By Regina Connell.
Yes, there are terms that don’t show up even in Wikipedia or most of the online dictionaries. One of those terms is “swilling”—not as in beer or gin. And it has nothing to do with pigs. What the term refers to is an ancient craft practiced in England, of which there are only four —count ’em: four—serious practitioners left.
That may be about to change, courtesy of the talented designer-maker Seb Cox, one of those four remaining master crafts people, and Lorna Singleton.
By way of background, swilling—oak basket making—is a skill native to the area around Coniston in Cumbria, England. It was used down in coal mines and even for carrying babies. According to the BBC, swilled baskets were common until after WWII, when they were pushed aside by cheaper materials, such as plastic.
Swilling involves tearing thin strips from a trunk of boiled coppiced oak, then weaving them round larger strips, known as “spelks,” which form the ribs of the basket. Coppicing, of which Seb is a big advocate and practitioner himself, is a way of creating an abundant source of timber, while also encouraging forest biodiversity. In coppicing, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. In the next years, new shoots emerge, and, after a number of years the coppiced tree is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again.
In the same way that he popularized the use of coppiced wood with his extraordinary designs, he began to work with Laura Singleton to revive the ancient craft. The result? A collection for The New Craftsmen (see our profile here).
Working in the studio, the duo created a bench, a stool, shelves, and lights for the Swill collection. Lorna weaves oak swill onto and around structural ash frames, handmade by the Sebastian Cox Furniture team. And that’s exactly the look that the process achieves. Each piece is modern and has a design rigor, softened by the texture of the wood. We love the cause, and the effect: absolutely beautiful.