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THE LOVINGLY CRAFTED HOME WITH ANNEMARIE O'SULLIVAN

For celebrated basket maker Annemarie O’Sullivan, the home is simultaneously sanctuary and studio, a place to retreat and a space for creation. It’s certainly an ideal William Morris knew well.

Together with partner and collaborator, Tom McWalter, they live and work from their rural home in East Sussex, nestled peacefully within a graceful arc of lush green hills. Alongside the weaving of exquisite baskets, impressive yields of diverse vegetables are grown throughout the year from a delightful allotment-garden, tucked quietly away to the rear.

In conversation with Morris & Co., Annemarie talks us through growing, making and living in her East Sussex workshop and home.

“As a young person, I was a swimmer, and the very first time I made a basket I recalled that feeling of swimming. The slow, methodical movements of both actions are like drawing a line over and over again. And that’s exactly what I do today with my baskets, moving a willow rod from one space to the next, always flowing, working as elegantly and lightly as I can. Basket making, for me, melds together that physicality and meditative line-building. It is deeply satisfying.”

For Tom, basket weaving’s physicality connects him to the historic craft tradition. “I spend a lot of my working day on the shave horse, and I really enjoy the fact that this engages the whole body. I’m using my feet to clamp the work to hold it still, whilst I’m pulling the draw knife. It feels like an elemental human thing, using my whole body with this pre-industrial tool as others have done for centuries.”

It’s a pertinent observation, and almost a mirror image of William Morris’s own work. Consciously reaching back to pre-industrial and medieval craft techniques, Morris confronted what he saw as the destruction of craft by industrialised mass production. As contemporary exponents of an ancient artform, Annemarie and Tom take great pride in being at the head of such a lengthy tradition.

Annemarie, deftly building a basket using the historic French Rand technique as she speaks, says “As basket weavers, we are standing in a very long line. For me, it is a huge privilege to be part of a stream of basket makers who have been making baskets for as long as humans have been around. When I first started making, it wasn’t so much learning how to make as remembering, in a way, how to be human. It feels very natural and inherently human to bind sticks together and gather materials. It gives me a strong sense of belonging.”

A huge part of nurturing any ancient craft tradition rests upon ensuring a constant, sustainable supply of high-quality natural materials. Annemarie and Tom grow much of their own willow, harvesting and preparing their resources by hand. In a delightful expression of community, the willow harvest, which takes place in January and February, sees Annemarie enlist the support of neighbours and friends in gathering the willow from a nearby strip of community land. Next, it is dried undercover for up to a year, before being soaked again to make for supple weaving.  

“We grow the willow from cuttings, in the same way that willow has been grown for hundreds of years. Cuttings have been passed from one maker to the next. Right now, I am using this beautiful willow which is called Dicky Meadows in a basket of my own design.”

Those materials which they cannot source themselves are found locally and always from responsible sources.

Tom comments “In our craft, there is an unbreakable connection between what we make and the quality of the materials we source. Currently, I’m working on a new [basket] shape, and I’m attaching a leather handle to it. We get the leather from a supplier up in Northamptonshire and it has enough strength and quality to stand up proudly.”

When selecting the perfect Morris & Co. paint to adorn their home workshop, they opted for a colour which balanced the desire to elevate their craft with one which evoked a palpable mood of creativity.

“I have a little bit of a thing for blue. Both Tom and I are dressed in blue today. When I look to photograph our work, I’m always looking to do so against a darker, more atmospheric colour. I feel like the moment I saw Inky Fingers on the colour chart, I knew- that’s the right one. It’s so wonderfully dark and painterly.

We also love the story behind Inky Fingers, recalling an observer arriving at Morris’s studio and finding him ‘up to the elbows in indigo.’ You can just imagine the dye ingrained into the creases of his hand and around the nails!”

Unlike William Morris, Annemarie and Tom know that they live in a post-industrial society, where the skills they have honed over their lives form part of a precious legacy. Working as ambassadors for their craft, they hope to see the art of basket making, and hand craft more generally, ignite the popular imagination.  

Tom says “We feel a real responsibility and desire to pass on these skills. As well as running courses, we’re always trying to find ways to support young people. Our lovely basket making assistant, Matilda, has been our apprentice for a year, a position made possible by QEST [Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust].”

Reflecting on the future of her beloved craft and pondering the many parallels between herself and Morris & Co., Annemarie said, “When I think of the long lineage of this craft tradition, it makes me feel hopeful. Like Morris & Co., it stands the test of time, for it too is based in real materials, traditions and lives.” 

HERITAGE HUES... INKY FINGERS

Discover more about our Heritage Hue paint colour of the month, Inky Fingers.

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posted on 17 Feb 2022 in Featured

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