Thursday 11 December 2014

Ding Dong Decorations

These straw decorations were on sale in Lidl recently for 2.99€ the box, but it didn't say where they came from, just that there were 56 pieces  made of natural straw in the box and that 'these are not toys!' So it gave me an excuse to do a bit of online research.

Trying to fish out some truths from an ocean of disinformation is usually the big challenge with online research. However  anything to do with basketry manufacture is  generally quite  straight forward because the answer, 90% of the time, is China. But, I was taught, when doing research for my doctorate, that you must assume nothing and never state as fact anything you cannot back up with evidence, which in academic research terms,  usually takes the form of a published statement of the fact.

So, my  first task, using the information provided on the box, was to check out the name of the brand  'Melinera' and as with most of the 'brand' names in Lidl stores, it turns out that Melinera is just a trademark created by Lidl in 2012 to market a particular type of product. In this case mainly lighting and decorative items including Christmas lights and decorations.

So, the next  search was for images of  'straw christmas decorations'  and this turned up loads of photos of almost identical boxes,  but being sold under lots of different brand names and by lots of companies, at widely varying prices. Some are being marketed as 'Scandinavian Straw Decorations' but everybody knows that 56 straw stars made by anyone in Scandinavia is going to cost way more than 2.99€, so it refers only to the Scandinavian  tradition of straw Christmas decorations, rather than the place of manufacture. But, could they be trying to persuade some unsuspecting buyer that it means the latter ? Wouldn't it be more honest to say Scandinavian Style Straw Decorations?

Having seen that the same boxes were  being retailed  by lots of different companies  I now knew that the manufacturer  sells the product wholesale, probably at trade fairs. Next search was for  'manufacturers of straw decorations' (which in retrospect I could have started my search with, but it only took  me a couple of minutes to get this far!).  Very quickly you find yourself at the inscrutable face of Chinese manufacturing where few companies have web sites but are listed on a thousand trade directories that appear to be run by the various regional governments or councils.
It doesn't take more than five minutes however to establish that the biggest and most active company (in terms of international trade fairs)  in this field is Dong Guang County LIZE Handicraft CO.,LTD.and the fact they show at the Frankfurt gift fair makes me almost certain  they are the ones selling  these decorations to Lidl which is, of course, a German company.

Here, in what reads  like a Google translation, is Dong Guang County LIZE Handicraft CO.,LTDs  own description of what they do.....!

"The main production straw ornaments, the willow product, the product has more than 10000 series several thousand varieties, the modelling is novel, the weaving is fine, the dependable quality, actually the interior decoration, the holiday thing, above the etiquette contact rides the high quality goods. The company is equipped with the artistic exhibit room and has the specialty foreign trade personnel to attend the Guangzhou Export and Import Fair and the Frankfurt fair. The company has the consummation management system, and may act according to different national the standard production to suit the different market the product. "

I love this bit...  'actually the interior decoration, the holiday thing, above the etiquette contact ' ....quoi????  and this isn't bad either...  'the consummation management system' ... the mind boggles!!

Many of the Chinese trade directory listings don't have photos but does, so a quick scroll through the pages and there we find what looks a lot like the Lidl box. Lidl are selling the box of decorations for 2.99€ so it is highly unlikely that they have paid more than 1€ for the box. It will take a highly skilled straw craftsman/woman at least 5 minutes to make one of the 5 plait rings or bells in the Lidl box. I don't know what the people who make these things get paid but I don't imagine it is anything like as much, percentage wise, as the middle men and women who are marketing what's new?

 My search started because it did not say on the box where the decorations were made and this is the case with most of the basketry that is imported into Europe. How can we make an informed choice about whether we want to buy something that has been shipped half way around the world if we don't have that information? Until we demand that legislation  the most obvious option left to us is not to buy any basketry that does not state clearly where it has been made.

