Woven Communities: interweaving basketry, memory, and mind

Laura Bates
Monday 14 June 2021
Small puffin snare

The project Woven Communities, led by Dr Stephanie Bunn of the Department of Social Anthropology,  has expanded awareness of Scottish social history and heritage through a focus on its basket-weaving, while showing how practical craft- and hand-skills, such as basket-making, provide important inputs to cognitive development.

From 2010, Woven Communities has worked with the Scottish Basket-makers Circle, using practical basket-work to enhance understanding about Scottish cultural heritage through the lens of basketry, a key fabric of society in crofting, farming, fishing, transport and industry until the 1960s. Through practical events, the researchers elicited new knowledge about Scottish social history; improved the understanding of museum basketry collections; explored the intangible cultural heritage in these collections and communicated our research to the public. By taking the basket, as essential, everyday artefact, as their central research focus, and using its associated hand skills to elicit what these tell us both about human history, sociality and cognition, they developed new research pathways into the links between basketry hand-skills and cognition, including ‘hand-memory’ work for elders living with Dementia; enhancing recovery from brain injury or stroke; and exploring spatial and geometrical learning in mathematical education. both new research data and citizen engagement activities.


Corners basket works Johnston coll

A century ago, there were several thousand traditional Scottish crofters and workshop basket-makers. Today, there are very few. Researchers and the Scottish Basket-makers Circle worked with these remaining traditional Scottish crofters and workshop basket-makers alongside contemporary basket-makers to reveal connections between collections, including named makers, workshop locations, materials and regional forms. Working with contemporary experts, they renewed intangible cultural knowledge in historical and no-longer-made baskets and uncovered the integral role of basketry in Scotland’s deep history. They revealed unusual, non-standard basketry materials linked to past cultural influences and regional ecology, including a ‘hair-moss’ basket from Roman occupation at Hadrian’s Wall, Celtic willow coffins from Iona, Uist murran (marram) ciosans (meal measures), and Scandinavian docken and gloy (black oat straw) kishies, caissies and budies from Shetland and Orkney, as well as how the materials for these baskets were gathered and processed. It was found that each basket-form and local name evidenced regionally specific ways-of-life and language: from crofting back-creels to fishermen’s quarter-cran herring measures and Lowland tattie sculls. Highlights included Western Isles murran horse collars, a WW1 basketry shell-casing transformed into a fish-trap, and a unique St Kilda puffin snare. The group’s work has informed at least 10 Scottish museum collections, revealing connections between collections and enhancing understanding of basketry-linked social history across Scotland by providing context of Scottish social history for their collections.

Stroke recovery

Horse collar Uist

Earlier work with University of Hertfordshire’s Everyday Lives in War project led to research into how basketry can help with stroke recovery. The Woven Communities research showed that the bi-manual activity of basket-weaving promotes hand-to-eye coordination and attention development, encouraging the development of neuro-plasticity which can assist recovery in brain-injured patients, particularly stroke sufferers, where damage to one side of the brain affects the other side of the body. It also assists in mobility, sense of self, and wellbeing. Working with hospital consultants at Raigmore Hospital Stroke Recovery Unit, in Inverness, Scotland, researchers developed structured sessions for patients with different capacities. Staff reported improved patient concentration, insight, patience and problem-solving. Three patients who were not anticipated to be able to live unassisted, recovered sufficiently after our work to return home. The group has since published an online “Handbook for Headway” volunteers for future work with stroke patients. Their film “Basketry and Therapy” is available through the University of Hertfordshire’s Everyday Lives at War: Basketry Then and Now.

Dementia and memory

Collaborating with An Lanntair, Lewis Arts Centre, our ‘hand-memory’ work with elders with dementia showed how hand-skills, such as twining straw and net-mending, learned in youth, could be remembered, reapplied, and simultaneously evoke personal and heritage memories, by enabling elders to practise those same skills again. The intergenerational work between schools, care homes, and history societies enabled people with memory loss to share their knowledge, providing invaluable information about the past to their local communities.

One dementia participant, who had not spoken for months, at one session said “The nets always break, you can’t help it. It’s a net mending needle….Hold it further back, no, not like that, like this, see? Watch me. Aye, that’s it…. Yes, I did this. Every day….We were the best. We were good, we had to be. No room for mistakes…. A hard life. All weathers. Everyday. No choice.  But the seals would follow my boat, most days, and the birds. I liked that.”

Basketry hand-skills and mathematical learning

Concerned with how developments in digitization and streamlining education parallel a perspective that many craft-skills are no longer relevant, our Forces in Translation research is exploring how basketry hand-skills can enhance comprehension of, and provide a rich social context for, mathematical understanding, problem solving and constructive, creative thinking. Through early maths and basketry research-engagement events, such as Tinkering with Curves (2018), with mathematical educationalist Professor R. Nemirovsky, we demonstrated how basketry moves can develop spatial and geometric understanding through the angles, curves, tension and friction produced through gestural acts of weaving. Our research has attracted interdisciplinary funding through a Royal Society/Apex award for the Forces in Translation research project. Working with Professor Nemirovsky from Manchester Metropolitan University and Professor Hasse from the Department of Future learning at Aarhus University in Denmark, and three basketmakers, we have been exploring  how hand-skills are an essential complement to other forms of learning, of value for design, engineering and maths work. This differs from the kind of responsiveness we find in machines, where reactions may not involve memory, ideas, rhythm, constructive hand-work, or links between the material and the conceptual. Early trials have shown how using basketry-skills to explore mathematical problems, such as skewing, surfaces, curvature, or linearity, can provide additional insights to classical mathematical studies. We conduct both in-person and online research, with a network from Peru and Jamaica to Germany and Canada. Our project is about to start working with Kew Gardens on the material and mathematical aspects of their economic Botany collections, and will be profiled later this year at Ruthin Crafts Centre in Wales.

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