Two British basket makers are hoping to revive the unique craft of weaving the traditional fishing baskets, nases tal-hut, in Malta and Gozo.

Geraldine Jones and Hilary Burns, who have been in basketry for 20 years, were in Malta and Gozo for two weeks to learn the technique of making these oval-shaped fishing traps and to study the state of basket making on the island.

The aims of the two women, who run courses and a basket business in Cornwall, are to promote basketry in a contemporary way while also promoting traditional techniques.

Traps were traditionally made with disa, a fine reed-like material, but these days they are made out of nylon, which is virtually indestructible - but less attractive.

The striking shape of the nassa first caught Ms Jones' eye two years ago when she was in Malta working with Kneehigh Theatre's production A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.

"I spent an afternoon with Salvu tal-Berta in Xewkija, seeing how he weaves these fishing baskets. I had never seen something so delicate and unusual in all my years working in this craft," she said.

One afternoon was not enough to quench her curiosity, so she returned to the island, joined by Ms Burns and supported by the city guild, Worshipful Company of Basket Makers.

Unfortunately, the old man had died two weeks prior to her return so Salvu's son George Xuereb patiently dedicated his time to passing on the technique, while his sister Michelle translated.

"George had learnt the trade from his father when he was just 13, and though he doesn't work in this craft any longer, he still knew the exact methods," Ms Jones said.

"We were both deeply touched by the kindness of the Xuerebs, especially at such a difficult time after the recent death of their father," she added.

While the two learnt under Mr Xuereb, Gozitan neighbours would look on with broad smiles, certain that the foreigners would be unable to master the trade.

"The Gozitans were surprised and pleased that somebody was interested, but they were convinced we wouldn't get there - we proved we could learn," Ms Jones said with a smile.

During their "lessons", Ms Jones and Ms Burns were disappointed to learn that the material that used to be brought over from Tunis, disa, to make the traps and cheeselet baskets was no longer available.

"It's such a pity that disa is not readily available and we want to help these people get the material to reintroduce this technique and craft," Ms Burns said.

Ms Burns said that the traditional combination of netting and basketry used to make the fishing traps was fascinating.

"While here we have also looked at the different basket making methods. It's interesting to see that craftsmen use the Mediterranean cane qasab, while we use willow in the UK," she explained.

The two women, who returned to Cornwall last night, are now looking into the possibility of raising the profile of basket making in Malta.

They plan to return to Malta in Easter to work with students to create contemporary products. The idea is to work side-by-side with the Gozitans to pass on the techniques to the younger generation.

The Bamboozle Fair is also being planned in Cornwall in 2007 for people who work with split materials, to unite and share knowledge and skills.

"We are hoping that we can help the Gozitans organise themselves into a basketry group to fly over to Cornwall to take part. Their techniques of making the nassa will definitely go down well with the fishermen in our fishing village," Ms Jones said.

Fishing with traps

Traps used to catch bogue (vopi) and picarel (arznell) are usually set in the afternoon and they are pulled out of the water after four or five hours. Normally, about 15 of these pots are set at a depth of 15 to 20 metres and kept some one metre above the seabed.

Bait consisting of bread mashed with finely powdered dried beans is placed hanging on the side of the pot and the fish enter through the bottom constriction attracted by the bait.

This kind of fishing takes place all the year round and the fish caught in the traps are fried, if big enough, or for fish soup.

The nases tal-arznell are only used in Gozo. They are employed in the same manner as the traps for bogue but no bait is required because it is thought that the fish enter the pot to spawn.

This kind of fishing takes place from March to mid-May.

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