Sarah Ready is working alongside Dave French in their movement to revive the critically endangered craft of hand-made willow crab and lobster pots. She is the first generation of fishermen in her family. Despite not being in her blood, she was constantly exposed to fishing and the ocean as a child.
She was born in a house next to a beach. And grew up with the crashing waves against the sandy shore and the singing of seagulls as background noise in her childhood. As a young girl, she would always admire the little fishing boats that were docked outside her house. Since she was tiny, Sarah would read the ‘Fishing News’ because her dad did.
Sarah met her husband 34 years ago at the ripe age of 21. He, similarly to Sarah, didn’t come from a long line of fishermen either. He too was the first of his family. Her husband was working as a fisherman when she met him, and in this partnership, she inherited a passion for fishing. Since being with her husband, Sarah has fished on and off for the past 30 years. Before learning the benefits of willow pots, they would mainly fish with nets along the coast of Sussex.
For years, Sarah was fascinated by crab pots for numerous reasons. She admired the authenticness of the craft. How the willow is yielded and bent by hand, the artistic design of the pots as well as being significantly better for the environment than other plastic alternatives.
Once discovering the craft, Sarah was determined to partake. Dave French has taken on the task of teaching Sarah the craft. She is currently Dave’s apprentice, and is very committed to learning.
However, Dave French wasn’t Sarah’s first exposure to willow pots. Before meeting Dave, Sarah reached out to the few pot makers in the South West. There are only twelve currently known withy pot makers to date.
She spoke with a few crab pot makers, such as Alan Lander and Dave Harrison. Dave Harrison made crab pots in the Cornish style, whereas Alan Lander made pots the Dorset style, which is very similar to the South Devon style. Although Sarah enjoyed learning about the different styles of pot making, and was eager to learn more. She found herself in a tangled mess with all these variations. She didn’t know where to begin when making her out pots and certainly didn’t know which style of potting to use. Sarah found it hard to find a style of pot making that suited her best. Cornish or Devon.
Dave French, who is a fifth generation withy-pot maker, advised Sarah to stick to one style of pot. The Budleigh crab pot. This style of pot making has been carried down in Dave’s family. Budleigh is Dave’s hometown, where he, like Sarah, grew up near the beach. As a young boy, he would watch his grandfather and uncles make crab pots in the back garden, crab pots that he, forty years later, would master the craft of. And twenty years after that, would be passed on to Sarah Ready.
Fishing is very much a male-dominated industry. Although there are significantly more female fishermen in today’s age than there were fifty years ago. The invisibility of women in fisheries, along with things like gender or social norms and expectations limiting their participation have led to women very much being underrepresented in fisheries decision-making. While there may not be as many women working on the water as men, women in our fishing community play an integral role in bringing seafood from the ocean to our tables. And Sarah, with her 30+ years of experience under her belt as well as her work towards the revival of withy-pots and anti-sea-pollution, has proven their significance greatly. Sarah achieved her ‘Skipper’s certificate’, a 32 day course over which she completed over the space of 18 days with a group of other candidates that were mostly men. ’Didn’t have one bad experience with them.’ Sarah recalls no experience of misogyny working alongside them, if anything she proved her rightful place among the other candidates on the course.
Sarah acknowledges that the industry is an extremely tough one to be a part of. ‘You have to have very thick skin,’ Sarah states, ‘You have to be tough to work in that industry.’ Sarah didn’t dwell on the idea of the industry being male orientated. If anything, this motivated her. She used it to her advantage; it’s because she is one of the few women taking part in the industry that she stands out. Sarah has carved out a space for herself in the industry. Sarah is an active member in the fishing community, which is why she is the perfect person alongside Dave French to fight for the survival of this dying craft. In other instances, Sarah said that she is ‘ always chasing regulators to make sure we have a future moving forward with fishing’. She believes that it is important to see where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going. Fishing Isn’t just an industry in Sarah’s eyes, it’s more than that. It’s a community. ‘Like any other job, the people you work with become like a family. But in a way the fishing community is more than that, because it’s embedded in your life. It isn’t just a career, it’s a lifestyle.’
When asked what her greatest accomplishment is in terms of her career and the path she is currently on to learning the craft of withy-pot making, she jokes, ‘Dave not throwing me out.’ Sarah is very open with her struggles of mastering the craft. But this does not reflect weakness, instead, it reflects her drive to succeed. A notable characteristic that Sarah holds is her determination and perseverance. She doesn’t give up easily and is adamant on keeping this craft alive.
Sarah stated that what keeps her passionate is that the pots are not only a thing of beauty, but they’re also a practical item. This is crucial in the revival of the craft. Although it is appreciative when (e.g.) seafood restaurants pay for a willow pot to put up in their restaurant for decor, the driving force to keeping this craft alive is for it to be used for its original and practical purpose; to be fished with.
It seems that Sarah is not the only one in the fishing community that is interested in the craft, which does arouse hope in its revival. ‘It’s great how many fishermen are interested in the withy pots’. This interest is rooted from the fact that the fish-monging community will pay more for seafood that has been caught using a willow pot because it is significantly more environmentally friendly as well as ocean friendly. Sarah states, ‘They want to learn and they want to use them, and that is the attitude we need in order for this craft to survive.’ Sarah states, the only issue with the craft is that it is so time consuming, not only to make a pot but the process of learning how to make one and to perfect it. Sarah says, ‘It’s a craft that you really need to be devoted to.’
Furthermore, with costs of living going up, Sarah worries that the younger generation may overlook the craft, because there isn’t a lot of money in it. Consumerism is an issue when it comes to the survival of this craft. ‘Everything is so expensive nowadays’ Sarah says. The more our society progresses, the higher prices rise. And this is an issue for the craft because it means that young people aren’t going to be overly enthusiastic in participating if there isn’t very much money in it. No one is taking this craft up because it is not financially viable to fish with willow pots and those making for stage sets, décor and souvenirs are part removed from the fishing experience and as they hand the knowledge on that relationship will be lost.
When asked what she believes the next steps are in order for craft to survive, Sarah replies, ‘We need to keep doing what we are already doing.’ and that is keeping the craft in the eye of the public. Dave French has attended several seafood and craft events over the past few years dotted all around the South West. Dave displays how he makes the pots and openly answers any questions the public have for him. By displaying how pots are handmade from scratch has drawn a lot of attention to the craft, exceeding the South West. Both Sarah and Dave believe that the craft needs younger people to get involved, to carry the art and pass it down to the younger generation. This need is urgent, particularly because those left still making these pots fall into age brackets 60-70, 70-80. Sarah states, ‘The big problem is time and the ability to carry on. If makers’ hands weaken through arthritis etc or the public no longer support them the craft will become extinct within a very short time.’
Thankfully, there is a shared opinion amongst the younger generation which is anti-pollution and keeping the planet green. This is a great movement with a large mass of younger people contributing towards it. With willow pots being environmentally friendly and a great alternative to plastic nets and pots. Furthermore, research conducted by the Ocean Cleanup in 2022 shows that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is largely composed of fishing-related plastic waste, with 75% to 86% of all plastic waste in the GPGP identified as coming from offshore fishing. The revival of willow pots and by spreading the knowledge of this dying craft could help drastically decrease that sickening number.
Written by Milla James.