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The Wonder of Wicker

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

“If the Wicker Man reminded me of Carlos Santana, the gentleman who showed us around the wicker processing plant was the spit of Humphry Bogart! ”

Play It Again

On the trail of what’s left of Madeira’s was-thriving wicker industry, we drove to an operation just outside Camacha where lengths of willow were being prepared in the traditional manner. If I thought Jose’s place was chaotic, it was positively clinical compared to this. ‘Health & Safety’ clearly hadn’t arrived in this corner of Madeira! Old tractor tyres, lengths of angle iron, plastic piping and galvanised buckets were strewn around the room while our impervious host danced between them,, working the long lengths of willow.

Wicker History

Wicker-making in Madeira dates back to 1850 but of course, the process goes back much further. You could say wicker played a key role in shaping human history.

Wicker’s ‘roots’ if you’ll excuse the pun, wind back to our earliest ancestors who used interwoven branches to form protective barriers from the scary beasts of the night as well as coral their domesticated animals. Primitive huts also employed similar weaving techniques. The technique was employed to create mats and containers. Scientists have carbon-dated wicker baskets as far back as 8,000 B.C. so the process even predates pottery.

Meanwhile, Mr Bogart was giving us a tour of the system that hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. After the willow is cut, peeled and dried, the canes are treated by boiling them which gives them their malleability and strawberry blond colour.

Lord Of The Rings

The boiling was probably the most interesting aspect of our visit. The long bales were immersed in a giant concrete trough with a blazing inferno roaring beneath. It really was quite primitive! Humphry rammed huge logs into the inferno beneath the concrete boiler. It was like the ‘Lord of the Rings’ when Saruman’s Orcs were burning all the trees to make their instruments of war.

The long batches of wicker were then extracted and left drying in the sun on top of a corrugated iron roof.

I have to admit, seeing this process made me realise how versatile wicker is and how imaginative the people who make it are. Us humans are an inventive lot! Fancy making entire suites of furniture from a few branches.

Sad Beauty

The sad beauty of all this is we’ll probably never see its likes again, certainly here on Madeira. To me, this was another example of how the ‘old ways’ have been preserved, not just in Madeira but throughout Portugal. But in the modern world, such methods are dying out. I’m afraid to say, this is the end of the wicker on these islands. It’s too far gone to get the skills back. When these people we’ve met over the past few days die, it’s all over. The government would need to step in and modernise it but I believe they’ve got other fish to fry. And besides that, the Chinese are doing it so much cheaper.


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