IF YOU think about baskets, you probably picture a willow basket. Weaving is synonymous with willow, or so we think. But artist Lois Walpole, whose exhibition Weaving Ghosts opens this weekend at An Lanntair, Stornoway, makes her baskets out of brightly coloured “ghost gear”, the evocative term for fishing gear, lost or discarded and washed up on the beach.

Walpole’s baskets are a brash and bold weaving of plastics and organics, of synthetic and natural in varying forms and sizes. There are baskets, yes, but her work treads the lines between the craft of weaving and that of the artist, producing installations and vast wall pieces, yet also tablemats, shoes and chair seats. There is a fascination with the history of basket weaving, of the forms of this once ubiquitous art and their uses in different aspects of life. There is an interest, too, in the loss of the skill of basketweaving, in the loss of knowledge. She tells me of a man in Shetland – weaving baskets was traditionally the man’s job – who made it a point to learn the trade from the last living exponent of the kishie, a particular type of basket made from black oat straw found in Shetland (caisie in Orkney), akin to the back baskets woven from willow made in the Highlands and Western Isles.

Walpole began her artistic career – a childhood joy of junk modelling notwithstanding – as a sculptor, although she was horrified to discover, when she walked into St. Martin’s School of Art in London at the start of her three year degree course, that “sculpture” was in fact a euphemism for “welding”.

“It was the 1970s,” she explains, “It was all about welding metal girders”. Walpole backed off from the “noise and hell” by spending three years working in figurative papier mache until, casting around for material for her final piece, she came upon some cane being sold cheaply. Walpole created her first woven work – an oversized man.

Some years and a City and Guilds in Basketmaking later, Walpole began a PhD aged 49 at the Royal College of Art, exploring new ways with willow. “I got so fed up with willow being the only way to make baskets in Britain. All the other lovely materials we have used historically had been neglected. And willow baskets hadn’t changed from Victorian times!” Her solution was to avoid weaving altogether and “grow” functional objects such as chairs, laundry baskets and coat hangers, by grafting willow plants.

Soon Walpole began weaving with things which she found discarded. And then, in 2000, after the death of her grandmother, who was born in Shetland but had moved to the south of England, Walpole and her mother travelled north to explore the place their family had come from. Walpole felt “immediately at home,” in Shetland, welcomed by armies of second cousins, but as she walked the beaches she found herself “really shocked by the amount of stuff washed up, the ropes and the plastics. In some places, you’re wading through it, knee deep. I looked on it at first as something horrific, then I started digging and found all these beautiful ropes, almost brand new, all tangled up together and just chucked in the sea. Here was good stuff to be used, but no one thought to do it any more.” By 2007 she had become intent on trying to work with these materials.

“All of my work is inspired by the materials. I see something and I think, that would make a wonderful basket.”

Walpole has incorporated all sorts of these “very available” beach materials into her work, from huge lengths of polypropylene rope, some of it in perfect condition, to beach buoys. “It’s not just stuff from commercial fishing, you get all sorts of amazing things. I once found a ski…I had visions of a Norwegian going off the edge of a cliff…”

“Weaving Ghosts” is a brightly coloured exploration of the uses that can be found from recycling materials in the old-fashioned way – by re-using and repurposing them. It is another ‘ghost’ perhaps, in Walpole’s exhibition. The show was first put together for Shetland Museum in 2016 and has toured to three galleries in Norway. The An Lanntair exhibition will be its biggest incarnation yet, with many of the works newly created.

“My favourite work is North Atlantic Drift,” says Walpole, of a brilliantly-coloured collection of baskets, ever-evolving, named for the Atlantic current that brings the flotsam and jetsam of the Caribbean to Shetland. “I’m always making new pieces for it. There are 75 baskets in it now, made from buoys and hard plastics with basket work sides made with grasses or ropes I’ve found, all different shapes and colours. The form changes every time I show it.”

It’s representative of the notion at the heart of her work, a passion for reusing perfectly good materials which have been thrown away, for rekindling skills that have been lost. “I’m trying to show people there is potential in these things. I want people who see my work to smile!”

Weaving Ghosts: Lois Walpole, An Lanntair, Kenneth Street, Stornoway, Lewis, 01851 708 480, lanntair.com, Until 3 March, Mon – Weds, 10am – 9pm/Thurs – Sat, 10am – late, Artist Talk: 15 Feb, 7pm (£5/£4/£3)

Sarah Urwin Jones