I have long been a basket case and wherever I find them I hone in like a fine tuned radar.
What is it that attracts me? For one thing the variety of shapes, sizes and colours that can be achieved with a few rushes , grasses or canes. In fact any pliable cane or twig can be fashioned into a basket. Evidence of hard caned baskets have been found on Cyprus dating as far back as Neolithic times which I find mind-blowing. Who first thought of weaving strands of plant material to make a container and what a clever chap or chapess they were?
This craft exists all over the world, I love the colourful baskets of Africa and France particularly and recently bought a beautiful and very colourful basket from a stall at a local garden fair in the centre of Chichester. Butternut baskets imports them from Northern Ghana Africa and what a time I had choosing! I eventually plumped for a crimson and green pattern and now use it to store bread, perfect as it allows air to circulate. This weave is very tight and the grasses used are fine similar to the talaria baskets used to make cheese in Cyprus. In Cyprus traditionally they used a very open weave string like tray which would hang from the beam to store their bread these are called tapatzia .
In Cyprus baskets were made for many purposes and there were even baskets made with openings in the top to allow transportation of fowls to market. On my recent trip I went in search of a tsestos which are particularly made in the Paphos region using straw bound into a rope like strand and wound round, decorated with colours and patterns. I found a very attractive small one for sale in a shop in Platres along with a small, shallow hard caned basket with handles as well as a nicely round shaped talari.
I also wanted to venture to Akrotiri where I knew there were basket makers still working. It was a hot day when I made the journey and it was a longer journey than it seemed on the map. I didn’t find the woman who made the baskets but I discovered the delightful baskets that she had made in a garage next to her house. There were some dinky little talaria and other colourful small baskets made with the same material but in a different shape to what I had seen before. These baskets were half the price to the ones I had bought in a shop in Platres but then it had taken me an hour to get there and the cost of the petrol so I consider them both a fair price.
Here is a fabulous short l film on basket making in Cyprus :- http://www.cyprusonfilm.
Find out much more about basket making in Cyprus in my book ” Androula’s Kitchen-Cyprus on a Plate”
I am back in the UK now after my busy and varied trip to Cyprus promoting ‘Androula’s Kitchen’ culminating in my talk at the Cornaro Institute. It’s been quite a hectic trip one way or the other or so it felt like. I have met a good many people I would not have come across otherwise if I had not been promoting the book.
My last day was spent travelling across almost the whole length of the island from Polis to Larnaka for my final appointment at The Cornaro Institute before flying home. It had turned out to be a bit of a scorcher as the temperature rose from what had been a very pleasant 24 degrees to nearer 30. Luckily it was nice and cool inside the old town house which now serves as the College. After the initial disappointment of not being able to connect my slide show to the projector as it was only geared up for PCs and not my trusty Mac, I relaxed as the audience started to arrive. It was quite a nice turn out of about 20 or so people and more chairs had to be found as a few late-comers arrived. There were a couple of people I knew in the audience so that was reassuring. I told the story of how the book came into being and illustrated with my slides showing just on my small screen.
We ended up with quite a lively debate at the end of the talk as We discussed the crafts and how the craft of basket making was gradually dying out. An attendee stated that he thought it was unnecessary to preserve all the old things as we have no use for them now with many modern facilities and products making the traditional redundant. My book may be about all the old ways of doing things and traditional crafts however I agree that we don’t want to go back to how things were always done but also we don’t want to lose valuable skills and knowledge. Once gone it is gone.
Pottery has evolved and Cyprus has many talented contemporary ceramicists and potters. Cyprus also some young weavers that are using traditional techniques and patterns to produce exciting new textiles as well as a small movement afoot to get Fythkiotika more widely practised and taught in colleges. What is not being taught and is gradually getting harder to find is basket making. There may not be the need for many of the types of baskets that were once common place, like the basket used for transporting chickens to market but those skills could be used to produce different baskets for a modern market. In the UK we love baskets and they have come back in fashion particularly after a movement to reduce the use of plastic bags in supermarkets. In France and Africa there is a strong basket producing tradition with beautifully coloured and patterned shopping baskets This is a movement that would be a good idea to introduce to Cyprus, as plastic bags are ubiquitous. Why not make a super shopping basket for repeated use, something attractive and practical or promote the use of the basket that once was used to transport potatoes as a log basket?
The baskets I bought this trip
Tsestos displayed in The Nest artisan bakery in Larnaka
Tsestos displayed in The Nest artisan bakery in Larnaka
The tsestos traditionally was the basket wear that was decorated with a wide variety of colourful patterns, today the choice of pattern is more limited than it used to be, these are made with straw or raffia. It would be a real joy to have the more elaborate patterns reintroduced as the smaller, deeper tsestos are extremely useful and attractive and make very good storage baskets for, not just food, which is their traditional use but many household items. Tradition is dead long live tradition!!!
Three types of basket weaving found in Cyprus.
I’ve always loved baskets. The tactile quality together with the sweet,earthy smell of the natural material whether it be cane or rush or twig or palm leaves and the intricate maze of the weaving together of these materials, I find very seductive. Such a wide variety of containers are made, baskets for every conceivable everyday use, and they can be found around the world in all their varying forms. It is a craft that has existed since Neolithic times and the techniques used today are the same as they were then..isn’t that amazing when you think about it? The ingenuity of man to turn a stalk or twig into a useful container who would know that was possible? The glee of the person who did this, at the sight of their first creation must have been a sight to behold.
When plastics came along the manufacturing of these everyday items was taken over and mass produced but the skill still remains in pockets around the globe. I have bought basketwork from Africa, France, Spain and Cyprus and the U.K. all different styles and materials but using those same skills used at the beginning.
When I was on the trail to learn about the traditional crafts of Cyprus,researching for my book Androula’s Kitchen, I was disappointed to find that this skill, that was once practised by every man woman and child in my dad’s youth, is now hard to find and will be even harder in ten years time. Sadly this is the same story in all fast developing communities, what young person wants to sit all day weaving twigs when they could be working as a car mechanic say or in IT? I did find a few exponents of this craft however and bought a few more basketry bits to add to my collection.
There will always be people like me who appreciate the rustic beauty of a basket and prefer the feel and squeak of twig against twig rather than the sterile bland, feel of plastic or metal. The materials are readily available and need no processing, so hopefully, as long as there is a market for them, someone will be willing to meet the demand.