A swill is one of the most pleasing objects one could wish to possess. It is a thing, complete and contained in itself, needing no explanation or props, assured and possessed of a simple confidence – being both useful and beautiful. As Ruskin said: ‘Nothing can be beautiful which is not true’ and a swill basket whispers “true” in a very lovely and understated way.
It is made from thin strips of woven oak and, as such, is light and strong. The closeness of the weave means that it is suitable for holding even very fine material. On the farm, these versatile baskets could be used for harvesting potatoes yet also for sowing seed. They were also used to carry coal or bobbins and, today, our family uses them as laundry baskets and, when there’s a baby, as a cradle.
The South Lakes was once a great centre for swill basket making. Bulmer’s Directory of Furness and Cartmel of 1910 showed a total of 13 swill-making shops in the area and, in Broughton, the focus of this industry was a cluster of buildings behind Cinder Hill, down by the park.
Today, there is just one man in the country who makes his living out of swill baskets. His name is Owen Jones and he lives at High Nibthwaite close to Coniston Water. He was taught in 1988 by a retired ‘Swiller’ from Broughton called John Barker. Owen runs workshops from his house and travels around the country attending fairs where you can see him making swills. He has no trouble selling everything he makes. If you would like further information about Owen and his work, click HERE for his own website.
There’s a swill in Sykehouse Cottage. It is usually left on the stairs windowsill for guests to admire and use – if you’ve got any washing to hang out. Carry your basket with one hand, the rim resting nicely on your hip bone.