Tuesday 24 December 2013

Plaited Garlands

These pretty, plaited palm garlands are possibly made in many places around the world, but I learnt about them in Tamil Nadu in Southern India.  They were being made by a rural self-help womens co-operative and exported to charity and fair trade shops in Europe and America for sale as Christmas decorations.
They are an excellent product for a co-op like this, where the women are not trained weavers but they can learn very quickly how to make them. It is also portable work that allows the women to carry it with them and continue whilst walking to and from their homes or waiting for buses. They get paid by the piece so being able to work whenever they have a chance is an important factor for them. As an export product it also works well because they pack into a neat, solid tube that takes up little space.

Made from locally harvested coconut palm leaf and natural dyes they are, almost, a perfectly sustainable product, the only compromise being the lack of a local market which requires them  to be transported  long distances.

I was invited to the co-op partly to help them develop some new designs, so  the women taught me how to prepare and split the palm leaf and weave these decorations. When I returned to London I developed quite a few variations on the theme that would still pack up small and were not too complicated to produce, which I gave to them. I also added a few other more complicated items such as three–dimensional stars, but I never had any feedback and my life moved on,  so I don’t know if they ever used any of my designs or not. I hope they did and that they sold well for them.

Variations on the theme
It is a bit late for Christmas decorations this year, but these garlands will work just as well for other festive occasions and,  maybe, in an idle moment over the festive season you might like to make some guilt free decorations for next year out of the mountains of packaging that will inevitably accumulate. So here are the instructions for making a similar garland. As palm leaf is not readily available everywhere I am showing you how to make this basic simple woven spiral decoration using tetra pak, which is available pretty much everywhere.  It can also be worked with coloured papers and plastics, bark and leather among other many other things.

Once you have got the technique it can be varied in many ways simply by increasing or decreasing the width of the strips or increasing/decreasing the number of weavers. If you get the bug you can try double linked chains, mixing materials, threading other materials through the loops… you get the idea.

For this one you will need tetra pak strips 1cm wide and as long as possible. Here are a couple of videos to help you make them. This one shows how to cut the cartons and this one shows you how to make a simple wire gauge to help cut them evenly.

Then you just need to watch this video which shows you how to weave them.
At the beginning to hold everything together I use a staple, but just one end of the staple goes through the strips so that the strips can  be easily separated out. Once you get started you just keep going for as long as you like, it is really only one movement repeated ad infinitum. If you need to join strips you can overlap the two ends and work with the two together for a bit, but its probably easier for a novice to just staple them together.

Thursday 21 November 2013

A Portuguese Basket Maker

Dutch friends, Inez and Jan, who live in northern Portugal, drive past my door when visiting family in Holland. So the offer this year to be taken to their home on their return was gratefully accepted.  The drive across northern Spain was beautiful in the Rioja region and daunting in the area between Burgos and Palencia.  This region provides a lot of the grain for Spain's bakeries but, at this time of the year, after the harvest, is empty of people and plants. We passed through a succession of half dead villages huddling underneath huge pylons and surrounded by the deserts created by agribusiness. It was a relief to move out of this landscape, it felt gapingly open, claustrophobic and quite frightening all at the same time. You wouldn't want your car to break down there!
The Minho region in northern Portugal, however is totally  different and  very similar to Galicia just north of the border in Spain.  Of course this is logical, the frontier is only a political barrier and the people both sides of this imaginary line live in similar geography with a similar ecology. I like Galicia very much (it's a lot like Scotland but warmer) and some of my best experiences there were times spent accompanying Carlos Fontales on  research trips to visit basket makers. These trips were special  for me because I had hardly ever before had the opportunity to meet elderly basket maker/farmers who continue to work with the materials they gather from the countryside around them. Carlos has recently published  "More Than Baskets", an excellent introduction to popular Spanish basketry in both Spanish and English, which uses some of this research and  is available to purchase directly from him.

