Skep making: Weekend basket weaving marks middle age

By | January 26, 2013

What better to do on a snowy London Sunday, than some basket weaving?!
Martin Buckle, of Martin at Newtown ran an excellent workshop on skep making which I was lucky enough to attend.

Skeps are essentially upside down baskets, which used to house bee colonies many years ago. The ones we weaved were made from thatching straw, and rattan binding, though a wide variety of materials can be used.

Skeps formed the traditional beehive, but weren’t the best for hive management or honey harvesting. Modern beehives need to be regularly cleaned to rid the hive of disease. This cleaning is commonly achieved in modern hives by a quick blow torch through the empty beehive, to scorch off old wax and disease – clearly a potentially destructive action for a skep made of straw..

Regarding honey harvesting, modern hives separate brood cells containing eggs, larvae, & pupae, from honey storage cells. So with modern hives, it’s easy to harvest the honey cells without disrupting the colony’s brood cells as they are kept separate. However, hives within skeps don’t separate brood from honey – so skep beekeepers would usually destroy the hive to harvest the honey, or at least severely disrupt the colony and reduce its productivity.

These days, skeps are more commonly used to catch, or collect a swarm, as a conveniently sized and sturdy basket.

Martin kindly started us with the beginnings of the coil, as this is the hardest part of the skep. Mine is a traditional english start, with an untidy end. Most others had a french start, where the french have a technique to tidy up the tail of the coil.

Previously, weavers used swan bone to weave the binding, and I managed a photo of one. However we all completed our weaving with a modified nail, through a bamboo handle.

To weave this skep, measuring 25 cm high and 25 cm diameter, took me the best part of 8 hours to make. I certainly had sore hands and wrists the next day, from holding the straw in place, and ensuring a tight weave and binding.

The finished product is surprisingly sturdy. A well made skep should be able to take the full weight of a person (I didn’t try o my skep). Mone ended a little angular, and a little hairy, but I’m proud of it all the same.

I’m going to buy a second skep kit from Martin at Newton, a bargain at £25 and with full instructions. The second skep I plan to make will be a little larger so I could use it to collect swarms, and I also plan to take more time care in weaving, to produce a finer finish.

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