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Forgotten Cumbrian craft comes alive at Museum of Lakeland Life

Lorna Singleton, Checking the shape and placement of the spelks ©Thom Atkinson

From her workshop in the shadow of the Cumbrian fells, Lorna Singleton keeps alive an ancient Lake District tradition.

One of the UK’s last remaining ‘swillers’, Singleton uses long-established methods to create beautiful hand-woven baskets for the modern day.

‘Swilling’ was popular in 19th century Cumbria. In this instance it is not a term to do with drinking or pigs, but refers to an ancient craft practised in England – oak basket making.

Lorna is one of only four craftspeople in the entire world maintaining this skill and way of life.

She will now have her beautiful work exhibited in Kendal, Cumbria.

Lorna Singleton: Modern Basketry opens at the Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry on 19 January 2019 and runs until 6 May.

Swilled baskets can be seen in the illustrations of Beatrix Potter and were common until after World War Two, when plastics became popular.

In Singleton’s work, craft and conservation work together. She cuts and prepares the wood by hand, managing and restoring coppice woodland in a responsible and renewable way, seeing the whole process from tree to finished product.

Lorna Singleton: Modern Basketry shines the spotlight on the history of swilling while displaying Singleton’s work as an example of someone keeping this traditional craft alive.

It will bring together some of Lorna’s best pieces along with historic tools and a chance for visitors to try weaving themselves.

The woodlands of South Lakeland were dotted with swill shops in the 19th Century. Swill baskets were used across the UK in factories, mines, farms and homes and the coppicing that the industry relied on created a unique habitat.

Lorna, 35, who has a workshop in Burneside, near Kendal, said: “You can’t create swill baskets with machines. I use simple hand tools and techniques used by generations of swillers before me. The baskets are extremely durable.

“When I’ve made a basket I want people to use it and pass it down to the next generation, as they did in a bygone era.”

A Finalist of the 2016 Cumbria Life Award for Best Maker, Lorna will run basket making workshops at the Museum in spring. Details: https://www.lakelandmuseum.org.uk/basketmakingworkshops

As well as baskets, Singleton designs and makes other contemporary products that show off the unique strength and flexibility of swill. This includes handbags and wall baskets.  A selection of her pieces will be for sale at Lakeland Arts.

She added: “My products are made using oak coppiced locally in South Cumbria, where I grew up. Oak is stronger than many materials. There is only so far that wood can be influenced, so you have to work with the material and it plays a part in deciding what I make.

“When I made my first swill in 2010 I was hooked. Since then I’ve put my heart and soul into making the baskets. It’s almost like my emotions are expressed in the finished product.”

More details about the exhibition: https://www.lakelandmuseum.org.uk/lornasingleton

Lorna’s website: www.lornasingleton.co.uk

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