So,  I was hoping that on this occasion I might be able to visit a Portuguese maker and Inez remembered having come across one not far from their home.
Joaquims' workshop is on the road west out of Cabeceiras de Basto. He has made baskets for nearly 40 years, originally with his two brothers, but now on his own. Chestnut and willow are his primary materials,  both of which he harvests locally.Willows are everywhere in the surrounding countryside, not in plantations, but usually pollards at the edges of fields and alongside the many rivers and streams. Unusually Joaquim makes his own buff willow, boiling and peeling the tannin stained rods. I know of no other individual maker who uses ‘hedgerow’ willow to do  this as the people that I know who use buff willow usually buy it from commercial growers.  Buff willow was very popular for baskets in Britain, Germany, Poland and other northern European regions (though  not France) in the 1960’s but has since gone out of fashion in Britain, perhaps because of its association with cat and dog baskets.  This seems a shame because it is a good and natural way to help preserve the willow, the tannin providing some protection  against both worm and mould. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to see what set up Joaquim uses for his buffing but he described it as a tin bath with a fire under it! His ‘shop’ has a window on the road where he puts a couple of baskets to act as a sign.  Next to the shop is a spring with a water tank and a pond. I didn’t establish if this was where he soaked his materials but it would be surprising if he didn’t.
 Sadly he has passed his knowledge to no-one else so it will die with him.  He would have taught someone but, he said, the young people were not interested because they cannot make enough money  from basket making. This is hardly surprising as Joaquim was only charging 20€ for a large log basket out of split chestnut. At the very least it would have taken five hours to make  taking into account the finding, harvesting, cooking, splitting and shaving of the chestnut prior to any weaving! But what counts as 'enough money to live on' is, of course, relative. I do not imagine that Joaquim spends his spare time in the local shopping centre coveting  i-phones and he probably grows a lot of his food and lives in a house he inherited from his parents, so 'enough' for him is 20€.

It was a slightly chaotic workshop, the floor strewn with materials and finished baskets.  It made it difficult to look at the work but those that I could see  included covered wine jars, market baskets, some with dyed willow included, log baskets and fans for the fire. He gave the impression of being someone who enjoys making baskets  much more than selling them! I'm with him on that one.

Similar baskets were on sale at the weekly market in Cabeceiras, as well as some that looked like Chinese imports. The latter having thinly split wood,  handles wrapped in string, plywood bases and fabric linings. A lining always suggests Chinese origins, they use them a lot in their commercial basketry manufacture so that they don’t have to spend time trimming the ends on the inside of the basket. If you look under the lining of one you will see what I mean! These did not seem like Portuguese baskets to me, but since then Inez has sent me some pictures of other baskets seen  at a market, where the maker was actually working, that also have  plywood bases and linings, so perhaps this is a Portuguese practise too? Maybe someone out there knows the truth? Some of the baskets with structures out of split chestnut were woven with what looked  like bamboo rather than Mediterranean cane, which also surprised me, as hazel was more evident in the landscape than either cane or bamboo and again this suggested that the basket came from somewhere else. My Portuguese is less than minimal so interrogating the stall holder was not possible.

I did buy a chestnut and strapping tape fan that had definitely been locally made and wasn’t actually for sale. The stall holder was using it to fan roasting chestnuts but he came up with a price quick enough when asked.  I wasn’t going to quibble even though I know that buying a hand woven fan in Europe for two euros is never going to provide a young maker with 'enough' to live on .

Saturday 26 October 2013

Scottish Basketmakers Circle Gathering at Hospitalfield

The Scottish Basketmakers Circle celebrated 25 years of existence at Hospitlafield Centre for Art and Culture in Arbroath  last weekend. I was privileged to be invited to this extraordinary venue as one of the three tutors. Owen Jones, oak swill maker,  and Geoff Forrest, willow basket maker, were my co-tutors. 

At first sight Hospitalfield appears to be one of those Victorian gothic piles that were built on the proceeds of a dubious mixture of colonialisation, industrialisation and exploitation,  but the truth is very different. The Hospitalifield Trust has been in existence since 1873 and it became  the first post graduate art school in Scotland in 1936  providing support for artists from both Britain and abroad continually since then. Carved ceilings, tapestries, baronial fireplaces, paintings and sculptures were all commissioned for the house with the intention of providing  jobs for both artists and artisans or were accepted as payment for tuition. The money to provide these commissions apparently came from the astute, yet  benign, management of the estates belonging to the house by the artist and landlord Patrick Allen-Fraser and his wife Elizabeth.  She had inherited them from her father. In recent years most of the assests that could be dispensed with have been sold and the house is now in need of attention, especially the guest accommodation. So, the most common topic of conversation for the first  day of the SBC’s celebratory gathering were the foibles of the plumbing and the eccentricities of the building! But it was an appropriate setting for the gathering, with its spirit of creativity and we have Laura Hamilton to thank for finding such a special venue for this occasion.

