Mike Lilian | Basketmaker

Oamaru, Otago, New Zealand, April 2012

'People are rediscovering gardening and with it the sense of peace it brings. Its what the soul – something deep within us – asks for. You know you’ve got it when it makes you feel good.’


Mike Lilian Basketmaker | Oamaru, Otago, New Zealand, April 2012



As a child, the garden was my grandmother Lilian’s world at her home in Christchurch. In the holidays I’d go to a farm on the west coast in Tutaki valley near Murchison. These two places and the women that cared for them – my nan and Nancy Bailey - are some of the strongest positive images I have of my childhood.

Nan brought out my self-belief and encouraged me to trust my inner voices. I used to do her lawns and the beauty that surrounded me in her garden as a kid seeped into me by osmosis. I believe these senses call us back – the smell of daphne, wintersweet, lily of the valley.

I love the whole cycle of gardening. Its just outstanding – I’m always learning more. I love all the seasons, planting, growing, the satisfaction of doing it and then the eating. I love the compost heap -getting it up to temperature, seeing all the worms. I just feel like ‘Mr. Smug’ – what a clever bugger!

Find the work you love and you’ll never work again. Every person’s looking for that because once you find it life’s no longer a chore.

We come from the soil and we will return to the soil – there’s no doubt about it. Gardening brings a profound centeredness for those that go about it. People are rediscovering gardening and with it the sense of peace it brings. Its what the soul – something deep within us – asks for. You know you’ve got it when it makes you feel good.

Basketry and gardening are the treasures of our ancestors – preserving in the kitchen, baking biscuits and all the kitchen crafts. These are treasures that our grandparents lived with.

My garden gives me the opportunity to be creative and to recycle. I have an old glasshouse that I am about to resurrect here that would otherwise be firewood.

I used to climb willows by the Avon in Christchurch as a kid and used willow bats to play cricket. Willow has been a part of the ambiance I grew up in. The settlers brought it out as a raw material and used it for river conservation to stabilize banks when they flooded. They still use it for this today. You’ll see willows alongside rivers up and down the Canterbury plains and all over NZ

I fell in love with willow when I saw a basket in a field filled with hay with cattle eating out of it. This picture was in an encyclopedia  of traditional European crafts that I picked up in Canterbury public library back in 1985 when I was 33.

The form of willow is beautiful – its stunning, you get colours and fragrance. You get tradition, its handmade and soulful. It has history. Its durable, the techniques are traditional so they are proven in terms of use. Its light, hard-wearing and flexible - that’s why balloon baskets are made of it, when they hit the ground they take the impact rather than passing it on.

I enjoy making things with brown willow – this has the bark on. You get differing colours and it has a nice fragrance while you are working with it. The other willow we use is called ‘buff’ – it is boiled for 8 hours with the bark stripped off.

As a basketmaker you can put your personality into it. Often you can tell who made something by the way the handles have been woven. It becomes an art piece with the maker’s signature through it. You can always spot the work of a skilled maker.

If you look after a basket you’ll be passing it on to the next generation. Willow can last for ever.

There are people out there who still appreciate beauty and as an artisan you need to put yourself in touch with them.