Coffin making on our Somerset farm is very different to a factory that mass produces caskets made from wood. Here, you won’t see a production line or a conveyor belt. Cutting machines aren’t churning out wood ready to be glued and nailed in place. Instead, a weaver will be skilfully manipulating willow. Aside from some music, the overriding sound in our workshops is the click-clack of willow being woven.
Coffin making – One coffin, one weaver
A weaver here isn’t responsible for a specific part of a coffin. He or she is responsible for all of it. That’s the shape, coloured band(s), handles (load-bearing not just decorative), plait and the rest of the lid. Many families choose to customise a coffin with a loved one’s favourite colour, so the weaver needs to get the design right – first time.
During the course of a week, one of our weavers may not weave the same coffin twice. In the morning a weaver might be putting the finishing touches to a traditional shaped Sedgemoor coffin woven entirely with buff willow. In the afternoon, that same weaver could be making a curved end Rainbow Twist coffin. Our most experienced weavers work on bespoke designs. Several willow boat coffins have left our workshop!
Now, this blog hasn’t been written to take a swipe at modern day coffin making practices. It’s just not the way our family business works. That being said, there are occasions when our weavers have to contend with hardships which wouldn’t affect a worker in a modern-day coffin making factory.
Making coffins in all weathers
As thermometers hit 30 degrees in most parts of the UK this week, spare a thought for our weavers. It wasn’t so long ago that these guys and girls were having to break through ice to get to the willow soaking in large troughs. (Willow needs to be soaked before it can be woven with and this in itself is quite a skill.) Weaving with cold willow isn’t much fun.
Temperature extremes are problematic for a willow weaver. For a start, willow soaking times change markedly. Willow takes far longer to soak on a cold day than on a hot one. A weaver in our workshop is always having to plan ahead. As a weaver works on one coffin, they need to be soaking the willow for the next one or two. White willow has to be soaked separately to other willow. Troughs are set aside of naturally dyed willow. (A customer can choose from 5 natural willow finishes and/or 16 different naturally dyed colours.) Needless to say, the numerous large soaking troughs on our farm are nearly always full.
In a warm workshop willow dries quickly as it is being woven. A weaver has to work fast and accurately. Our coffin weaving workshops don’t have air conditioning and weaving is physical work. During the summer months shorts are certainly the clothing attire of choice.
Coffin making jobs
You need to be a highly skilled weaver to make a willow coffin bearing the Musgrove Willows name. Our coffins have been rigorously tested and approved by the F.F.M.A and are suitable for any type of burial or cremation. Standards here are very high. Only the best quality willow is used. It has been grown, harvested and hand sorted on our Somerset farm.
Many of our weavers have been with us for years and they, along with members of the Musgrove family, are able to pass on their skills to a new generation of weavers. Demand for our willow coffins has risen dramatically over the past couple of years and recruiting weavers to keep up with demand has been difficult. To counter this, Musgrove Willows recently launched its own willow weaving apprenticeships. These have been a resounding success. It’s lovely to see former apprentices now weaving stunning willow coffins and ashes caskets.
There are usually always at least two weaving apprenticeships on offer. It takes a special kind of person to become an expert willow weaver and an even more special one to make a Musgrove Willows coffin. If you’re interested in learning willow coffin making as a career, please get in touch.