All three workshops took place in and around a purpose built  (1901) studio block. My class had a room with a monumental fireplace,  large white plaster classical busts and leaking roof lights. Owens class with their froes, axes and bonfires worked out of doors, when it wasn’t raining, (and sometimes when it was)  and Geoff worked at the other end of the building in a large studio that had plenty of room for staking up square willow baskets.

Owens workshop
Geoffs workshop

It is always hard for my students to be in a situation where the students in the other classes are all making the same thing  using the same materials that have been brought to the class and, quite often, though not  in this instance, also prepared by the tutors. In my  workshops the aim is to help students develop a personal identity for their work through the use of materials that are from their own environment, alongside the learning  of techniques  to help them adapt their  ideas to those materials.   But this takes time. First of all you have to discover how best to prepare the material, then you have to find out which techniques they are appropriate for, both of which  you can only find out through experimentation. So, at the end of the first day, when their fellow students come in to see what has been done, there is always someone who, somewhat unkindly, says… ‘is that all you’ve done'?  Lots of experimentation with different materials and techniques does not produce complete baskets, or immediate results. Often it isn’t until the students return home and have assimilated what they have learnt that anything takes shape. So, I  have deep respect for my students who put up with the jibes and continue to experiment and try different things, just as they did in this instance.

For this workshop the techniques we covered were all coiled: tied, stitched, plaited, woven and looped with many variations.  The materials the students used were either brought from their home or found at Hospitalfield. Angela brought selvedge ends from Harris tweed, unwanted T shirts and reject silk threads from a sari factory. Caroline  brought mosses and grasses as well as some found strapping tape and papers. Julie  brought a bundle of  rope from the beach and sea weed, local newspapers and the cut off sisal ties from her own bundles of willow.  Janice also brought beach  rope, willow and a luminous orange washing line, Grizelda came with  fabric remnants and yarns and plastic bags and Charlotte had  lustrous threads but also raided the Hospitalfield grounds, harvesting nettles and umbelliferae , ivy and montbretia. The oak shavings from Owens class and buff willow rods that were bent and rejected from Geoffs'  also made an appearance. The resulting work from materials this varied often surprises the makers as much as me and this group were no different. So my thanks to them for taking a risk and experimenting hard for three days.

This relationship between the basket maker and his or her materials seems to me now, to be essential to producing work that has integrity. When I think of all the makers whose work I have ever admired there are few who do not manage their own materials. They cultivate or gather and prepare them and they  are involved in every stage of the whole process and in the end I think it shows.

Working alongside both Owen Jones and Felicity Irons this year has, for me, been a forceful reminder of this. They both have total control over their materials and all the processes necessary to turn those materials, in this case oak and rush, into products that are not only exemplary in terms of environmental impact, but also have a powerful authenticity and beauty as a consequence of  being of the place where they are made. Owen spends days in the forest looking for the right tree and Felicity gives up six weeks of every summer to harvest  rush from the local rivers and somehow, when you look at the end result, it is evident.

I always hope, therefore, that the students in my classes go away having realised  that it isn’t necessary to buy materials to make baskets. If they then  make their baskets from the materials they have found around them and are prepared to do the research to find out  which techniques work best with each material, their baskets will also have an authenticity and beauty that those made  from bought materials will seldom have.
I also hope that Patrick Allen Fraser would have approved of this methodology and the creative experiments that took place in his studio.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Teaching and Speeches

Pole Experimental Metiers d'Art workshops, Nontron

On Saturday I returned to Nontron to do a workshop for 15 enthusiastic students of all ages, all female of course and only a couple who had ever done any basket making before. I like that because it means the knowledge is being spread a bit further into the community thus finding a new audience. There were teachers, textile and paper artists, jewellers and a chef amongst them. The building that PEMA runs workshops in is old on the outside but contemporary inside and it has plenty of space including a garden. It’s the kind of building that the Crafts Council in London could only have dreamed of! I was kept very busy and I never got around to taking any photos.
Vannerie au dela d l’usage is the exhbition that the workshop accompanies. The other exhibitors were Xavier Chabaud, FrancoisDeplanches, Myriam Roux, Thomas Louineau, Vincent Castaneira, Julien Devaux ( not a basket maker but a designer who worked with a basketmaker)  Karen Gossart and Quentin Corentin.   It was Xavier who suggested I be invited to participate  and so my thanks to him because it’s a lovely space and the exhibition is being well received. 

