A Tisket a Tasket

A Tisket a Tasket

An Interview with Madison County Basket Weaver, Louise Langsner

In the mid 1970s, after months of living and working with farmers and craftspeople in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, Louise Langsner and her husband, Drew, came back to the States, packed up their van and went out in search of their own path around the capitalist hustle. For 35 years they’ve run Country Workshop, an internationally recognized woodworking school with a focus on handwork with hand tools, in a tucked away holler deep in Madison County, North Carolina.  

Louise makes baskets with willow that she’s grown, harvested, and prepared on her land.  On an icy day this winter, Louise and I sat down in the home she and Drew built to talk about the life they'd built by hand.  Read on to find out how two young Californians left it all behind and went back-to-the-land way before it was cool.  It's a beautiful story.  

 Madison County basket weaver Louise Langsner, using a Native American technique for splitting dried willow.

Madison County basket weaver Louise Langsner, using a Native American technique for splitting dried willow.

Connie: I want to start from the very beginning and hear about what brought you and Drew to this place and this life.  Can you trace an arc that landed you here? Or does it feel like life just all happened out that way?

Louise: Well, Drew and I got married in 1971.  Drew had already planned a trip to Nepal. He had this overland trip from Europe to Nepal in mind, and so I got on board. We thought we were gonna take planes and buses and hitchhike and the reality of that didn’t work for us. So we got a motorcycle instead and got going.

C: Where did you start from?

L: We flew to London, and then we got the motorcycle in Germany.  It was a really rainy winter so we dried out  in Greece for the season and took a ferry over to Turkey. Between Germany and Greece we were in Yugoslavia and Southern Germany. We stayed with farmers and peasants. Well, we never got to Nepal! The motorcycle wasn’t ever going to make it all the way. At the edge of Turkey there was a little sign pointing to Iraq - just a little wooden sign with an arrow. And it was just obvious that the motorcycle had had enough.  And so we turned around and went back through Turkey and we ended up putting the motorcycle on a train and taking it back to Germany. We traded  it in for a little VW Bug - much more reliable! So we started driving all around Switzerland and we picked up a hitchhiker who let us stay at his place in the Alps. That was when we first learned about coopering.  We saw these beautiful wooden milking buckets and Drew got the idea that he really wanted to learn to make them. We did some other traveling and we lived around Scandinavia, but made our way back and stayed with the cooper. Drew did a three month apprenticeship and I stayed with another friend up in the mountains who was a cheesemaker. That kind of inoculated us. We liked being with people that made things - made their own food and raised their own food and lived in home that they’d made that were full of more things they’d made.   

C: Had you been exposed to much of that before this trip or was this kinda like a revelation?

L:  It was an absolute revelation. The closest I think I’d been to that was staying in West Virginia in the late 60’s and seeing people that lived that way - subsistence farmers basically. But you know, in this country we see that sort of life as poor.

C: Something that they weren’t doing by choice?

L: Well, it was sort of by choice but sort of not. Because of the complicated coal mining impact on their culture. But the people that we stayed with on our travels felt rich. Their lives felt rich.  Even though they were, you know, financially poor. They had really good, beautiful things in their life.

C:  Good food, beautiful land, and...

L: ...and they were happy.  They had their families and they all just felt connected - and that felt important to us. When we got back here, Drew had a contract to write a book. So we wrote this book, I helped some, called Handmade about that traveling time.

C: Drew had the contract before you set off on your trip?

L: Yeah. It was a fortunate accident sort of thing. We had a little money to help with the trip from that and then we made the book and after that we really wanted to find some land. A lot of the Back to the Land type things were going on then and that’s what we wanted to do, but we were out of money.  A friend had already bought this place. He had been looking around the Southern Appalachians and bought 200 acres, this cove we’re in now, with the idea that it would be a craft community or an art community of some kind.  Drew wanted to have wood to work with.

C: He’d been working with wood before he went on the trip?

L: Not in the same way, not handwork. He and a friend had been making children’s playgrounds.  He went to art school for sculpture and painting, and he liked making things. So that was their business.  His friend stayed with that business and did that for a lot of years. Kind of morphed into adventure playgrounds - you know - with big wood sculptures. So yeah, he always liked making things and working with his hands, but it was really the Cooper that introduced him to hand tools. Anyway, we moved here without a plan. The friend said we could come here and if we liked it we could stay or if we didn’t we could look around and find something else. We stayed.  Our friend never even came. He ended up staying in California.

C:  That’s where you’re both from, right? California?

L:  We both are, yes. Although I grew up near Chicago and then went back. Drew was born and raised in Los Angeles.

C: That’s what I thought. And his father was from there too?

