Employment is given by the London Association for the Welfare of the Blind to a number of partially or wholly blind workpeople, who are engaged in the making of some of the coarser kinds of baskets; but the work, which bears obvious traces of its origin, is not commercially remunerative, and the association depends for partial support on the contributions of the charitable, and on supplementary sales of fine or fancy work produced under ordinary conditions and largely imported. Similar associations exist in some English provincial towns, in Edinburgh, in Dublin and Belfast, and in certain European cities.
The materials which are actually employed in the construction of basket-work are numerous and varied, but it is from certain species of willow that the largest supply of basket-making materials is produced. Willows for basket-work are extensively grown on the continent of Europe, whence large quantities are exported to Great Britain and the United States; but no rods surpass those of English growth for their tough and leathery texture, and the finest of basket-making willows are now cultivated in England - in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and the valleys of the Thames and the Trent. In the early part of the 19th century, considerable attention was given in Britain to the cultivation of willows suitable for basket-making, and the industry was first stimulated by premiums offered by the Society of Arts. Mr William Scaling of Basford, Notts, was a most successful grower and published some admirable pamphlets on the cultivation of willows. The most extensive English willow plantation or salicetum (Lat. salix, willow) of the present day is that planted by Mr W. P. Ellmore at Thurmaston near Leicester, and consists of about 100 acres of the finest qualities.
Mr Ellmore, a practical basket-maker, successfully introduced some valuable continental varieties (see Osier).
Willows are roughly classed by the basket-maker into "osier" and "fine." The former consists of varieties of the true osier, Salix viminalis; the latter of varieties of Salix triandra, S. purpurea and some other species and hybrids of tougher texture. For the coarsest work, dried unpeeled osiers, known as "brown stuff," are used; for finer work, "white (peeled) stuff" and "buff" (willows stained a tawny hue by boiling them previous to peeling). Brown stuff is sorted, before it reaches the workman, into lengths varying from 3&FRAC12; ft. to 8 or 10 ft., the smallest being known in London and the home counties as "luke," the largest as "great," and the intermediate sizes as "long small," "threepenny" and "middleboro." White and buff rods are more carefully sorted, the smallest, about 2 ft. or less, being known as "small tack," and rising sizes as "tack," "short small," "small," "long small," "threepenny," "middleboro" and "great." Rods of two to three years' growth, known as "sticks," are used to form the rigid framework of the bottoms and lids of square work. In every case, except the last, the stuff is soaked in tanks to render it pliable before use - brown from three to seven days, white and buff from half-an-hour to half a day.
The rods are used whole for ordinary work, but for baskets of slight and finer texture each is divided into "skains" of different degrees of size. "Skains" are osiers cleft into three or four parts, by means of an implement called a "cleaver," which is a wedge-shaped tool of boxwood inserted at the point or top end of the rod and run down through its entire length. They are next drawn through an implement resembling the common spokeshave, keeping the grain of the split next the iron or stock of the shave, while the pith is presented to the steel edge of the instrument, and in order to bring the split into a shape still more regular, it is passed through another implement called an upright, consisting of a flat piece of steel, each end of which is fashioned into a cutting edge, like that of an ordinary chisel and adjusted to the required width by means of a thumb-screw.
The tools required by a basket-maker are few and simple. They consist, besides the foregoing, of a shop-knife for cutting out material; a picking knife for cutting off the protruding butts and tops of the rods after the work is completed; two or three bodkins of varying sizes; a flat piece of iron somewhat narrowly triangular in shape for driving the work closely together; a stout pair of shears and a "dog" or "commander" for straightening sticks. The employer supplies a screw block or vice for gripping the bottom and cover sticks of square work, and a lapboard on which the workman fixes the upsetted bottom while siding up the basket. This is the full kit. A common round or oval basket may, however, be made with no other tools than a shop-knife and a bodkin. On the continent of Europe shapes or blocks are in use on which the fabric is in some cases woven.
The technicalities of basket-making may be easily followed by a glance at the illustration here reproduced by the courtesy of the Society of Arts. It will be seen that the "bye-stakes" are merely inserted in the "upsett," whereas the stakes are driven in at each side of the "bottom-sticks" and pricked up to form the rigid framework of the side. When the "bottom-stick" and "stake" are formed of one and the same continuous rod, it is termed a "league." If the bottom is made on a hoop the butts of the stakes are "sliped," i.e. cut away with a long cut of the shop-knife, and turned tightly round the hoop; they are then said to be "scallomed" on. The chief strokes used in constructing an ordinary basket are: - the "slew" - two or more rods woven together; the "rand," rods woven in singly; the "fitch," two rods tightly worked alternately one under the other, employed for skeleton work such as cages and waste-paper baskets; the "pair," two rods worked alternately one over the other, used for filling up bottoms and covers of round and oval baskets; and the "wale," three or more rods worked alternately, forming a string or binding course.