At the opening the Mayor and various other local politicians made speeches standing in front of   ‘Satellites’ which is  fixed to the wall with dressmaking pins, (historic monument regulations) the baskets being delicately attached to each other with paper clips. So, it was quite stressful for me, as the speeches went on, to watch the gathered dignitaries slowly backing up towards the work looking for a wall to lean on.  All that was needed was for one of them to touch it and the whole thing could have come down on them, which might have been very entertaining….. but probably best avoided. In fact the speeches went on so long that people started leaving the room, looking for a drink! By the time they got around to asking the makers if they would like to say something we had lost the audience. In France the drinks come after the speeches rather than with them, but speeches seem a small price to pay for the public funding of such a lovely venue.

My work is very different to that of the other exhibitors as theirs is almost exclusively made with willow or willow bark. One of the visitors at the opening told  me that the organisers must have stretched the meaning of the word vannerie ( basketry) to include my work, because, she said,  vannerie to  a French person is exclusively  a basket woven out of willow.  To be honest I didn’t know what to say. It’s the first time I have ever heard that said before. After I got my voice back I explained why I felt my work could legitimately be described as vannerie. I then asked her what she would call the traditional paillassous or coiled straw and bramble baskets that were once ubiquitous in France and which bear no resemblance at all to woven willow baskets, she hesitated, then smiled and said ‘vannerie’! 

Friday 20 September 2013


Satellites  in the studio
As promised in a previous post here is the finished hexagonal plaited piece. It is now installed in the group show (detailed in the side panel) at PEMA in Nontron in the Dordogne where it will be on show until the 3rd of November.
Not really a single piece, in fact it is 21 separate baskets and 4 balls.

For some  time  I have been making big pieces that pack small by designing them so that they can stack inside each other and be unpacked to make one big piece. It all started when I made a very large basket in my home/studio in London and then discovered that it wouldn’t go down the stairs or out of the front door. In the end it had to be lowered out of a first floor window. Over time the reasons for trying to achieve the ultimate in small parcels and big works have crystallised a bit further. It isn’t just practicality, it is also about having as light a footprint as possible. It seems illogical and rather stupid to make work that is as sustainable as it can be and then to use lots of resources, crates, packaging, special carriers, energy and money to ship it to an exhibition. So, I try now to design portability into the pieces wherever I can and whenever I have control over things I try to make sure they are shipped by the cheapest method possible, which is usually the post or in my car. Using these criteria this is possibly the most successful piece so far because the three nesting sets of baskets pack into a very small box.

Making  functional baskets that are sculptural is an important part of what I do with my work. As I have said before, making work that is just sculpture is something I often don’t find as challenging or as interesting to do as trying to make it also functional. But occasionally  I don’t succeed, because the visual and sculptural tend to take over, perhaps because  it’s the bit I enjoy most. And with some commissions  the purpose of the piece is just for it to be sculptural.  The 21 baskets are perfectly functional but can be arranged in many different ways horizontally, vertically, free standing, stacked or hung - if all you want to do is look at them!

It's called Satellites.

Saturday 31 August 2013

Log Baskets

Log Basket II    2013

A basket that I originally made in 2011 has recently been re-worked. I used to think re-working things should never be necessary, now I accept that I don’t always get it right first time, usually because of a lack of time.

If I finish a piece just before the opening of an exhibition I sometimes don’t have enough time to really look at it to establish whether there is anything that needs adjusting. Obviously, if I made sure everything was finished weeks ahead that would not be problem, but I find that some of the best ideas come when I am under serious pressure because of a deadline.  I don’t want to cut out that source of inspiration. When this particular piece came back from the exhibition it was made for, I realised there were some things about it that I wasn’t happy with.

