Walking through a quiet, suburban housing estate near the Wyre Forest in Worcester, you’d not know that an ancient craft was being upheld in Sarah Loughlin and Marcus Wootton’s back garden. Perhaps you’d hear the tapping of steel against woven wood, as yearling willow stems are pressed into shape with a blunt, gleaming tool. Maybe you’d see them taken in by the bundle or, weeks later, brought out again: this time, as baskets.
“I think people have a sort of perception of basketry that is very traditional, quite dusty and stuffy,” Marcus explains, as we stand in the studio at the bottom of the couple’s garden, sheltering from late summer showers. “We were trying to do something a bit different.” Light breaks through the skylight, falling on shelves neatly stacked with tools and delicate coils of stripped bark held together with string. Useful things lie in small baskets – Sarah’s earlier projects, the ones she first made – and buttery curls of wood shavings cover the floor. This is an industrious space that smells warm, like sap.
Hopewood Baskets is a team effort. Marcus and Sarah both source the rods, or withies – the whippy willow sticks that make a basket – from their local organic grower; they both grade and sort each rod, assessing it for thickness, colour and pliability; they both soak and wrap and prepare the rods for weaving.
Marcus, a photographer with a background in the antiques trade, documents with clean precision the baskets Sarah makes. It was Sarah’s thing in the beginning, he explains, but “her enthusiasm rubbed off on me.” He’s always restored and repaired and made. Now, he creates handles and bases, and increasingly weaves. Marcus compares it to his boyhood fascination with green woodwork – “looking for that Y-shaped stick to make a catapult. I’ve been bitten by that bug.”
Sarah, who is 36 and has nurtured ambitions of being an artist for the past three decades, was training as a Steiner school teacher when she wove her first basket. Over the past six years, she juggled the demands of storing and preparing willow with those of a job in education. “I was only able to make in the school holidays,” she says. “I loved it, but it was a really steep learning curve.”
The pandemic offered time to focus on what was swiftly becoming an obsession. “We went on loads of walks, and we made loads of baskets,” Sarah says. Marcus’s photography appeared online, and Hopewood Baskets was woven into existence. The next winter, Sarah handed in her resignation to focus on the company full-time.
Making baskets is a slow, year-round process. Autumn is a time of gathering the last of the stock, sorting rods and making handles with fresh wood. Winter is when the willow is cut and is left to dry for six months. Summer is a season of soaking, when the pair lie the rods in agricultural troughs filled with water, carefully keeping an eye on the weather as conditions can affect mellowing. Sarah says she likes it: “when it’s the right time, you’re outside and doing things. In the winter, it’s the time to rest.”
The whole process has been one of intuition. Sarah explains that basket-weaving is so ancient its traditions defy historical record. “It’s very simple, and it’s never changed,” says Marcus. “In theory,” Sarah adds, “you could get away with just a knife. That’s what would have been used.”
But that would underestimate the knowledge in Hopewood’s hands: every step of the process is based on touch and gut. “So much of it is about the feel. There isn’t a template, you just pick up a stick and feel whether it’s too thick, too thin, just right. It’s the same with the weaving: how much you’re pushing the uprights in to create the shape, or bellying them out,” Marcus explains.
“Your hands have a knowledge that you have to build through time,” says Sarah, a half-woven basket between her knees, a large stone holding down the base. “It’s just repetition and practice, there’s no quick way around it. You just have to put in the hours and hold them, and then your hands have this knowledge that you didn’t even have to think about.”
Interview by Alice Vincent.
Photographs by India Hobson.