The Craftsmanship Behind our Willow Coffins

Oct 21 2021
A craftsman weaving a willow coffin by hand

Becoming a skilled basket maker requires dedication to the craft. It takes several years of training with experienced basket makers to hone the skills required. Many never stop learning, even after 40 years of experience, with new techniques, different weave patterns, or styles of basket not yet accomplished. Progressing into a master craftsman takes a combination of hard work, passion, and patience. Care and dedication are woven into every basket they craft.

Each one of our highly skilled willow craftsman undergoes a minimum of five years training to ensure the quality in every item is first class. When an apprentice first starts, they begin on the foundations of basket making, working closely with a highly experienced training manager. Once they have gotten to grips with their tools, the principles of weaving and can produce simple willow panels, they move on to weaving baskets. The more they progress, the more complex the basket designs become. Every skill they learn has been passed down through four generations of basket makers and is vital that these precious skills are passed onto new apprentices to keep the art of basket making alive.

Willow craftsman weaving the side of a willow coffin
Burgundy willow handle
Willow coffin plait

Weaving a Somerset Willow coffin requires many different techniques from a basket maker’s toolkit. Firstly, ‘staking up’ is required, a fundamental skill in basket making. This is where wands of willow are wrapped around the edges of a cremation-friendly wood base, and arranged pointing upwards to form the unique shape of the coffin. Any type of willow basket you see will have started with a base and uprights just as this. The stakes are then filled up with willow which is woven between the uprights. In our case, two types of weave patterns are used, the ‘rand’ and the ‘wale’, both serving different purposes. The wale secures the stakes in place, whilst the rand fills up the sides of the coffin, all the while adding beautiful textures and patterns. Not forgetting the hand-dyed coloured bands added near the bottom and top of the sides when required for a personal touch.

When willow handles are to be woven onto the coffin, a different technique is used. The handles are intricately formed by gently twisting wands of willow until they become rope-like, before wrapping them around and around until they are perfectly intertwined with another rod, thus creating a charming handle. This technique creates great strength for the handles and was also used on root crop baskets in the past.

The final piece of weaving required is the coffin lid. This is expertly crafted by weaving long thick lengths of willow, called ‘sticks’, and completed with interlacing wands of willow to create a beautiful plait along the edge. This is one of the most complex aspects of weaving a coffin, yet vital in adding elegance to the finished look.

The detail on each Somerset Willow coffin is meticulously designed and beautifully handcrafted by talented basket makers. Every coffin is unique, each one an individual work of art.