It is a handbag/basket made of two flat circles of cut and assembled oak and ash discs  joined together with  a ‘gusset’ made of little strips of wood. It was really difficult to join the three parts together, physically awkward, and as a consequence it seemed to have a slight twist in the form that I had not intended. Because it didn’t sit well I then added two feet on the base but I really wanted it to be a clean circle without the feet. 

Original version
It also seemed to me that visually it lacked something and usually that ‘something’ for me is a third element or material. Perhaps it’s to do with odd numbers? The original was just wood and copper wire and I realised that what I really wanted to add was coloured plastic. The mix of natural materials and brightly coloured plastic excites me.

My somewhat unconventional technique for judging whether a piece is visually interesting or not is to imagine I am ill in bed and cannot move much. The only thing I have to look at is this piece, for hours, days or maybe weeks.  If I think that I will keep finding new things in it for my eye to rest on and my thoughts to explore  then the piece works for me.

Reworking this piece involved  experimentation with lots of different bits of coloured plastic. In the end, some of the mysterious little plastic wheels that I found on a beach last year were used, along with some strips of plastic cut from detergent bottles, to fill in some of the bigger gaps between the discs.

The sides were completely re-done, far more precisely and without overlaps, and the piece now sits well without feet.  I am much happier with it now and have sent it off today. It will be on show with the work of  other Yeomen of the Worhipful Company of Basketmakers' alongside the Company's own collection of baskets. It will be at the Guildhall Library in the City of London and the details are in the side panel.

Wednesday 21 August 2013


There are two things that make me want to spend 24 hours in my studio, one is the desire to experiment with a particular material or technique and the other is the prospect of an exhibition. Of the two, I think the latter is the more powerful motivator, perhaps that makes me an exhibitionist?

Money has never really motivated  me to work, though occasionally selling something can.  But selling, I have found,  has its negative aspects in terms of creative autonomy and,  if it involves middlemen/women  they invariably  make more money out of your work than you do.  It also impacts on how viewers perceive and value your work, (I will come back to this another day).

Trusting that life will bring what you need when you need it has, therefore, been my guiding principle for dealing with the uncertainty of never knowing when or where the next opportunity to exhibit or teach  and, possibly earn some money,  will come from. Very occasionally  I feel this philosophy is failing me but then, out of the blue and usually from a totally unexpected source, comes an invitation to participate in something or other.

At the moment I am working on pieces for two exhibitions (see side panel), neither of which were anticipated and there are not enough hours in the day. I want to spend all day in the studio but there is a house and its garden that also demand  some engagement on my part. Now it’s  plums that need stoning and drying whilst the sun shines. Housework is basic at these times and the spiders are content that I have a deadline to work to and they are happily creating delicate lacey multi-storey palaces in every corner of the house.

Sometimes the collected and donated materials in my studio build up to a point where I know I will not ever use them all and some discriminatory clearance has to be done. This can be a good way to discover what I want to use so, for the current work,  I have employed this tactic.  It’s hard for me to throw out materials  but knowing that I can take them somewhere to be recycled in other ways makes it tolerable. This time I disposed all of the bits of dead computers and cameras that I take to bits just because I am curious to know what is inside. Consequently I now know a lot about the trickery that goes on inside these things, for example the £300 computer that has its vital connections held together with rapidly deteriorating sellotape.  I also got rid of  some  things  that I didn’t really love because, although it is sometimes possible to transform them into something that  I do love by really working hard at the relationship, it is much easier to start with something that immediately attracts me… a bit like people really!

During this clearout I came across a large roll of white polypropylene tape that I acquired in about 1988. Its time has come now and I decided  that I either had to use it or bin it.  I couldn’t see it being used well once it had been deposited at the rubbish dump, there is a lot of it and in mint condition, so I felt obliged to try and honour it by using it to make a big piece. I have taught a lot of people how to do hexagonal plaiting with this tape, because it is a perfect combination of material and technique, but I have never really exploited this mix myself. So, having been reminded of its possibilities by Susanne Whittingham, who was in my class in Denmark and is a master of this material and all plaiting techniques, I  decided to work with it, but I am mixing it with other materials. I am not going to show you what I am making until I have finished, but the picture at the top is a hint. It will be a large modular piece, either free standing or wall mounted, and it will  pack up into a very small flat parcel! It won’t use all the white tape but the sack of coloured tape will be almost empty when I have finished.