Friday 7 November 2014

Free Materials

Free materials are everywhere but occasionally I have to actively look for them  in order to see them. This week I have been walking every day to try and help my body cure itself of a chronic back problem and I always take a bag and some secateurs. The bag is for free food (15 walnuts and  8 figs yesterday) and the secateurs for free materials.

I have been spending part of my time in this little French village for many years and  over that time I have walked down every path and track in and around the commune plenty of times. But, it was only this year that I noticed not more than 100 metres from my house these clumps of rush in a fallow field. The village is almost at sea level and this field is a little below that which means that the water table is very high and the land can flood. I cannot recall the field ever having been used for crops or animals but I have never, ever, noticed the rushes before, perhaps they weren't there before, but I suspect that they were .......

They are a variety of Juncus effusus but not quite the same as the ones that grow in Shetland which are fatter. These rushes  also have quite distinct vertical ridges which are not so evident on the Shetland ones.
In June I cut some which dried a  grey green colour and were lovely to work with. The field was then cut by the owner and I thought that would be it for the year but now the clumps are about a metre high again so, yesterday, I cut some more.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Effort - Less is More

2007 willow and plastic lids
Sometimes, I just have to accept that it isn't going to work  in the way that I hope it will  and a whole weeks work has to be abandoned. That happened last Friday and the minute I made that decision and started something else it all flowed smoothly again.

Next year there will be some exhibitions of my work in Australia and in order to keep the shipping charges as low as possible we are not sending pieces with willow bark.  They necessitate fumigation and all sorts of other noxious processes to avoid the immigration into Australia of  rogue insects or diseases. But, the organisers of the exhibitions particularly liked  a couple of the pieces in brown willow with plastic lids (see picture above)  so I offered to try doing something similar but using white willow. I wasn't intending to reproduce the pieces, just to do something in the same vein. But, what I discovered  was that my original choice of brown willow  had been the best choice and that white willow didn't perform in the same way. It was much harder to prevent it kinking and the dark lines of the original brown willow looked better than the white. White might have worked on a dark surface but then there wouldn't be any of the graphic shadows and few galleries have dark walls and plinths. These problems were compounded by not having the right sort of wire, it was a bit too stiff and difficult to control and as I don't buy materials  that was that. I remade the same things four times in different ways but it just didn't work. The lids,  however, are still lovely and will be used for something else.

Fighting with my materials has never been my modus operandi, it always seems to show and  the work looks as tense as I feel doing it. I want my work to look as though it has been effortless to make  even though I might have spent many hours on it. It's  an economically  counterproductive way of working because if  it looks effortless potential customers can't appreciate the work that has gone into it and therefore think the price I am asking is unjustified. 

The balance between perceived and actual invested value, i.e time,  is an interesting one. I was once approached by an American gallery who wanted me to make a 'basketry teapot' for a show they were putting on. It had to be teapot sized (cheap to ship) though it didn't need to function as one and with as much labour in it as possible to justify an expensive price tag. I didn't take up the invitation because not only did I find the idea of a basket teapot horrible,  but, also because  it seemed such a stupid  idea to deliberately put as much labour as possible into a piece, when you could do something good much more simply.

Now I understand  that there is a whole commercial craft market that operates out of galleries in high overhead locations that work on this principle. Because these galleries are often quite small they can't show big works but they can get a lot of financial value on plinths by showing small one-off works with phenomenal amounts of labour built into them. It's not the amount of labour I find difficult to deal with, but the fact that it exists for one purpose only, and that is to make the item more expensive. It's almost as if it doesn't seem to  matter if the basketry teapot is a gross and pointless object as long as a customer can be convinced that they are buying a lot of someone elses skill, time and effort at a good price.

Ironically the production market works the other way. When we ran our own basket production company the buyers from stores constantly pushed us to lower our prices, but the only way we could do that was to take the labour out of the product. So for ten years  I designed the labour out of our baskets and in the end our baskets had very little weaving left in them.

These experiences have brought me to a place where, although  I believe Mies van der Rohes precept for minimalist design that "less is more", I  find I still have to show some  evidence of my labour in my work for people to like it enough to want to buy it. Its' a weird  place to be in and quite challenging.

