Meet the maker: Michelle Mateo

Introducing Michelle Mateo, a new basketmaking short course tutor at West Dean. Named the traditional category winner of the 2022 Worshipful Company of Basketmakers basketry competition, Michelle studied a degree in Environmental Management prior to pursuing a career in basketmaking. 

Here, she tells us more about her practice, current work, inspirations and where it all began... 

How did you get started with ash splint basketmaking? 
I was initially introduced to green woodworking at the Cherrywood Project, a sustainably managed woodland located in Bath. My main interest was focusing on the forestry aspect and the community it created. A natural part of expanding that knowledge was understanding timber and its different uses, from natural building to coppicing. I signed up to do a weekend course, having absolutely no knowledge in any form of basketry. I found the whole process incredibly difficult but when I finished, I was hooked. After this, I self-taught for several years, eventually doing demonstrations, classes, and markets.  

Can you tell us about your creative practice? 
A huge part of my practice is honouring the traditional forms; they have such beauty in them even with their everyday usage.  
Being able to use resources that are local and sustainably managed, especially with small scale forestry, is another integral part of my practice - not ordering resources from overseas, and understanding where the log was cut, all the way to a fully formed basket, makes my craft so much more intimate.  

What current projects are you working on? 
This year my focus is to expand my knowledge of other materials and endangered basket forms; I recently received a bursary from the Heritage Crafts Association to study with Lorna Singleton on a year-long programme called Wood Water Weave, where several students learn different types of wood splint basketry.  
The programme also has a few guest tutors that specialise within their field, including forester Edward Mills, oak swiller Owen Jones and hazel whisket basket maker Lewis Goldwater. It is important for me to focus on learning more as I think it’s essential to understand other materials that are in my local environment and to learn skills that are endangered. It’s also important to learn about the materials in my wider environment as the threat of ash dieback (a fungal disease) in the UK threatens the availability of viable basket material that I can use.  

What inspires your teaching? 
The more I learn about the history of ash splint basketry in North America; its survival from the arrival of European settlers and its resistance against the cultural assimilation policies of the state and government; the more compelled I am to share their story, to appreciate cultural heritage and respect these old skills. I also want people to be inspired by the diverse use of ash, as the technique never made its way to Europe, despite its abundance here.  

What can students expect from attending your short course/s at West Dean? 
In this one-day class, students will learn to weave an ash splint basket with a square bottom to round top. The techniques used today have their roots in the traditional basket making of North America. 
Students will learn that each ash splint used to weave the basket starts as a section of the tree’s growth ring and are created through pounding an ash log. There will be demonstrations of the process and students will be shown the tools used to do this, and also have a chance to learn some essential knife techniques.  
The skills learnt in the day will give students the foundation to adapt future baskets to their own design and it will give them a new appreciation of the mighty ash; its durability and flexibility, its strengths and weaknesses.