Mudags, aka: muirlags, Crealagh and craidhleag (creels) were egg-shaped baskets with a ‘post hole’, used for holding wool ready to spin. They are known to have been a thing in Scotland – and so, hopefully, Ireland, Wales and England too.
You placed your mudag close to the fire, for the wool’s lanolin to melt a little, and make fibre easier to spin.
This probably went hand in hand with the old Northern superstition mentioned by Wordsworth in ‘Song Of The Spinning Wheel’ – that wool spun more easily when the sheep were asleep:
Now, beneath the starry sky,
Couch the widely-scattered sheep;—
Ply the pleasant labour, ply!
For the spindle, while they sleep,
Runs with speed more smooth and fine,
Gathering up a trustier line.
Baskets are perishable. This kind of basket was probably made from willow; maybe sometimes, hazel. I think the mudag at the National Museum of Scotland is thought to possibly date ‘only’ from the 1920s or 30s. As the mudags were often kept close to the fire, the willow would dry out and sometimes old ones are scorched on one side.
We are lucky enough to live close to the river, and there are basketmakers of great skill in our village. I know they’re good because when I have taken their work to living history events or wool shows, other experience basket weavers often come up and comment how they’ve used a really unusual or old technique.
So we took a description and dimensions to them and they attempted to make a mudag but weren’t quite happy with how it turned out. I’m sure they were just perfectionists! Meantime, I had started a thread on Ravelry, asking the knowledgeable folk there about mudags and a kind Raveller in Scotland offered to sell me a mudag she had and wasn’t using. The parcel duly arrived – looking like a bubble-wrapped dinosaur egg! I didn’t give up the Quest to find a local maker, however, because I thought these would be a great thing to sell at wool shows, and in keeping with our demos on traditional spinning. Also the mudag is highly practical as a way to keep ready to spin wool in an airy condition – and will keep enquiring hands from rolags or tops. Useful for shows.
I thought briefly about making one myself but decided it’s a craft too far and besides, what with getting stock ready to sell over the winter, and writing my next book, and commissions, I knew that was unrealistic to find the time.
My local basket-weavers recommended a basketmaker in another village – and so I emailed him various links to pictures and descriptions and he said thought he could make one. And he did.
We went to pick up the mudag after a couple of weeks. The lovely basketmaker was concerned it looks a bit elongated but that is actually perfect for the table of our Great Wheel. He has been making baskets all his life – his family have been basketmakers since the mid nineteenth century in this area – and he said, he had never made anything quite like this. He had to make a former specially for this first mudag (which we have asked him to keep as we’re ordering more from him). He is confident that now he has made one, the next ones will be a bit less elongated.
He said his first ever baskets were for the local farmers’ potatoes. I realised that his father probably knew and did business with my grandad and great grandad as the farm where my mum was born is not far away. We have found what look like deliberately planted small stands of willow here, along the river – no longer harvested. Often the willow seems to be in little inlets or ‘ings’, some of which may have been dug out from the river bank. The basketmaker told us that until the 1950s, basketmakers here would pay the farmers who owned land abutting the river, a small fee to collect the willow every year. I know from an 1830s’ tithe map that my family owned a field or two in the ings here, and presumably this would have been a nice extra earner for the farmers, alongside renting out horses and ‘horse marines’ to tow the keels and sloops when the tow path ran along their land.
We forget there was once a world before cardboard boxes. With many small docks here along the rivers, as well as fishermen, and also so much good arable land and farming going on – there would have been a huge demand for baskets. Apparently, in the nineteenth century there were seven basketmakers in this small village alone.
The basketmaker’s family started in the same village as mine, and moved out roughly in the same direction as the years passed. We will, no doubt, have had ancestors who were friends, if not relatives (He mentioned one local surname I have seen was a witness, several times in the eighteenth century, to family weddings so we were at the very least, family friends). My uncle lived for around 60 years in the same village as the basketmaker – as he was a jockey, and left the village where mum and my aunty remained, a few miles away.
The baskets are still made in a workshop which is part of the now uninhabited cottage. I have long been fascinated by abandoned and empty cottages in this area, and would give my right arm for one like this. (If you have an abandoned croft going spare, you know who to give it to!) From the old, bricked-in doorway you can see it was two cottages knocked into one – still unspoilt by the hand of gentrification:
I’m not sure if mudags were even used in England, and if so, what they were called or how they were shaped. Sometimes Great Wheels had inbuilt boxes on the table. In the Walker engraving, the spinning woman has simply draped rolags over the table but of course, those being stored ready to go may well have been in some sort of container on the hearth.
All being well we hope to have some of our basketmaker’s mudags at Masham Sheep Fair, for anyone who wants to buy one, made by a professional basket-maker from a long line of Yorkshire basketmakers. And over the winter will be making an Etsy or Folksy shop to sell these and some other handmade goods.