There’s a lot to making a Lobster pot the traditional way. Constructed in a mathematical formula, when you get it right, its form and proportion fall into place just like a sum! But there’s more than the pot itself to the story.
In Purbeck, the winter seas, proving rough and hazardous, saw the Purbeck fishermen taking a break from Lobster fishing to work in the quarries. In the spare moments from work at the quarries, in a sheltered spot warmed by the winter sun, or in front of the fire, the pot making would begin. Traditionally it was the men that made the pots, however the wives, with their nimble fingers, would make the more delicately woven and smaller shrimp pots.
Each family had its own distinctive construction style. Making any basket pulled out of the sea recognisable and traceable to the fisherman that owned it. Much like an Aran sweater from the west of Ireland.
The basic material used to build a pot are withies. These come from a species of Willow grown for this purpose; cultivated in beds, usually by a pond or river and cut at a specific time of year. January till March are when the withies are at their most flexible and strongest; just right for bending and weaving without cracking.
Traditionally on boxing day the withy beds were visited and the fresh pliable withies cut from the “Mock” or stump of the willow tree and bundled in size order. The stronger chunkier ones called “Ribs” for the vertical structure with the thiner “Tails” wispy and easily woven around them. All an amazing array of tones from yellow to shiny orange to burnt umber: a delight of warm colour in the washed out tones of winter.
The technique of construction
The pot starts with the forming of the mouth: Into a circular timber disc, with a string in the centre, twelve ribs, are firmly inserted into pre-drilled holes. These are over a meter long and 8mm in thickness. Two of the longest tail withies are woven between these and before ending two more are added in, thus keeping two tails going throughout the entire weaving of the pot.
Once 75mm of weave depth is achieved four tails are pushed down towards the timber disc and pulled under and up to strengthen the mouth. The neck continues its weave till about 150mm tall.
The pot is then turned upside down, the ribs splaying backwards to be gathered up and tied above by the string, forming a splendid globe shape.
The weaving continues apace, now working with three thin withies together. These plait naturally as they snake around the ribs, spiralling slowly upwards and forming the pot. Strong supple hands are needed, as the pulling taught of the withies is essential in achieving an evenly round basket. Regular tapping down on the plait with a timber rod as the withies go round ensures a strong firm pot.
The base is the trickiest bit and by now unaccustomed hands are red and sore. This is the part of the pot that sits on the seabed and gets worn by the constant swell of tides.
Originally a stronger “Green” withy was used for the base but these are no longer around, so a combination of long and short ribs are used instead. These are added to the tails in order and passed under the plaited bundles of three. Again and again, around and around, until a coiled matt is formed.
As the coil gets tighter towards the centre, two of the bundles are left out and plaited concurrently. These plaited tongues must extend beyond the side of the pot by over a hands width. Meanwhile the coil continues inwards to almost close. The plaits are then pulled through into the pot and across its base to tuck into the double bonding of the outer frame. The entire pot now has all the wispy ends trimmed off with the snips, making it neat and tidy. Finally the mouth is strengthened with twine right around.
Pots are baited by pushing through a thick pointed withy from the outside. With one hand inside the basket a small fish is skewered on to it and the withy continues inward to get embedded in the central column of the mouth. These lures continue to be added every three inches or so, until a full circle is complete. The pot is then weighted down with rocks, lowered to the seabed and marked with a float above.
Dorset lobsters are particularly sweet and tender due to the fairly unpolluted sea within Dorset’s marine reserves. Being indeterminate growers lobsters can grow to the size of a large dog if they’re not lured into a pot first and then another pot!