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Article: Hanna Van Aelst

heritage craft

Hanna Van Aelst

What do you make?

I am an artist and basket maker. I make baskets, lamps and lampshades and sculptures from willow I grow and harvest from our land in the hills in Tipperary.

Could you tell us a little bit about your studio? Favourite thing about the space and how do you get into the mindset of making?

Could you believe I do not have a studio yet? I still use the house, the kitchen table, when the kids are in school. I just push furniture to the side and take up the whole space. My family is quite used to it and has learned to carefully step around me when I am making. In summertime (and school holidays) I tend to move into the polytunnel where I do have a workbench. I love sitting in there between all the plants and food. The light in there is great! It does get a bit cold though in winter, that’s when I move back inside.

I am quite lucky that I don’t need much for making my work. Just a bench, my hand tools, and a chair. I am quite portable!Working from the kitchen table was ideal when the kids were small. They have grown a bit now though so we are making the plans for the studio. We would like to build it ourselves from wattle and daub (willow and mud) and it will have plenty of windows for natural light and lots of space to make and display my work. It is not hard to get into the mindset of making. I am surrounded by a beautiful landscape and lush vegetation. When I am creating I feel I somehow tap into that and let the willow express itself. This is especially true for the sculptures.

What is your favourite tool and why?

I love my small bodkin. A bodkin is a tool only used for making baskets. I love it because is seems to fit my hand very well, it is small and very useful. A bodkin is used at the start of the basket to split the base sticks and also to finish off the border at the end as shown in the picture attached.

Can you describe the making process and inspiration behind your skibs? 

Joe Hogan, basket maker in Galway, introduced me to the skib in his book ‘basket making in Ireland’. Joe did a lot of research about the history of Irish baskets. The skib has such a long story behind it. It would have had slight variations in design from county to county and has only been found to be made in Ireland.

The skib, or potato basket was used for straining the potatoes once cooked. It was then placed on the cooking pot (or sometimes on the floor) and the family would sit around it to eat. Most families had no furniture. This basket served as a table. After use it would have been rinsed and hung on the outside wall to dry. Baskets would have had different dimensions according to the family size.

I love using strong and contrasting colours in the skib. All the colours are natural, they are just different varieties of willow, grown for their bark colour.

The entire process would start in winter when the willow is harvested. We grow about ¾ acre of willow of about 20 different varieties. After harvesting willow is graded by size and left to dry out completely for a few months. I would start my skib by selecting my willow bundles. I would select for size and colour. The willow is then soaked in water for a few days to make it soft and workable. Once I am happy with it I can start weaving.

What led you to choosing this craft as a profession? What do you love most about it? 

For a long time basket making was just a hobby. I got fascinated by it from watching Patsy Cahill, basket maker in Mullinahone, Tipperary. I loved watching him, the rhythm of weaving, the pattern and I loved that he grew his own willow. Even though I did not know this would become my profession, I still felt I wanted to try out a lot of different possibilities for using willow. I love the material. Love how I can grow it, harvest and use it and be fully immersed in it. Another thing I love about it is that it is very sustainable.

For a long time it was just perseverance that kept me going. The itch to learn more and to get better. I don’t think there is another craft that takes such a long time to learn properly. For the first 5 years my baskets would always turn out different than what I would envisage at the start. I would give them away. Once I got better I could sell some. And it pretty much grew from there….!

We have a selection of Hanna's work available through our online shop, and larger pieces available from our Drury Street shop. 



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