As there is only  a month  until the exhibition opens  I am off.

Wednesday 31 July 2013

More Bric a Brac Baskets

It's bric a brac/ brocante  season again but this year has not been good for the vendors. The local paper forecast it would be the best year ever in the region because a record number were planned, but nature intervened. Earlier in the season, quite abnormally, it rained heavily without fail every Sunday. The rain and cold was followed by searing heat and who wants to slog around a field in 34C looking at dusty things? Certainly not me. So, this year I have, so far, escaped most of the pitiful cries of orphan baskets calling out to me from under tables.

This Sunday was a close call however, as I nearly came home with an enormous and truly handsome basket. But, in the end, I decided it would have been like bringing a comatose giant home  that couldn’t do much of anything except occupy a huge amount of space.

Coincidentally, I would not have even been at a brocante had it not also been for extreme weather. A terrifying thunderstorm with hurricane force winds and torrential rain on Friday night cut off the electricity and phone for the weekend. Not knowing how long we would be without electricity and having a dead mobile it seemed a prudent idea to go somewhere to charge it, preferably a nice bar. So, it was a bonus to arrive in Aigre to find a brocante in  full swing. There were a lot more local baskets for sale than usual, but now they really do have to be good looking for me to be susceptible to their simpering. It’s prejudice, I know, but I have to look at them every day!

Chatting to a friend, without my glasses on, I noticed what looked like a large ridged metal container in the distance, then I tuned into the whingeing and knew that it wasn’t metal. Putting the glasses back on revealed a tour de force of coiled straw one and half metres high and about 70cm across and oval in form. Rather sinisterly there was an ancient doll lying face down in the depths as though she had fallen fatally from the rim, I wanted to pull her out but couldn’t reach down far enough.

The vendor said the basket had come from a boulangerie in the Limoges region but she had no idea what it was for. You couldn’t put anything too small in there because you would never get it out again and if it was for flour the flour at the bottom would never be used, which could prove fatal for the customers!

The price was so low I would not have even bartered but I knew I had to resist.  If, however, our paths cross at some future date, I will probably invite the giant to come home with me as I will consider it our destiny that we have met again.

Friday 12 July 2013

Weaving with Hands and Feet

Brandbjerg Hojskole near Jelling in Denmark was the setting for Flettetraef last week. This is the name given to the week-long biennial summer school run by Pileforeningen the Danish basket makers association. Topics this year were, the ubiquitous, cultivated willow and the increasingly popular willow bark employed in various ways, along with  rush and cardboard.

There were 10 tutors and about 90 participants, most of which were female and the majority over 35. So, really, it’s a kind of retreat for women, where they can escape their families and be fed, both physically and mentally, without having to do any shopping, washing, or washing up. There I met many strong women who have had plenty of very tough things to deal with in their lives but who smiled for most of the week. It cannot be a bad thing.
My students, like all the others, worked like crazy. I could see the light on in our workshop after 11pm most nights as they pushed themselves into new territory, wrestling with strips of cardboard and discovering things about it, and perhaps themselves, they hadn’t found before.

But the week was not just basket making. There were also  guided nature walks, keep fit classes, a trip to the royal burial mounds in Jelling, talks, meditation, communal singing and dancing, a fair on the Wednesday afternoon where you could buy books and baskets and materials, an exhibition of the students work and an end of week party.  Of course, all of this takes a huge amount of voluntary organisation by many people, but particularly in this instance by Else Marie Pedersen , Solveig Langballe and Suzanne Kampp for whom it had been two years in the planning and to whom everyone involved was extremely grateful.

All the  activities  I have mentioned  were of course  pre-programmed but on the final night we were given an extra curricula treat.

Whilst the basket makers occupied most of the building there was also another much smaller group staying at Brandbjerg who were either  learning, or practicing, Argentinian Tango, I’m not sure which. We hardly saw them all week but they were invited to come to the exhibition of our students work and after the celebration dinner their tutor gave  us a short talk about the origins of the dance and an explanation of the differences between Argentinian Tango and the more macho European version. His students then offered to put on a performance for us. Slightly overawed by the large audience and somewhat shyly they danced for us and in so doing gave something of themselves to us. It was a gesture that many of us found profoundly touching. I only had my phone with me so the quality is not good but you can see a short clip of one of the performances here.