‘The first bit is the hard part’, instructor Bryce Reynard announced as six ADBKA members gathered for a workshop in the noble art of skep-making. The tables were covered in straw. Bales of string and alarmingly large needles were ready for use. Bryce had kindly brought along a collection of his work, and after he had introduced himself and his background in forestry and his own introduction to basket-making via a birthday present, the workshop started with a discussion of skep-making around the various part- and fully-finished examples. The wide variety of possible materials, from straw to brambles, nettles, various grasses and so on, was of interest to everyone.
It was soon time for ‘the hard part’. We gathered our straw, to be fed into the skep structure by using the necks of plastic drinks bottles as funnels, and laced our ‘regulator’ needles. Calling the ten inch long needles ‘regulator’ sounded like some gangland nickname, but in fact refers to their traditional use to ‘regulate’ or even out, upholstery padding. Getting the initial tight curve in the straw – the construction starts from the crown of the skep and works round in a continuous spiral from there – and the associated stitches was indeed tricky and we all needed Bryce’s help. But most structures require a good foundation and skeps are no exception.
After that, creating the structure was a matter of feeding straw and stitching, and occasionally finishing the old, and starting a new, length of string for the stitching. One could get into some sort of a rhythmic routine, but attention had to be paid to ensure even straw density, stitch tension, stitch positioning and the position of one straw layer relative to the layer below it in order to control the quality and shape of the skep. After an hour or two, different skep shapes were beginning to emerge.
By the close at four pm, after perhaps four or five hours of relatively continuous effort, we were all tired but had roughly half-finished skeps of various shapes and sizes to show for our work. Most importantly, we had kept our ‘regulators’ away from eyes, important arteries, organs and our neighbour at the table! We had all had a lovely day and apart from the discomfort of sore hands, were probably reluctant to stop. We were given enough materials to finish our skeps at home. Whilst of course I aim to have no swarms at all next season (!) I look forward to catching a swarm in a skep I have made myself.