The city of Lichtenfels in Franconia is known as the basket city of Germany. It lies at the intersection of ancient, fascinating natural and cultural landscapes. Franconian Switzerland, the Fichtel Mountains, the Franconian Forest and Thuringian Forest, the Hassberg Mountains and the Steiger Forest gently frame the city. The city itself is full of history – just like the crafts for which it is so well known.
The baroque town hall, the two gate towers, stately burgher houses that bear witness to the time when Lichtenfeld was the center of the wickerwork trade, underground passages and the medieval town fortifications characterize the image of the old town. At the gates lies the Franconian triumvirate, characteristic of the legendary Staffelberg, the Ganz Monastery and the Basilica of Vierzehnheiligen.
There could be no better setting for a craft that has such a long tradition and has been practiced since time immemorial. In the second half of the 18th century, basketry flourished on the Upper Main. The inhabitants in the overpopulated villages around Lichtenfeld could no longer support themselves through agriculture alone. For many, basketry provided a welcome, additional source of income, as pasture was plentiful in the area: The location in the Main valley and the annual flooding of the river provided conditions that were ideal for the growth of plants.
100 years later, Lichtenfeld became the center of the basket trade, not least thanks to the emerging railroad connection. The handmade pieces were sold from here all over the world. In 1901, the Upper Franconian basket industry (together with the companies in Saxe-Coburg) sold goods worth 11 million marks. From Lichtenfeld and Coburg, a total of more than 3,900 freight cars with basketry were sent on their way in 1912. Today, Lichtenfeld is home to the only vocational school in Germany that teaches the craft of basket weaving. Also the annual basket market, a museum, a basket city queen and an innovation center testify how much the tradition of basket weavers is kept alive. The school building on Kronauer Street, which still houses the Korbfachschule, was built in 109/10.
It requires just six tools. The hands are his most important tool. Machines cannot replace manual labor. The spicy smell of willow is in the air. We are talking about a basket weaver. Basket weavers need only a folding rule, scissors, knife, chopping iron, a kind of spike called an awl, and a cutter (a special knife with a wide tip) for their craft. However, the most important thing is and remains the hands. Basket weaving is purely handmade, there are no machines that can do the job to the same quality as humans. Willow branches are irregular and can break in some places – but machines can hardly detect this. Braiding can be done only by hand, even if nowadays braided at the cheapest prices suggest industrial production. But even cheap offers are made by hand, the difference is the quality of the material and the time saved in production, which ultimately affects the quality of the finished basket. In addition, production often takes place in low-wage countries. Only woven seats are manufactured industrially.
But even if the profession requires only six tools and the weaving looks so simple: a lot of dexterity is required. The threads not only have to be braided around the cross braces, it is also a matter of controlling the cross braces: Pull, push, alignment, left, right – this needs concentration, so that the result is not crooked and skewed. The job requires patience and accuracy; a rare commodity in this day and age. Apprentices learn about the different types of braiding and the range of materials during their time at Lichtenfelds. But the profession of basket weaver is not limited to just weaving baskets. The daily work in the weaving workshop often begins with the preparation of the natural materials: willow rods must be peeled, dried, and spliced before they are shortened to a uniform length. Before they can be processed, the rods must be soaked in a water bath to make them soft and pliable. The hands also show the real handwork, they are often dry and bruised.
But the profession requires even more than manual dexterity. A basket weaver needs a lot of creativity and a spatial imagination. Basket makers are always looking for new designs and shapes. Today, you can not really live on the classic baskets. Instead, the idea is to experiment with new colors, shapes, patterns and materials. Therefore, since 2006, the profession is no longer called basket maker or basket weaver, but wickerwork designer. The profession is not only a pure craft, but also a piece of art. Even apprentices develop their own designs and shapes at the vocational school in Lichtenfelds. In addition, a wickerwork designer must be able to adapt to the specific tastes and wishes of the customer.
But the profession is not a foregone conclusion. For one thing, the interior design style today – unlike in the nineties, for example – is dominated by cool materials, such as glass or stainless steel, and by clear forms. Basket makers also need to find the right audience, people who still appreciate traditional craftsmanship: since the mass advent of plastic in the early 1950s, many purchases are transported in bags rather than baskets. Furthermore, a lot of creativity is needed to counter the low-cost competition from Asia. Thus, today it is often only those who trade in foreign goods, rather than making the baskets themselves, who earn reasonable earnings. Today, a real basket maker has to make a living: Basket maker Stefan Rippten, for example, the last full-time basket maker in Sand am Main, works 10 to 14 hours a day – even on Saturdays – to earn a living. Every Sunday he goes to markets. He needs an average of three hours for a shopping basket and can sell it for 50 to 60 euros. Real basket weavers today will never be able to run medium-sized companies. It remains true craftsmanship.
The history of arts and crafts is marked by ups and downs, once struggling to become a serious industry and then plummeting to a dying profession due to outside influences – within 100 years. The number of companies or active basket makers is decreasing. The basket weavers’ guild in Baden-Württemberg, based in Freiburg, for example, now has just under two dozen full members. Companies with a wide range of products, such as the Witt basket weaving company, are few and far between; many basket weavers, without being members of the guild, operate as lone wolves at markets and trade fairs and are often highly specialized. Today, there are no more apprenticeship companies for dual training. In the past, the companies were very specialized, for example, they only produced laundry baskets, and then they also wove on a piecework basis in large companies. Today, basketry businesses like Witt Basketry need to be more diverse.