This week I am having fun with  a sack full of corks, it may work, it may not, but at the moment I am optimistic that I will be able to strike the balance between evident effort and effortlessness!

Sunday 12 October 2014

Ateliers d'Art

Cover of September /October issue of Ateliers d'Art showing 'Start Point Tree' 2013 by Corentin Laval.
Photo by Bernard Dupuy
A couple of weeks ago and quite unannounced I received, in the post, a  glossy French craft magazine 'Ateliers d'Art' which, to my  surprise, had a really good picture of 'Satellites' in it taken during the exhibition at Nontron. The picture  featured as part of an article about the shift  towards artistic practice by some willow basket makers in France.

'Satellites' 2013
Photo by Bernard Dupuy

Articles about willow and basket making generally  make me nervous because they are often poorly researched, especially the ones for newspapers and  glossy 'housey' type magazines.  Usually these articles cast a romantic eco-glow over the whole subject with lots of seductive pictures of willows and weaving and seldom a glance at the bigger picture of unsustainable practice amongst commercial willow growers  and the massive international (and equally unsustainable) trade in willow products from China and elsewhere.

But, this article  is different, possibly  because it isn't trying to sell  anything. Well researched by its author, Dominique Brisson  it examines some of the key historical and socio-economic factors that have reduced the number of people engaged in willow basket making in France over the last century. It  goes on to suggest that France now has  a handful of mostly young makers who are starting to use willow and willow skills as a means of artistic expression, rather than for purely functional baskets, including  Erik Barray, Myriam Roux,  Corentin Laval and Karen Gossart. Interestingly Erik Barray  acknowledges that France is lagging behind in this respect and is quoted as saying "que depuis longtemps, les choses bougent beaucoup plus en Angleterre qu'en France" ( for a long time things have moved more in England than in France)  and the author continues "Les Anglo Saxons semblent en effet avoir une plus grande liberte avec la matiere" ( the Anglo Saxons seem, in effect, to have a greater liberty with the material).  Alastair Heseletine, Trevor Leat,  Tom Hare and Tim Johnson are all mentioned in the context of artistic work with willow but curiously not Laura Ellen Bacon or Lizzie Farey who are possibly the most groundbreaking of the British females who work almost exclusively with willow. My work gets a mention in the context of re-cycling, even though that is still an alien concept in the world of French basket making which is still dominated by willow.
Sweeney on his Throne by Trevor Leat 2013
It is an interesting article which  drew my attention to Trevor Leats work again. Generally I am not too keen on figurative willow work because it often seems to me to be ugly or lacking in real sculptural qualities, but Trevor does some amazing stuff. I particularly like this piece that  he did on Eigg recently and enjoyed his blog about his residency there. Michelle Cain works in a similar vein making giant figurative works for festivals and events and her willow badger  for Pembrokeshire (which you can see on the link) is very impressive!

If you want to read the article in Ateliers d'Art you can do so via the link by paying 3.50€ to the publishers of the magazine. (If they weren't a charitable association I would offer to copy it for you!)

Sunday 28 September 2014

North Atlantic Drift

This is the title  I have given to the piece that I made for the group show This Beloved Earth which opened yesterday at the Barony Centre in West Kilbride, Scotland and will remain on show until the 23rd November.

It is in fact 35  baskets made only  from materials gathered from the shores and banks on the island of Yell in Shetland,  most of it from within fifty metres of the house where I stay. The ropes were washed and some of them separated to make new  finer twisted threads for stitching.   The stitches that I have used are only those seen on baskets that were made and used in Shetland. The broken buoys and other bits of ceramic and plastic were drilled but otherwise left as they were found. The grasses and oats were just gathered and dried.

