundry, log, garden and shopping baskets, even cradles. 

The swillmaking industry declined rapidly in the post war years which mirrored the rise in mechanization  and other technologies such as plastics.

Swills were part of a large coppice wood industry  in the predominate oak woods of the Furness fells.  The coppice woodsmen would deliver oak and hazel to the mainly workshop based  swillmakers or ‘Swillers’ (see picture to the right). The rim or ‘bool’ of the basket is a hazel rod which has been steamed for 20 minutes and then bent into the characteristic oval shape.

The butt end of 4” – 6” oak trunks are sawn to various lengths, cleft into lengthwise billets using a froe or ‘lat-axe’  and then boiled  in a large metal trough for several hours. Once softened, the oak billets are taken out one at a time  and riven or torn into thin strips (see picture to the left), the shorter ribs or ‘spelks’ left thicker (1/8”) and the longer weavers or ‘taws’ riven finer (1/16”).  The spelks are dressed (smoothed and shaped)  on a mare with a draw knife and the taws are dressed over the knee using a hand knife.

The swill is then woven, taking about 4/5 hours in total.