We Made It: Basket-Maker Lois Walpole

There’s a name for the abandoned fishing tackle that washes up on beaches around the world. It’s called “ghost gear” and it’s an environmental disaster. Each year an estimated 640,000 tonnes of the stuff is dumped overboard or lost at sea where it goes on “ghost fishing”, destroying habitats and ensnaring wildlife.

Artist and basketmaker Lois Walpole has a “love hate relationship” with the gear. She abhors the damage it causes, but, while most people view the mounds of nets and orphaned wellingtons left by the tide as useless, unsightly rubbish, she sees their potential. 

“They're in such good condition,” she says, over the phone from her house on the island of Yell in Shetland, where vast quantities of the gear ends up, carried by the gulf stream. “They're perfect to work with and I do think more people could use them. Up here you don't need to go and buy yourself any string or rope you can get it off the beach. There's a mindset that because it's washed up it's rubbish, which is strange because prior to ferries everyone in Shetland relied on the beaches for materials. I find it sad that that attitude has been lost.”

Walpole’s work demonstrates the extent to which this flotsam and jetsam can be transformed. Her latest exhibition, Weaving Ghosts at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, features brightly coloured baskets topped with fishing buoys, woven slippers and abstract wall friezes made from tangles of polypropylene rope.

The title of the exhibition refers not just to the gear, but to other ghosts as well. There are the ghosts of Walpole’s family, including her resourceful great grandfather, Laurence Moar Tulloch, a crofter and fisherman from Yell who managed to feed 15 hungry mouths and whose photograph Walpole kept in her studio as she worked. Then there are the ghosts of Shetland’s basket making tradition which, like many such traditions around the world, has all but disappeared over the course of the last half century, with the onset of modernity.

“It was lost very very quickly post war and with the oil boom here,” Walpole says. “It was something that men did, and when fishing became commercial they didn't need baskets like the old folk did with their rowing boats. You can't go and interview anyone now who used to make baskets on the croft up here. There's really nobody left.”

For that reason Walpole has predominantly used Shetlandic basket-making techniques to create the pieces in the exhibition. She’s even made a polypropylene kishie, a basketwork rucksack traditionally used by crofters.

“I really wanted to draw attention back to how beautiful some of the traditional techniques are,” she says. “What they did here was use a lot of oat straw to make ropes for their thatched roofs, to make baskets and to make nets. The other main technique, which is also found all over the world in places like here where the materials are not particularly long and strong, is to bundle them up and stitch them in a technique that's called coiling. You can make very strong baskets with very fragile materials using both of these techniques, the rope-making and the coiling.”

As well as the link it provides with the past, for Walpole, much of the enjoyment of basket-making comes from the satisfaction of making something out of nothing. “As a five-year-old I was making stuff out of junk,” she says. And eventually that led to a degree in sculpture from Central Saint Martins. 

“At the time it was very well known for abstract welded steel sculpture and I didn't know that when I applied. It was just Dante's Inferno, my first day. We were taken to the welding basement where it was fire and hell and noise and everything I couldn't bear. It was mostly men and they were all wearing boiler suits and big boots and banging on pieces of metal and I just thought: ‘Oh God. I've come to the wrong place. I can't do three years of this!’”

So she isolated herself from the rest of the department, experimented with other materials, and began weaving figures out of cane. Basketwork sculpture led to a course in basket making at the London College of Furniture in 1982, after which Walpole hit upon the idea of using rubbish and recycled materials in her work.

“I was making a lot of baskets with rattan from south-east Asia that I was buying. I realised that it really was a mistake to be working with materials that came from the other side of the planet, because basket makers never do that. They use whatever's around them.

“So I just started looking to see what was in my area of the East End. At the time there was a lot of fashion industry and they put boxes out on the pavement. There was lots of cardboard and polypropylene strapping tape. There I had a material straightaway that I could start painting on, cutting up, weaving. Then it moved into things like juice cartons, plastic bags and bottle tops.”

From there the ghost gear was a natural step. “I found Shetland quite late in my life even though my grandmother was from here. When I did come up here [in 2000] and I saw all these materials I just realised that this was something I really wanted to work with.”

Nowadays Walpole divides her time between Yell and Charente, in south-west France. Living in two locations gives her access to different materials but it also changes her perspective when it comes to things like the gear. “I've lived in two place for most of my adult life,” she says. “First it was London and France and now it's Shetland and France. I think if I'd just lived here all of my life I probably wouldn't be interested in these materials, but I came in and saw them with a fresh eye.”

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