Standfirst: The old skill of basketry is being used in a modern battle to aid stroke and dementia patients.

By Sandra Dick

For generations weavers expertly twisted reeds, wood and grasses, using their own signature style to create baskets and creels to carry and store almost everything they might need.

Once common in towns and villages across Scotland, demand for the basket-weavers’ skills eventually faded. Even its value as a calming therapy for First World War victims of shell shock would be overtaken by new methods and fall from fashion.

But now a project set up to explore the Scotland’s heritage of basket-making has pinpointed how the time-old skill may be revived as an aid in the modern battle to support dementia and stroke patients.

Woven Communities, led by Dr Stephanie Bunn of the Department of Social Anthropology at St Andrews University and involving the Scottish Basketmakers’ Circle, introduced elders with dementia at Stornoway arts centre An Lanntair and stroke and brain injury patients at Raigmore Hospital to basket-weaving and other hand-skills such as net-mending.

At Raigmore’s Stroke Unit, three patients involved in the project who were not anticipated to be able to live unassisted, recovered sufficiently after the work to return home.

Others showed remarkable signs of recovery, regaining previously lost function in their hands and arms and in one case overcoming tremors and shakes which had left them unable to carry out a range of everyday tasks.

The collaboration with An Lanntair, meanwhile, led to one elder with dementia suddenly breaking a months’ long silence to talk vividly about old net-mending skills, and recalling his life fishing the waters around Lewis.

Previous research has shown the bi-manual activity of basket-weaving promotes hand-to-eye coordination and aids attention development.

It has also been found to encourage the development of neuroplasticity, which can help recovery in brain-injured patients and stroke sufferers, and provide participants with a sense of well-being, boosting self-esteem, and helping with problem-solving and concentration.

Engaging in the activity with others is also said to help spark memories and prompt conversation.

The work with An Lanntair focused on basketry and traditional hand-skills learned in youth such as net-mending for fishing boats, which it was hoped could evoke a range of memories among dementia patients.

Meanwhile, the work at Raigmore Hospital, which involved stroke patients who could not walk or use their arms or legs well on one side and others whose ability to engage in some way was affected, was said to have been particularly impressive.

In some cases, the results were said to have even taken specialists working within the unit by surprise.

It’s led to an online handbook being published for use by brain injury volunteers working with stroke patients, while work at the hospital and at An Lanntara is said to be “ongoing”.

Basketry, which is now among The Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of Endangered Crafts, was once an everyday and essential skill in communities up and down the land.

“People didn’t have plastic bags, crates or boxes, and baskets were a fundamental part of everything people did,” says Dr Bunn. “Whether you were gathering eggs, fishing or with a creel on your back, you needed a basket weaver.”

The therapeutic values of the craft were recognised, and it became common for basketry to be practised at Victorian institutions for the blind and disabled, and at farm schools where young people who had fallen foul of the law were given training in a range of practical skills.

It was pioneered as a therapy during the First World War for shell shock victims, with the simple, repetitive action thought to distract them from the horrors of their trauma, which in some cases caused paralysis and muscle contractions.

While widely regarded as effective, the use of basketry in occupational therapy settings for people with brain injuries eventually came to be regarded as unfashionable and too time-consuming, and it faded in favour of other techniques.

Less, meanwhile, was known of its potentially positive impact on dementia patients.

It’s now thought basketwork can help re-stablish neural pathways and improve brain plasticity in people who have experienced a stroke or brain trauma.

While in communities where basketry has a long and relatively recent heritage, the action of making items associated with the past can trigger a range of memories.

Dr Bunn adds: “People often associate stroke with difficulty of movement down one side of the body or the other side, but it’s also about emotional states like empathy or insight.

“The process of using both hands and moving tension across, helps a part of the brain integrate both sides.

“We can’t regenerate old brain cells and we can’t mend broken nerve cells but can encourage new ones to grow or old ones to take on new skills.

“That seems to be part of what is going on and can have a great effect.

“It doesn’t mean someone will learn to use their left hand or leg again, but it might mean they can start socialising better or get their sense of humour back and engage with other people.”

She adds: “It’s a hand skill which involves a lot of hand to eye coordination and a lot of moving and turning from left to right.

“Once you have learned it, your body starts to take over and although you have to think about it at first when trying to do it, eventually you don’t have to think.”

Retired consultant neuro pathologist Dr Tim Palmer, who took up basket weaving to help balance the demands of his role and now works with stroke patients, says the craft combines a range of techniques which appear to help ‘reboot’ damaged pathways in the brain which enable muscle movement.

For stroke patients, the pattern, repetitive yet precise nature of the craft and the need to work from left to right and back is believed to stimulate and exercise the brain.

“During one session, one patient began moving her left arm in a way she had not moved before. She previously had to pick up her arm,” he says.

“Another had a quite troublesome tremor in one hand and leg that made life difficult in terms of holding a cup, writing and painting which was something he wanted to do.

“He was glum, depressed and very ill. Over a period of four or five weeks doing some basketmaking, the tremor partly disappeared.”

As well as improving physical movement, the craft brings mental health and social benefits to patients, he adds.

“One of the first patients I worked with said ‘I feel useful again, I can do something that is of benefit and it’s wonderful’. She was persuaded to enter one of her baskets in a local agricultural show and won first prize.”

Meanwhile, Dr Bunn says the social aspect of handcrafts – as shown by knitting and crochet groups - also plays an important role, particularly among dementia patients.

“It encourages chat while you keep on working with your hands,” she adds. “All these things are very helpful in stirring memories in people with dementia.”