Basket making in Jersey
Basket making used to be a flourishing trade in Jersey; today there is just one practitioner left. At 85 years of age, Alfred Pierre Laurent carries on his family's traditional trade.
Alfred Laurent grew up in Jersey with basket-making in his blood. His family, who came from Normandy, all started 'weaving the willow' at an early age and he grew up with a strong sense that his family was the only one in the island to be all basket-makers. In the past there were at least eight master-craftsmen making baskets in Jersey, with up to 80 others employed in the trade. As in other places, though, the basket trade has largely disappeared in recent years as artificial materials have replaced the traditional wicker.
In the Middle Ages willows were grown on most manor lands, and the peasants would have made baskets in the winter. In towns basket-makers formed their own craft guilds. Baskets were essential for carrying and measuring produce. But the craft's greatest boom came in the Industrial Revolution, when hampers, trunks and baskets were used in textile mills, potteries, shoe factories and mines. Today, however, there are only a few craftsmen still making baskets by hand in the traditional way, although many are still produced around the world in factories.
A master basket-maker would have made a whole range of models, each for a particular job. In Jersey, which has been primarily an agricultural and fishing community, there were different baskets for carrying potatoes, market-produce, fish, prawns and, of course, laundry. In fact, the Laurent family used to make 26 different items for various uses. For example, potato-baskets need to be very tough, and are consequently constructed of split cane. In contrast, tomato-baskets need to be smooth inside, so that the skins are not damaged; these are constructed with the outside of the cane, which is smooth, facing inwards.
Until quite recently, Alfred Laurent had a shop in St. Helier, and together with the rest of his family would make about 40 baskets a week; now on his own, he reckons to make about one each day, but he still has many regular customers who prefer to have a basket made to order for their particular requirement. Not only are the finished products very durable and long-lasting, but they are also extremely attractive, many of them being purpose-designed by Mr Laurent. Prawn-baskets are a good example. Although the most expensive type of basket which he makes (about £45 each), they represent at least five hours extremely skilled work.
Other baskets sell within the £12-£20 bracket, depending on their size, and the amount of work that has gone into their making. In the past, when the whole family were making baskets, and the demand was greater, the craft provided a reasonable living; today, Mr Laurent continues mainly to keep himself occupied in the mornings, and to keep his fingers supple. He also provides a valuable service to his long-established customers by repairing older and damaged baskets.
The raw materials which he uses include centre cane and split natural cane (Calamus species), both of which grow in swampy regions in the Far East. Willow (Salix species) is also an important material, having a darker colour than the cane. Most willows in Britain today grow in the rich alluvial Somerset moors, and Mr Laurent gets his from there. Although a bundle is now about £20, he reckons that Somerset willow is the finest quality, having the greatest strength and elasticity - or, as basket-makers say, it has a `good nature'.
I watched as Alfred Laurent's experienced fingers wove the materials into shape, and completed the lid for a prawn-basket, which he was making to commission. The working is physically very taxing, requiring consider- able strength in the hands, and Mr Laurent feels that it is only because he has never stopped making baskets that his fingers remain so supple and strong; certainly he has no plans for retiring in the forseeable future.
Of particular interest to those who make baskets at the present time, is a special technique which he uses, called lance cordee. This was invented by a Mr Carre, who used to be in the basket-making trade in Jersey and who also originates from Normandy. It involves the handle of a basket being incorporated into the whole as a major structural feature, rather like a ship's keel. The handle itself is bent down and woven into the bottom of the basket, which adds considerable strength to the design.
Meeting this fine craftsman, I was left with the feeling that, strangely, his true purpose in life has been a social reformer rather than a basket- maker. Those skilled fingers are governed by a keen mind which is still as sharp as ever. During all his spare time in his youth, he would read - Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Chateaubriand being his favourite authors. They fired his thoughts about social conditions and class problems, which were very evident in Jersey 50 years ago. He fervently denies that he is a communist, preferring the term `social democrat' and strongly believes that all humans should be treated equally; money itself should not make some people more important than others.
He freely admits that his public speaking and 'social reforming' have been his primary loves, with basket-making - the only trade he knew - as a source of income and means of maintaining the respect of those whom he was attacking in his speeches. He started his work in the island's debating club in 1920. He spoke his mind on a wide range of issues: religious as well as political. All too often his words fell on deaf ears – or rather, ears that heard but did not like to believe the truth in what he said.
At first his friends and family thought him either insane or very brave. In retrospect, it was the latter; what he was saying was effectively 20 years ahead of his time.
He stood for election to the States – Jersey's parliament - six times in his younger days, but was never elected, which, he admits, was always something of a relief, for such work is unpaid despite being extremely time-consuming. His influence on other local politicians has been considerable and he has never ceased to air his views, whether to a small group of listeners, to a packed hall, through the pages of the local paper, or on the radio.
Alfred Laurent was born into a Roman Catholic family, but has long made the established Church a target. Although many of his actions might be considered 'Christian', he cannot accept all of the Bible, which he finds full of contradictions. Nor can he tolerate the `Sunday is for religion' attitude which prevailed in Jersey as much as elsewhere. However, he is no atheist; he has no doubt that there is some greater force beyond man: `Why go in for all the mumbo-jumbo? ... Just look at the sky and stars!'
Despite this rejection of the churches, his love of people has shone throughout his life, and he still makes regular visits to the old and sick in hospital. Piquantly he now has his basket-making workshop in an old chapel provided for him, when he moved from the shop in town, by the parish of St. Helier, as a token of thanks for all his work in serving the island over the previous 50 years.
Mr Laurent's work is now preserved in the Societe Jersiaise Museum, along with other dying trades such as those of the cooper or the blacksmith. The attractive display now shows a variety of different baskets, and materials used to make them. In addition, he has donated many of his tools, which have Norman-French names: poinfons for twisting willow canes and fondoires for splitting them and curved knives with pointed ends known as serpettes. It is a proper tribute to an extraordinary man.