We had a fun guest workshop today, with local basket maker Mary Butcher, who is also an expert on British baskets and has visited basket makers all over the world.

Mary gave us a tour of the quintessential British baskets, including government-approved, accurate measures for herring, and 5 bushel baskets for Kentish hops that were so valuable they were often mended. There were various baskets for collecting shellfish that had strong handles so that you could lean on them as you bent down, and baskets for tree fruit with sturdy rims that could be stacked for transport. And lots of lots of fish traps, including a bank of 350 baskets used as funnels to catch salmon swimming upstream in the Severn.

The second part of the workshop involved Mary teaching us to make rope from Schoenoplectus lacustris (Common Club Rush), which is an aquatic plant, cut low down on the stems whilst they are underwater.

Once you have selected two stems of roughly the same thickness, the first step is to tie the thick ends to a support so you can pull them taut. Luckily the ethnobotany lab has plenty of drawer handles:


The knots are not important. I used a reef knot on the handle and a simple loop to hold the stems.


Holding the two stems at an angle, you twist the one on the right hand side (if you are right handed) and then pass it over the other stem so that the two stems swap sides. Then you just keep repeating that until you run out of stem. The angle is important – shallow angles give you a tighter weave, but make it much harder work.

Joining ends

If you want to join in extra stems (to make your rope longer or stop it getting too thin), you do so one at a time. You pass the new stem through your triangle and under the left hand stem, leaving a decent end poking out that you will cut down later. Then you twist the new stem in with your right-hand stem, right up where the join is, and carry on from there. Once you’ve made a few more turns you can add in the second new stem in the same way.

This gives you a two-ply rope:


To make a three-ply rope, you make a two-ply rope of the right length, and then at the bottom you create a loop:


and start to work back up the rope with one stem, twisting it as you go and feeding it round inbetween the two-ply strands:


A twisted stem is stronger than a straight stem, a two-ply rope is stronger still, and a three-ply rope is much stronger. You can keep going and build up very big ropes, which is how those people in mountainous regions make rope bridges to stretch across gorges. You wouldn’t start with Common Club Rush, though, because it starts to go brittle as it dries out.

And just to show you how much fun rope-making can be, this is my classmate Jennie having a whale of a time 🙂