We travelled to Los Villares - a 6000 inhabitants small town close to Jaen - in order to meet Francisco, who has been working on wicker for over 45 years. They welcomed us in a little workshop on the ground floor of their own house. Francisco, his brother and another colleague spend 10 hours a day keeping alive a craft in which not many people from this town work anymore. Despite the fact that “in the 70s and 80s over 80% of the population of Los Villares worked in this trade and there was no unemployment at all’ as Francisco explained to us during our visit. These craft men kept working during the 2 hours interview, with his hands braiding wicker without a mistake, no need to keep their eyes or their focus on their work anymore. “It has been too many years’ they said.

The interview started around 10am, with our main characters sitting on their chairs - keeping a distance to avoid obstructing each other- and listening to an old radio in the background while they don’t stop making baskets. Francisco is telling us that all the baskets that we can see gathered there will go to the North of Spain. “They will go from Madrid upwards. There is a strong tradition of picking up mushrooms and fruits in the forests, and they are also used instead of a bag to do the groceries shopping. We also make wicker shopping trolleys that are very popular up there. No so popular down here.”.

When did you start with the wicker? How did you learn the trade?

I started working with wicker when i was 13 years old on the lates 60s. I’ve been working on this over 45 years. At the time here in Los Villares there were 2 or 3 families teaching the people who wanted to learn the trade. When we were kids there were not much to do after school, so we used to make baskets and we would spend the rest of the day there. Our mums use to tell the people from the factories: ‘give him some money, it doesn’t have to be much, and at least he is learning something”. In that way our mums knew exactly where we spent the day and make sure that we were not in the river or messing around. At the end of the day we were given 5 pesetas, and that was our wage.

How important have crafts in general and wicker in particular been in Los Villares?

A lot. I would say very very much. Here we started working with wicker in the 60s, although it was really strong during the 70s. At the beginning of the 80s the amount of wicker craft was huge. In Los Villares 2000 or 2500 people lived on wicker, and that was practically the whole village. Nobody was unemployed. When walking down the street all you could see was people working on wicker. Fridays were the day off, we were very happy then. 20 or 25 years ago the father always buy the house when couples got married, you could see nice cars… all that was given to us by wicker.

20 years ago it was normal to receive orders of 20,000 baskets, but not anymore. My generation made a living with the baskets, the village got more money from this craft than from the olive trees. There were workshops with 40 or 50 people working with wicker. 2 or 3 carriages full of baskets were sent weekly. The peak time would start in May and wouldn’t stop till the day before Christmas. Piles of baskets reaching the ceiling could be seen at the workshop.

Today everything is different. Handmade crafts are almost finished, basket making, cordwainers, everything… The beginning of the end came with the Chinese 10 or 15 years ago, the prices went down dramatically. We cannot compete with those prices, although the quality of the products cannot be compared the customers prioritize price over quality and in that way The Chinese win. Baskets are sold for 3 Euros each, when the fair price should be at least double. An hour work basket is sold for 3 euros, and that price includes the wicker price. It’s not normal…

My generation made a living with the baskets, the village got more money from this craft than from the olive trees.

Is it worthy working wicker today in Los Villares? Is there many people working on it?

There are very few people left, however there are specific times when people come back to it. At Christmas time there is more demand, 25,000 or 30,000 baskets can be produced here those days, it makes people work the wicker for the season.

However the future doesn’t look very bright. Despite the high levels of unemployment, young people don’t want to work on wicker anymore, and there are very few who actually do it. A family could earn a living working on this, it would not make them rich, but they will have enough. But of course, the ones starting now only get 20 euros a day. The drop of prices has created this problem, we cannot compete with China, we could compete with Germany and Europe, but we cannot compete with China and their salaries. I blame the government, they don’t take care of anything…

Since this competition with the Chinese started, people changed the wicker for more profitable business such as building. We order our wicker from Cuenca, but they reduced the amount of wicker plant and the trade started to drop.

Apart from wicker, which other materials do you work with?

In Los Villares we work mainly wicker, however there are lost or artisans working with other materials such as retama, esparto grass or reed. Fresh retama was pealed and it was used to make small trays among other things. Esparto grass was used, same as wicker, to make little animals such as donkeys and cocks… There were proper artists here, amazing items were created back then. With reed we made mirrors and chairs… but with proper local reed not the imported one.

My cousin worked wood. He did animals that looked real. It was something that he made up and he was the only one doing it here. He was very successful. He sold thousands and thousands of wood rabbits… He used the money to buy a house for his daughters and he had nothing when he started…

Focusing on wicker now, which kind of items do you produce? How long does it take to create one? Which one is the best seller?

Well we do a lot of things, almost everything. We have a catalogue with all the products that we offer, and there are a lot of things indeed. To name some: selves, items to keep the logs wardrobes, clothes baskets, chairs…

Time varies according to the kind of job, for instance a medium basket can be made in an hour, bottom inclusive. It also depends on the technique used: French knot, gypsy knot, etc. There are many different techniques, some more complicated than others and all that influences the time taken in finishing a job.