L: Both parents. I think that his grandparents moved there from New Jersey. They had been on an utopian commune in New Jersey and then moved to Ontario and had a health farm. And then they moved to Los Angeles.  Drew had really been done with Southern California a long time ago. He’d been living up in the Bay Area for ten or twelve  years. Anyway, we had a 52’ Chevy van and Drew made it into a little camper inside and we had a trailer and we drove that thing all across the country and then straight up this muddy driveway. And we stayed in what’s now Naomi’s  cabin [Naomi is Drew + Louise’s lovely daughter]. It was built in the late 20’s and it was basically a shack. But we were just happy to be here. So, Drew started making wooden things like pitchforks and started selling them to a little country store in Kentucky that sold things like that.  And we both kept writing magazine articles.  People found out about us and contacted us through the book, Handmade.  We made so many wonderful friends through that. Because there was no Internet people really had to want to find us - and somehow they did.

C: How did they find you?

L: I’m not even sure! I think they wrote to the publisher! Can you imagine?  But people just started showing up and saying, “We read your book!” We met really, really good, lifelong friends that way. [Guys, Drew and Louise live in the middle of nowhere.  The Internet has made us so lazy!] We kept writing articles about homesteading and gardening for things like Country Journal and Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening, so people kept hearing about us. And one of the people that contacted us from the book was Bill Coperthwaite who had the Yurt Foundation up in Maine. And he came down and met us. The hand woodworking counter culture community was pretty small. But he was a person that liked to travel and liked to make connections and introduce people and always learn about new crafts and things like that.  He came down and visited us and brought a man he knew from Sweden, Wille Sundqvist [check out the video embedded here showing Wille at work]. Billy knew just a little English, but he was a fabulous craftsperson. He showed Drew some things like knife work and axe work. We had the idea that it would be wonderful to learn from him. And since we couldn't afford to go back there, we invited him to come here. So then we thought well, we’ll see if he would come to teach a class. He agreed and the next year he came back and taught a couple classes for us. We put some announcements in some of the magazines we wrote for and people came.  We had no running water, no electricity and and no workshop - the classes were in the cow barn and people camped. They loved it. Billy is an incredible teacher. He was what they called a craft consultant in Sweden and he grew up with the craft tradition. He is now 90 and has been making things with wood since he was big enough to hold a knife, so about 85 year - a truly wonderful person and teacher.  Everybody just loved him. The  second class we had that summer was with Peter Gott who lived down the road.  He was a superb builder of log homes and he agreed to teach a class.  So I think that was another two weeks of classes.  And that was the beginning of Country Workshops.  We didn’t come here with the plan that we were gonna have a school - it just happened. And we kept doing it, adding classes, meeting more people and inviting them to come teach.  It grew from there until one day we looked around and said, “Oh, we’re running a school.”  

C: When was this all getting started?

L: The first class was in 1978. That’s when the first logs for this house we’re sitting in now were hewed. And then Drew worked on it for a couple more years and we moved in in 80’.

C: It’s amazing that people found you way out here without Internet. Though then things were so much less saturated. There was so much less noise.  Now anybody can teach a class and put it online. Even in Asheville there’s just so much noise that it’s so hard to sift through and find out what’s real and worth your time.

L: There were hardly any places to go for that sort of thing at that time. Even John C. Campbell and Penland were all but dead until they were revived over the years.

C: Both of them had a lull in popularity?

L: Yeah, I think probably during the 60’s maybe even the 50’s, the interest in handcraft was pretty low.  No one was thinking, “I think I’d like to learn how to weave.”

C: Right, they were like, “That stuff’s for grandmas. I’m over it.”

L: Right. But slowly people realized that sorta thing is really enjoyable and important.

C : In the last few years of teaching classes did you see a difference in who was coming out for classes?

L: It was always pretty much retired guys and mostly men.  Gradually more women started coming and also by the last five years we were getting younger people and more mixture of ages. I think there are a lot of reasons, but I think a lot of people now work so much with computers or in their head and so doing something with their hands is really appealing.

C:  We grapple with this a lot because most young people who are able to take on traditional apprenticeships like that come from relative privilege and can be financially supported by their families. It limits who is able to come and work.

L: The model is really hard to make work in our culture.  Like the cooper that Drew apprenticed with - growing up his family was so poor that he had to be sent to another farm when he was 7 years old to go to work. He worked on the farm and sent money home until he was a teenager and then he apprenticed with a cooper.  At that time the cooper worked during the winter and did farm work during the summer.  His apprenticeship was seven years long and only then did he feel like he was ready. And still he was only beginning to make money as a cooper in 72’ when we met him. City people who had some money started to realize how special his work was. He kept knocking out rougher buckets for farmers and feeding buckets but he also made really beautiful decorative ones.  I remember him telling Drew you know, “I’m sorry, I can't pay you, but I’ll teach you” so they didn't pay their apprentices anything.

C: That’s how it is in so many apprenticeship traditions.  But it’s so hard to make that work in our capitalist culture. Taking that tradition and trying to grid it onto our system now is so difficult. Anyway, let’s talk baskets.  Did you teach basket weaving in classes at all?

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