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In Praise of Baskets

Sophia is a new Lewesian; in her regular column she muses on life and style in this idiosyncratic little town of ours. Read more about Sophia here.

Baskets. Very few items so perfectly sum up the bustling streets of the English market towns of yesteryears. It is difficult to picture a street scene from the likes of Pride and Prejudice to the recent Oxford based production of Endeavour without them appearing somewhere – from the arms of gossiping women to the fronts of butchers’ boys’ bicycles. 

Lewes, to my delight, seems not to have lost its love affair with woven-wicker. I’m new in town, and have the advantage of a window looking down towards Cliffe High St. This has proved brilliant, if at times distracting, as the parade of humanity going past is so joyously fascinating. I often find myself making notes on what people are wearing. ‘Pith helmet, pinstripe suit plus pipe, cape with an England flag, immaculate 1940’s get up and baskets. Lots of baskets.’ Maybe it has something to do with the recent ban on plastic bags that has brought these beautiful items back into vogue here, for they’re not just on the arms of my slightly older neighbours, but every age, and of every design. 

Baskets have been on the scene a long while. Woven versions are thought to have come into common use around 3000 BCE and since then have been made from everything from roots to raffia, nylon to newsprint and most commonly, willow wicker. Despite some innovations in machine production, baskets are still generally handmade, and the skill is fast becoming a popular hobby with kits and courses on offer all over the place from festivals to farm shops.

My love of wicker ranges beyond baskets. Favourite items include multiple picnic hampers (brilliant for storage), a stunning sea-green Lloyd Loom laundry basket from the Lewes Antique Centre and a knackered but lovely Lloyd Loom chair. Of my two shopping baskets, one was a gift from my Mum from a Fair Trade store, it’s from Ghana – sturdy enough for a picnic or weekly shop with strong leather covered handles.  When not holding groceries it becomes a pretty receptacle for a growing pile of clothes needing mending. The other is a proper vintage number. Homely and compact with a high-hooped handle that begs to be tucked into the crook of your arm as you inspect local cheese at the farmers market. It actually rarely makes such idyllic outings and has found its home as a spot for magazines and my fledgling collection of Viva Lewes. I saw it nestled upstairs in the Flea Market and snapped it up with the beautiful (if slightly threadbare) mohair blanket it contained.

I am lusting after the leather-strapped French style shopping baskets cascading outside the green doors of Closet and Botts, just the thing to be filled with fresh bread and provisions and taken off for a picnic on the Downs… (Yes, I am eternally optimistic about the weather….) But the next addition to the family has to be one of Emily’s beautiful Moroccan baskets that have got me dreaming of linen dresses, oversized sunglasses, espadrilles and lazy afternoons on the beach (I did mention about being an optimist?).

So my basket crush is not going anywhere fast. Maybe it is the tactile handmade nature of each one that makes them so enticing, their uniqueness, their everyday beauty.  They represent Halcyon days when things were slower, simpler. Their comfortable curves quietly stand at odds to an era of where everything is disposable. And, as the tragic effect of 40-years of plastic bags continues to unfold, they remain beautifully biodegradable.

So as I pack up my laptop, notebook, and consult my shopping list before heading to today’s market, I salute this trusty piece of kit that has been serving our needs for the last 5000 odd years. I’m pretty sure it’ll be around to stay for quite a few more.


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