This basket, for example, the typical one for collecting mushrooms or ‘niscalos’ from Jaen, takes an hour work to be made.

Back in the day we used to make many more items; even pieces for lamps or ‘clavaillo’ items. We call ‘clavaillo’ to the cages; we made loads that were sent to Belgium, Norway, Luxembourg and northern countries. They placed them in the forests as cages for the birds to use as houses. Thousands were made…

These days baskets are the best seller; baskets to collect mushrooms, to go shopping and mainly Christmas baskets. The best time to sell wicker stops at Christmas, when the big baskets are given as a present by the companies to their employees. We had made enormous ones, 2 or 3 storey baskets, the ones that are given to top brokers…

Where are your products sold?

The wicker that we make here is sold outside the Province, up north mainly. Baskets and shopping trolleys go to Madrid or further north, they are fond of going to the countryside to pick up mushrooms and fruits even going shopping with wicker baskets.

The product is made here but the big market fairs and shows take place abroad, so the big customers have never come to us directly. It is really important to know how to sell and normally the ones who know how to work don’t know how to sell. Many years ago we used to make little donkeys that we sell for 1 peseta each, later on we found out that they were sold at the shops for 15 pesetas. The bread boxes that we make for 3 euros, are sold in the shops for 18.

It is really important to know how to sell and normally the ones who know how to work don’t know how to sell.

What about outside Spain?

We used to send loads abroad, not so much now. We had lots of customers from abroad. Many years ago we used to work for a company from Valencia that had their own train lines. They had 7 or 8 warehouses, and they made ceramics and we sold them wicker items that they also sold abroad. Germany and France, but especially Germany, used to take big numbers of baskets. We also export them to USA.

I mentioned the ‘clavaillo’ before for the Northern countries in Europe. We have sold a lot abroad, to many countries.

Do you get the wicker here? Where does it come from?

The wicker we use comes from Cuenca, wicker has always come from outside Los Villares. A lot of wicker is grown in Cuenca. Temperatures are very extreme there, very cold and very hot, and that is ok with wicker, even good for it. Spain also imports wicker from Poland or Argentina, it is a good one, but it is too heavy. We prefer the local one, although the use of fertilizers is very noticeable now. Wicker is grown quick and it is not very consistent, it breaks easily. But it is the same in the allotments. I’ve got a small one where I grown my own vegetables and there is a huge difference with the ones you find at the supermarkets, they don’t taste the same. It should be banned the use of those poisons in the food that we eat. Everything is changing towards making more money, and they do things like these ones.

On the other hand, there is also the fact that people are less and less self sufficient. In the old times everybody knew how to grow something, food was preserved, people know how to sew, etc. If some natural catastrophe happens or something like that … in 15 days we all starve to death, they are making us useless. Last year I encouraged my daughter after she finished at the university to learn how to grow potatoes, at least to learn how it is done.

How much do you pay for the raw material?

Each ‘milla’ (package) contains about 10 ks and each Kilo is 3 euros. To give you an idea, you can get 10 medium size baskets from it. You can also buy the ‘tiretas’ that are more expensive, 11 euros per kilo, because they are made by some machines.

On top of these prices you’ve got to keep in mind that when you make a basket you need to calculate the price of each kind of wicker - black wicker and white wicker-, la tireta and the waste. According to our calculations, we use 150 grams of waste per kilo of wicker. We need to keep all this in mind when putting a price to our work…

Germany and France, but especially Germany, used to take big numbers of baskets. We also export them to USA.

I can see that you are not taking any measurements, how did you manage to get them all the same size?

It is not all made without measurements. We have some already made templates for the bottoms of the baskets, log boxes, etc. The bottom is basic so that all the baskets are the same, we also use a measurement type, but after so many years we hardly ever use it. Sometimes you take just to check if you are doing it alright, but after doing a few it’s a piece of cake.

Another reason to make them of a certain size is to keep the delivery costs down, so that we can save on that.

To finish, after so many years, how do your hands look like? Are they sore or painful?

To be honest they are not. It’s been years that I use gloves when I work, but it has not been always like that. I’ve never had any problems with my hands, sometimes in the elbows, but that’s it. It’s a bit boring job, you’ve got to be sitting down in a chair for 10 hours, but that’s all…

Sometimes doing always the same items gets me.

I would love to spend the day changing the items I produce, a basket, a log box, a wardrobe... In that way I wouldn’t get bored. But, it is what it is, you can see the tools that we use: scissors, punch, a measuring tape and a chair, and the rest it’s just time, so that when you learn the trade you need to be fast…

This is the first article of the traditional trades series, in which we are trying to include in our website the non-material heritage, the one that speaks about our culture, habits and traditions; everything that makes our social identity.

If you know anyone who still works in a traditional trade and you think he or she could be interested in telling us his/ her story, please contact us: participa@lugaresmiticosdejaen.com.