Documenting Withy Pot Making

Posted on: 4th July 2023 No Comments

Over the past few months Sarah has enjoyed supporting talented jeweller Anna Pope through the Cultivator mentoring scheme. Anna wanted to learn more about how she could record, share and preserve the stories she was hearing through her project, Jewelwithy. The Jewelwithy project reflected Anna’s passion for the endangered craft of withy pot making. This saw her create a seasonal story and beautifully crafted jewellery which was exhibited at Make Southwest. Hearing stories and reflections from those connected to the withy pot craft, Anna realised the urgency of capturing and preserving these voices. Through the mentoring we have explored how to best do this, as well as considered how oral histories can be shared through films, digital stories, community engagement.

Recording withy pot making through audio and film

Anna Pope recording memories of withy pot making

Anna Pope getting to grips with audio recording with withy pot maker Richard Eid in Newlyn

There are lots of benefits of learning through doing, so as part of this process we spent time with 2 withy pot makers. We recorded their stories, techniques and reflections through audio, film and photography. It was easy to see how Anna had fallen in love with this process and fascinating to hear more about the craft. The recordings we conducted as part of the Guardians of the Reef’ project in 2017/18 came flooding back, and another layer of the story was revealed.

Spending time with Barry and Richard

Withy pot maker Barry Mundy in Mullion Cove

Barry Mundy in the fishing stores where his family have made pots for generations

Our first visit was to Barry Mundy in Mullion Cove, where his family have fished for generations. Huddled in an old fishing store on the harbour, we listened to Barry as he shared his memories. Barry explained how it takes an average of 5 years to master this craft, with a short window of opportunity over winter to make pots. Reflecting on the differences between pot styles Barry noted how his teaching (by his father) and the strength of his hands shaped the style of pots he made, a bit like a signature. “You have to become master of the withy, not let the withy master you.” 2 fascinating hours in we realised that we hadn’t moved and the Easterly wind whistling in through the stores had chilled our bones, so we headed back to his house for a cup of tea and more chat. Here we saw photos of family members in cork life vests and withy pot making tools handed down the generations, all adding to Barry’s story.

Barry Mundy withy pot making tools

Our next visit was to Richard Eid, who we greeted as he pulled up to Newlyn Harbour in his red sports car. Over 2 sunny days on the quay, we watched as Richard skilfully crafted a withy pot. It was a beautiful process to observe and interesting to hear about each step as he worked. Over his many years of making, Richard had adapted weaving techniques to suit the areas he fished and withstand the rough seas in Mounts Bay. Watching Richard, who is in his 70’s, as he moulded and wove with his whole body, it struck us how physically demanding the process is. As he perched on hay bales on the edge of the quay, we watched on nervously. We needn’t have worried, he’d done this many, many times before.

Withy pot maker Richard Eid

Richard Eid making a withy pot top

Help us develop a new project

Both Barry and Richard’s passion for the withy pot making craft shone throughout and since working with Anna through the mentoring scheme we have decided to collaborate on a new project. We hope this will enable us to gather further memories and knowledge of the withy pot craft, as well as share these creatively through exhibitions, events, workshops and online. We are currently putting together a funding application and are seeking input from the withy pot community, as well as expressions of interest from venues and community groups. So if you have an idea, or think you could host an exhibition or event, then please do get in touch.

Withy Pot heritage

The withy pot craft and heritage is classed as critically endangered by the Heritage Crafts and there are only a handful of practicing withy pot makers remaining. Within a very short period of time, many pot styles have already been lost, with a shift to modern plastic pots and those that continue to make withy pots risking not passing on these skills. As pots generally last 1 season, and most makers didn’t document their process, many designs have already been lost. As with many subjects, there may be huge environmental benefits to learning from the past to live more sustainably in the future. With all this in mind it is our hope to document, share, honour and celebrate this unique heritage.

A huge thanks to Barry and Richard for spending time with us and to Cultivator for providing this mentoring opportunity.

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