La Vannerie, or basket-making in English, is an ancient craft that dates back to 8,600BC. For centuries, before plastic, it was essential to everyday life: a way to carry and store goods. Now, a handwoven basket is a luxury item.
The craft is also used for garden furniture and, increasingly, sculptures. There are an estimated 200 vanniers in the country today and only 2% of goods on the French market are “Made in France”.
Very few tools are needed: an awl, a pruning knife, a packing tool, secateurs and a ruler. However, the techniques can be difficult to master and artisans need to know the different qualities of plants.
Most basket-making activity in France occurs in two regions, where willow, the most popular material, is cultivated. A co-operative of 50 basket-makers and 25 osiériculteurs, who grow willow, has been set up in Villaines-les-Rochers, Indre-et-Loire. As well as the traditional baskets, they make cradles and other furniture, paniers for bakers and restaurants, and creative pieces for gardens or public places.
Fayl-Billot, Haute-Marne, is the capital of basket-making in France, with around 40 craftsmen and women in the region making their living from it. The town also has one of only three specialist schools in Europe, the Ecole Nationale d’Osiériculture et de Vannerie, which offers year-long CAP and BEP courses in basket-making and willow farming.
Elsewhere, a handful of lycées in France teach these subjects, and courses for basket-making exist across the country, including courses at the school in Fayl Billot (lpahorticole.faylbillot.educagri.fr) and at the Villaines-les-Rochers co-operative (vannerie.com). The latter two’s courses do not lead to a professional qualification.
Annick Rony makes and sells baskets from her house in Calenzana, a village near Calvi, Corsica, and on the internet.She used to be a jewellery-maker in Burgundy before she fell in love with a Corsican and moved to the island. She found it difficult to land work, so when an elderly shepherd offered to pass on skills he had learnt as a boy, she jumped at the chance to learn a new craft.
She learnt how to choose the different woods and how and when to cut them from the nearby scrubland, or maquis as it is called on the island.
She uses stems from three local shrubs and trees: olive, Phillyrea and the local variety of myrtle, myrte. “I cut the stems in winter and learnt that each one has to be picked at specific phases of the moon, because this affects whether the sap is rising.
“When the moon is not right for harvesting, I spend my time taking the leaves off the stems and putting them out to dry, which takes about three months. I also use willow which I buy ready-prepared from a Corsica grower.”
Before she starts on a new basket, the stems have to be soaked for up to a week, to make them supple. “It is difficult to begin with and your first attempt is unlikely to be the shape you want. I learnt everything from observing the shepherd. I have also looked in books and discovered the terms to describe what I had learnt from watching.
“Now I can make about two baskets in a day and over a year I make about 600, varying in size from a bread basket to one for shopping. I have plenty of ideas but not always the time to create them.”
She said it is difficult to make a living from basket-making: “Five years ago I sold out before the end of the season. But things have changed now and tourists have less money.
“At around €45 for a big basket, I do not make much money. People do not realise how much time it takes.
“A shop which specialises in selling regional products offered me what at first seemed an interesting proposal.
“They wanted me to provide them with 300 baskets, and would pay me €12 a basket. But at that price the maths did not work out and it was impossible for me to accept.”
But Annick loves her lifestyle: “There is no point counting your hours. Instead I think what a great office I have to work in. I love going out and collecting the natural materials, weaving them and then seeing them leave here to go all over the world.”