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Meet the Makers: Annemarie O’Sullivan

This month, we slow things down a little and spend some quality  time with basket maker, QEST scholar and John Smedley ambassador, Annemarie O’Sullivan

words by Will HALBERT

How would you describe your craft? 
All of my work is based around the ancient craft of basketmaking. I feel as though I am creating three dimensional drawings with this beautiful material – willow.

What is your favourite part about what you do?
I love the slowness and the rhythm of the whole process, and the fact that every day I’m holding something in my hands that I’ve grown and gathered from the land. It’s a very low impact kind of craft. All you really need is a knife and some sticks, and if you haven’t got a knife, you can use your teeth!

How did you begin your career? 
It has been a slow progression learning the craft. Initially, I learnt how to use a range of materials and over time, I began to work predominantly with willow. 

How long have you been doing it?
I started weaving 14 years ago. 

What other craftsmen/women stand out to you most and why? 
I have loved watching Eleanor Lakelin’s work develop and enjoyed seeing her creations celebrated all over the world. She’s found her own way of working within a very traditional craft. 

Did anything in particular inspire you to start your craft?
Seeing the exhibition ‘Contemporary International Basket Making’ in 1999, curated by Mary Butcher, was an eye opener. It totally blew away all ideas about what a basket is supposed to be.

Do you work with any other craftsmen/women to create your products?
I work closely with my husband Tom McWalter, both from a practical and design point of view. I have also been collaborating with furniture designer Gareth Neal for three years. We have a really successful chair which is sold through the New Craftsmen.

What is your criteria for working with fellow craftsmen/women?
That we have shared values about the provenance of materials we’re working with and that there can be fluid and interesting conversation. 

What is the hardest part about what you do?
The work can be very physically demanding, but also it’s wonderful knowing that my work is in such demand. 

What makes your craftsmanship most rewarding?
I really love being able to discuss work with clients and being able to envisage where the work will go. From spending time growing and harvesting to making and delivering an item. Knowing how it will be used and who will be using it is the final piece of the jigsaw. 

Where did you learn the skills required for your role?
I initially studied in London at City Lit for one day a week over five years. This gave me the basic skills of basket making. Since then, I have spent time working with makers in several countries including Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and England. 

Have you had any major pitfalls to overcome to maintain your craft?One of the biggest challenges working with willow is getting the material just right at the time you need it. It takes several days to soak the willow for weaving. A drop in temperature might mean the willow takes several days longer to soak. I have to be able to timetable really well and stick to that so that the material works. 

Has your craft evolved into other/new skills over time?
My skill has edged me closer to the gift of patience, it slows me down and often challenges me to readjust my expectations of what I can achieve in a day. 

How would you describe a day in your role?
I start my day with yoga, it feels really necessary to look after my body and warm it up for the day’s work ahead. I am always looking ahead to what I am making in the following week. So after yoga and breakfast I sort and soak willow for the following week. Once that’s done I’m able to get on with the making for the day and will spend five to six hours in the workshop weaving. We always stop and have a good chat at lunch time and usually have some soup and salad. It makes the day flow better. Over the year there will be various tasks at home that fit in with the working day – in the vegetable garden, with the chickens or chopping firewood. These are as important as the rest of the work. 

What are the biggest challenges you face in what you do?
Helping people to understand the slowness and the value of my craft. I do feel that I have an audience that are incredibly appreciative and knowledgeable about what I do. 

How have you stayed passionate and inspired by your craft?
It feels easy to be passionate about my craft. It connects me with all the makers of the past, the skills they developed, it connects me with the land and gives me a great sense of belonging. I feel that I have a responsibility to develop and to pass on the skills that have been generously given to me. 

What made you choose this career and to work in this industry?
I feel like it chose me, from the first time I made a basket I couldn’t quite get enough of it. I have such a strong feeling that this is the work that I should be doing and I feel incredibly grateful for the success and opportunities I’ve had. 

Do you have any plans to expand on what it is that you do?
No, I am really happy with the balance that I have at the moment, I love working with a really small team and making every single product that I sell. One of my aspirations would be to share basketmaking more widely and with a younger audience. 

What are the main projects you are working on now?
I am currently working on a selection of baskets for a client in the USA, also developing an architectural installation for an interior design company and planning a residency in Orkney.

How would your customers describe your craft?
When clients receive work, they often tell me of the joy that my pieces bring to their homes. They also comment on the beautiful smell of a newly woven willow basket. I feel like people really want pieces that they handle, that become parts of their everyday lives.

What are the accomplishments within your work in craftsmanship that you are most proud of?
I feel like my work is now selling fairly widely across the world, which isn’t something that I had planned for. Being well known as a craftsperson and being invited to have a voice within the craft world is something I’m delighted to do. 

How would you describe your company/business in 3 words?Sustainable, contemporary, rooted.

How does working with QEST support you and your craft?
QEST have been an amazing support, making a significant contribution to my continued learning with master craftswomen and men across Europe. 

How would you describe John Smedley?
There is something very attractive about a brand that has been in existence for over 200 years. I imagine this would be at least seven generations and this to me is true sustainability. 

Do you have a favourite John Smedley piece, if so what?
To be honest, I usually steal my husband’s jumpers! But the Bryony is a firm favourite of mine. It’s so exquisitely crafted and the Sea Island Cotton is delightful. I’m also a fan of the shorter sleeves.

What are you most excited about for the future?
Keeping the balance that I have now – making more baskets and enabling people to discover and develop their weaving skills.