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Withy Pots: A Traditional Cornish Craft With A Place in the Future

It can take between 4–5 hours for a skilled withy pot maker to create a full-size working pot, although historically makers’ have been known to work together, with one person working on a separate piece, allowing for quicker production. 

This was a skill passed on down through the generations for hundreds of years around the South West, in varying styles – depending on the terrain it had to withstand – and the maker. 

In the 1960’s however, modern lobster pots made from plastic and steel were introduced and became more favoured for many reasons, including the speed in which they can be produced and their durability in comparison with withy pots.

As a result only a handful of people today still carry on the practice of making these pots, meaning that sadly the skill is now classed as critically endangered – with many styles from the South West now lost.

However Anna Pope set up her Jewel-Withy Project in 2016 to document withy pot participants through film and photography with Cornwall College and created a unique illustrated story with etched brooches and prints to reignite an interest in people to learn more about the craft and hopefully help save such a vital tradition and sustainable craft from disappearing.

ocean plastic recycling

The Problem of Plastic Pots

We see (and recover) plastic lobster and crab pots around Cornwall nearly every day. We find them blighting our beaches and see them lost on the seabed – no longer in use but persisting for years still lethal as they lure crabs, who get stuck and then die. Worse still the initial victims lure even more crabs, which creates a cannibalistic cage which keeps on killing unseen on the seabed for years.

Eventually in storms modern Lobster and Crab pots are a broken apart. But as they are made of a mixture of different types of plastic rope, net and pipes – mixed in with rubber tyres and metal they are rejected as very difficult to properly recycle.

This is why we focus so much on finding uses for every part of a crab pot as they are one of the most common and dangerous of our finds – check out what we make from the nets, rope and frames

A personal Project

Jewel-withy has been a personal journey for Anna, as her partners’ father – a Cornish fisherman – passed away before meeting her two children, which meant that many of his stories could not be passed on.

Not only was this deeper meaning driving Anna on through, at the same time the craft of weaving withy pots was/is quickly fading, and there are only a few people left with the knowledge to pass on this traditional sustainable method of creating fishing gear – that is made almost entirely from woven wood – leaving no trace once it quickly rots away – returning to nature.

Anna felt this precious part of her children’s family heritage held values and principles she would like to teach them and by using her strengths as a conceptual jewellery designer and as a collaborator with Cornwall College wanted to illustrate a rich story through etched brooches, prints and film.

Crafting with The Values we Teach in Mind

The craft of making a Cornish Withypot exemplifies the strong connection people have had with plants and nature. Understanding the plants (mainly willow), their properties, the time of year, right shapes and forms are all important ingredients needed when making and using a traditional withy pot.

Unlike the polluting plastics used today – willow is not uniform and as such a crafter uses years and years of inherited and learned knowledge on how to successfully weave and use this infinitely variable natural material to make a successful pot.

This leads to an evolution of craft – with each region, town and even craftsmen specialising and generating new innovations passed on generation to generation. Each one creating bespoke solutions, using the areas specific natural resources and species of plant, to each areas fishing need and conditions over hundreds of years and millions of hours of cumulative learning.

Re-weaving the Young & OLD

The survival of this endangered knowledge – that offers a sustainable alternative to the polluting plastic pots of today which once lost are lethal to marine life – relies on the young learning once again from the old. To do this we must make it valued – something seen as worth learning and preserve the skills and knowledge before it’s lost.

Anna incorporates the myths and legends of Cornwall using piskies to ignite and engage the imagination of families and their children in the journey of the willow from tree through weaving into withy pots. She hopes this project will in some way help to raise awareness of the very special withy pot craft and also help preserve it for the future.

Please check out the project here and see some of her amazing designs and how each pot is made.

What WE Make to Recycle PLASTic Fishing Gear