Wonders of weaving

Baskets ready for foraging

Many years ago now I recall making my first willow basket. Let’s just say it wasn’t one of the crafts that immediately captured my imagination in the long list of things I wanted to try under the title of wilderness living skills. I’d always just thought of hampers and those sorry looking baskets in charity shop windows which seemed to struggle to find a new home. In an effort to connect with the craft I tried to think of something to make that would capture my imagination and produce something I’d find useful to use, then it struck me! A quiver for my arrows, perfect I thought as I set to work to form my first creation in willow sending me on a path to understand the craft a little further.

Willow weavers
Willow weavers – photo by Jay Jenner

Basketry in all its forms has a long history with weaving flexible woody shoots to create any conceivable shape or form through function and beyond into its own artform of sculptures today. The culture of basket making is worldwide with plant materials native to the area following the rule of thumb that if you can bend the woody fibres of a plant around your wrist then it is good for basketry.

I discovered that references to weaving baskets has been mentioned as far back as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and even predates woven cloth. In Britain fragments of willow weaving have been discovered at an Iron age settlement at Glastonbury’s Lake Village dated 100BCE. Baskets were used by our ancestors from cradle to the grave and everything in between from cribs, cots, containers to hold all manner of objects, strainers, foraging baskets, traps, backpacks, to coffins, the list goes on. Before firing clay was discovered baskets were lined with clay to make a waterproof container and before the potter’s wheel, baskets were used as a mould for clay objects.

Selection of woven products from eel trap, baskets, and hampers
Selection of woven products from eel trap, baskets, and hampers – photo by Jay Jenner

It stayed this way for thousands of years until a new technology came to the fore in the form of the cardboard box which was being produced in mass by 1817, this saw a decline in the use of woven containers. These new cardboard boxes were rigid with lids and it was not until 1870 when an American printer named Robert Gair invented the folding cardboard box that we are more familiar with today.

The value of willow was recognised once more as it was put to use during WWII in the form of willow hampers for storing food and ammunition, which were used to air lift them to troops. It became so important to the war effort that commercially grown willow was not allowed to be used for any other purpose. This forced traditional basket makers to go to the hedgerow for their materials, which was harvested through annual pruning between September and February or after a storm with fallen trees. Between this time the sap is down and it also avoided nesting birds, any material that could be harvested after this time often produced brighter colours. They would also ensure they left at least 2-3 buds for the following year’s growth.

Harvesting willow
Harvesting willow – photo by Barry Hammick

Different species provided different characteristics which could be used in different ways.

  • Ash was used for handles
  • Blackthorn needed de-thorning, but is strong and flexible
  • Dogwood is a bit stiff but is good for stakes to weave in between and gives lovely purply bark if harvested from a sunny spot
  • Elm is best use in big baskets as it is very thick
  • Field maple gives nice colourful ginger brown shoots
  • Hazel is the traditional gypsy basket but is prone to cracking if not twisted
  • Young saplings of birch make a nice addition to side weaving
  • Pollard willow and lime trees also provided ideal opportunities, where the tree has been cut at 10-15 feet high to protect its young shoots from grazing animals.

More traditional materials would fill the gap like the very pliable suckers growing from around the base of beech trees, fruit trees like apple, pear, plumb could be used for a plain basket, popular or aspen could be used before their buds got sticky and sweet chestnut being good for handles giving a nice grey colour. After cutting most material needs to dry out slowly to avoid shrinkage when the basket has been completed. The best way is to tie bundles up tag and date them and weather them under a hedge or shady spot for 2-3 weeks.

Alternative materials to use or combine are the long pieces from climbing plants, these vary from

  • Bramble which is very strong and pliable
  • Clematis which you coil and boiled for 10-15 minutes before peeling but can be weak at the joins
  • Dog rose by easing the thorns off at 90 degrees prior to use
  • Holly shoots that are trailing the floor and only needs weathering a few days as they get brittle
  • Honeysuckle boiled just like the clematis and peeled
  • Hop with decorative flowers which needs to be used before it stiffens as it can’t be soaked
Instructing willow basket making
Instructing willow basket making – photo by Jay Jenner

Commercial modern baskets mainly use willow, rush and cane. In terms of willow osier it is grown commercially in lowland land Britain, on the somerset levels, Ormskirk area of Lancashire and areas of Cambridgeshire. There are now over 60 species, hybrids and cultivated varieties varying in colour, strength a flexibility. Colour is more apparent in the first year of growth which fades over time.

Farmed willow is traditionally sold in 5kg bundles called bolts supplied in foot lengths from three feet to seven available in three styles from ‘brown’ where the bark is left on and dried requiring being submerged in water one day per foot of willow which can then be used for up to a week if kept wrapped. ‘Buff’ where it has been boiled to aid bark removal and the process stains the wood golden from the tannings, requiring soaking for just a couple of hours before working and can be used for a couple of days. White willow is the third option where the withies are cut and left in shallow water over winter, in the spring the bark can be peeled away leaving white rods which can be worked for up to for a couple of days. They all require to be left for a period of time out of the water and covered which is known as ‘mellowing’. This allows the water to penetrate right through the willow to avoid cracking whilst working.

Willow into Soak
Willow into Soak – photo by Adam Logan

The beauty of basket making is that you do not need much kit to get started, just a sharp knife to make your first basket. Other useful kit can then include a basket makers bodkin which is a tapered metal tool to create space for new rods, but a pointy stick will work just as well. A grease horn, traditionally tallow stored in an old cow horn to lubricate the bodkin, but a small tub of Vaseline or lard will work well. A small beetle or round of wood to tap down willow to get a tighter weave, string to help tie things in place whilst weaving, an old towel to wrap willow in as they mellow, somewhere to soak your material like a stream, trough or bath and finally investing in a pair of secateurs which will help smarten up any basket after weaving.

Oval basket base being formed
Oval basket base being formed – photo by Jay Jenner

You may be wondering how I got on with my willow quiver. Well, it developed into the dimensions of a wonderful paper basket which I happily display on all the courses as it holds all my wooden cooking utensils, and it is the basket I take on all the willow weaving courses I Instruct on as an example. I also now find it impossible to walk past any charity shop displaying a woven design I have not yet encountered without examining it to see how it is constructed shaking my head at the skill displayed and sold for mere pennies. It has become an addictive mediative pastime I enjoy, being present at that moment to the exclusion of modern life’s worries and concerns. I see it take over in those I am instructing in the craft as I watch 18 stone rugby players sitting against the base of a tree as they happily weave their creations as they lift their head to proclaim in recognition “willow weaving! It’s great, who knew!

My first basket
My first basket – photo by Jay Jenner

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