Friday, 12 April 2013

Willows and Widdies

Some of my living willow experiments at Kew Gardens 2002
When I embarked on doctoral research at the Royal College of Art in London 1999 I had no idea really what research was about. I knew at some base level that it involved ‘finding out things’ but how that was to be achieved was a complete mystery to me. I just assumed it involved reading books and asking questions and then compiling it all into something meaningful. Four years later, thanks to the support provided by the College, I had a far better idea of what it was.  One of  the things that I learned is that academic research is pretty similar to the research one does as an artist and can be equally as exciting.

You have to start somewhere and that starting point is often just a question that you ask yourself. In my studio, it is often  ‘what can I do with this material?  But you quickly discover that in order to answer this question you have to re phrase it a million times. This is because the first question you came up with doesn’t get you the information you think you want, or need, and the information it has provided isn’t as interesting as maybe you hoped it would be. So my question to myself in the studio might then change to ‘what can I do with this material if I combine it with this technique?’ and then ‘what can I do if I combine this material with another material and this technique? It is not always quite as clear-cut as this but I hope you get the idea.

Current studio research - 'how can I join ceramics and wire'?
But, just as you think your question is starting to get the answers you hoped for, an even more interesting thing starts to happen. The research takes over and leads you to all sorts of places you never imagined going to. Before long, you have discovered the answer to a question, but it isn’t to the one you asked in the first place and is in fact often far more interesting than that original question. This explains why one of the first things  you are told when you embark on academic research, is that the abstract  (which outlines your enquiry and which goes at the front of your essay or thesis) cannot be written until you  have finished the research ! This is often one of the hardest things for the research student to accept because right from childhood we learn that questions come before answers!

I eventually  found some answers to my questions,  wrote them down in the right order and completed my doctorate in 2003. It was about willow product design and manufacture and if you are interested  it is available to download from the British Library.

It is possible, however, that research may be addictive because I have now started again, this time into the Shetland basket making tradition. It seemed to me that there might be more to it than the scarce amount of printed information suggests. I don’t necessarily mean more in terms of variety of techniques and raw materials, but more in terms of how particular forms developed and how because of the location, ecology and inhabitants of the place it became very individual and particular to the islands.

The first time I went to the old Shetland Museum, (since 2007 there has been a lovely, shiny new one) I saw a black and white photo of a woman with a back basket. The title was ‘Woman with Willow Kishie’. The photo was very clear and it was immediately obvious to me that the kishie was not willow at all, it was rattan. My immediate assumption was that whoever had written the label didn’t know the difference between the two materials and had, out of ignorance, made a mistake!

Willow Kishie

But, in fact, the label on the photo was not a mistake. This particular basket was, and always has been, known locally as a ‘willow kishie’ even though it was never made out of willow. You could say that the first person to call it  such made a mistake but did they?  It seems possible that they just used a word that would distinguish this kishie from a straw kishie and they used the word willow because they may have heard it  used for baskets that aren’t made of  indigenous materials.  Although some varieties of Salix grow in Shetland, there is scarce evidence that it was ever used for basket making and they are called 'widdies'. If the sheep couldn’t get at them (they love chewing the bark off) 'widdies' were used to dye wool.   As a consequence  the word ‘willow’ in Shetland  dialect has come to mean a material for basket making that doesn’t grow there rather than a member of the Salix family.

I cannot speak Shetland dialect, I only know a few words and phrases. So it was very nice to have Barbara Ridland, a local textile artist come to the Shetland Museum stores with me to look at some of the baskets in the collection back in March. The first stage of this particular bit of research was for me to look at the collection database and conduct a search using all the words that I thought might bring up the objects that I would like to see. It is possible that I missed out some things by not being thorough enough in this initial search, (methodology and rigour are two words that come up a lot in academic research!) A lot of the dialect words for particular baskets were spelt differently by the different people who had input the data.  This is inevitable with an oral dialect like Shetlandic  but it makes it difficult for the database search mechanism unless it has been very carefully designed to take account of these variations. Unfortuantely few of the baskets have been photographed for the database, so it wasn’t possible for me to use images as an extra filter. (I have given the museum copies of the photos I took for them to use on the database so it should be a bit easier for the next person looking at baskets). Once this initial search of the database was done I drew up a list of the things I wanted to see with their acquisition number and location reference so that Jenny Murray the head of the the Collection could locate the objects easily. That done Barbara and I went  to the Museum store for two days and Jenny and Helen brought objects out of the freezing cold store for us to unwrap examine and photograph.

 It was at this point that the research started to take over. Whilst Jenny and Helen were in the store getting the things I had asked for, they would spot others on the shelves  that they thought we might be interested in but which had not come up via the database search.  It was some of these objects that both Barbara and I enjoyed seeing the most.  This simple besom made of bent is one example.

I cannot forget Jenny saying as she entered the room at the end of one of the days carrying a tissue wrapped package  “I know you are going to love this”. We both did, because it was a little twisted and plaited doll made from oat straw that in Shetland dialect was called a “duckie” (there is an image of her on the Wintering in Shetland post). Here then is another word used in Shetland  that in another place means something else altogether.

If you want to know more about traditional Scottish baskets  and the materials they were made of Woven Communities  is a new website  recently  created through a collaboration between academia, museums and basket makers. It should be the first port of call for anyone doing research on the subject. 


  1. As Community Artists we toured remote communities because of Family requests. Once in a new environment we sequenced the same journey as you outlined above. There was always a living memory, if not a living capable hand to envision our programs. We saw such abundance of natural fibers that all had ancestral memory. Hence we explored the design of curriculum, cottage industry and archival restorative practices. Now retired a comprehensive overview emerges. One aspect of the creative pathway is an experiance of instruction from an intuitive view. With my First Nation Families, this is explained as instruction from ancestral presence and we all nod in agreement. With my background I seek other words to frame this idea. Mathematical Geometric language nails it for my Gnostic perception. Our work now is to reshape all this natural fiber abundance into awakening a collective practice for it’s the living practice that nourishes all.