The quantity of rope and plastic washed up on the beaches of the islands  is astonishing, much of it almost new and obviously jettisoned by commercial fishing boats. A lot of it has travelled  many miles in the Atlantic along both the North Atlantic Drift and the Gulf Stream to arrive on the foreshore  at the head of Mid Yell Voe and from where there is nowhere further for it to go. There are  plastic mussel pegs and ropes (aka droppers) rubber gloves and wellington boots, bicycle helmets, hard hats, blue chemical drums, buoys, floats, netting and the ubiquitous yellow fish crates belonging to LHD. Whole crates tend to find their way back into use, somehow or another, but broken ones just sit there waiting for the Voar Redd Upp when the locals armed with bin bags will gather as much as they can.

 LW and JJIB 2013, Mid Yell Voe
In the past the people of the islands were expert at beach-combing and at making the most of anything that arrived in this haphazard but free way. Shipwrecks were an opportunity to acquire things undreamed of any other way and many houses had roof timbers and furniture that had once been part of a ship. Now people can have anything they want delivered to their homes in the islands and there is little interest in scavenging along the shore. New houses are often built without chimneys so even gathering driftwood is of little interest. There was  a time before organised waste collection where any crockery or glass that got broken in the home was just chucked into the Voe and there are plenty of stories of tractors and cars being disposed of in the same way. For me, this jetsam provides a myriad of material choices  but apparently most tourists would prefer not to have to look at these things,  it is one of the few complaints that visitors make to the Islands tourist board.  For the wildlife this jetsam is just dangerous, birds, seals and otters get tangled in nets and ropes and choke on bits of plastic that they mistake for food.

This sentinelle on a path leading to one of the Atlantic beaches in France visually sums up the long term problem that these things cause.Waste disposal in a consumer economy is fraught with environmental dilemmas but dumping rope and  fish crates into the sea is just a lazy solution to a difficult problem.

Sunday 24 August 2014

Traditions Futuristes, A New View

Yesterday we received the catalogue for Traditions Futuristes the exhibition running until December in Tusson, France. It was a lovely surprise to find this image of the Retroscope taken by Raphael Mouly. It gave us another way of seeing our work that we had not envisaged but which gives food for thought for future projects. Thanks to Raphael and to Natacha Billot for her work on the catalogue.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Viva Basket!

Is the name of an event that took place last week in the border town of Cieszyn, in Poland.
Organised by Serfenta in collaboration with Norwegian partners, it is part of a wider project to research baskets and makers in both countries and it brought together outdoor installations, exhibitions and an international conference. I was invited along with Jette Mellgren, JanJohansen and Carlos Fontales to create outdoor pieces.  Jette and Jan worked on the (northern) Polish side of the border and Carlos and I worked in a small public park with a pond full of water lilies in the Czech Republic! In reality it was only a footbridge without  formalities that separated the two teams.

Strapping tape was sourced for us from Castorama, by the car load.......

Photo courtesy of Serfenta.
and we combined it with willows to create a ‘fountain’ of plaited hearts (me) and clusters of random woven ‘parasols’ (Carlos).

The installation of the ‘fountain’ could not have been achieved without the help of the brave Marek Malesza – the pond had some big fish in it! My thanks go to him, also to Paulina Adamska Malesza, Ania Krezelok and everyone else at Serfenta for all their hard work on this event and for inviting me to be a part of it.

Thursday 19 June 2014


The Retroscope, constructed using medieval technology, enables us to look back into the past. When Marguerite d’Angouleme stayed in the Maison du Patrimoine in 1547 she did what a lot of us do when travelling and left behind some of her personal possessions. With the help of the Retroscope it is possible to see  two of them.... a pair of sunglasses and her mobile phone!

The exhibition is on  until the 15th December.

Friday 6 June 2014

Retroscope in Progress

Work is progressing on the Retroscope.  Just one more of these, the tripod and Marguerite d'Angoulemes accoutrements to make......The opening of Traditions Futuristes is Saturday 14th June at 18.30 at the Maison du Patrimoine, Tusson, 16140 Charente. Everyone welcome.

Friday 30 May 2014

Traditions Futuristes

For reasons too tedious to describe, we ( myself and  JJ Ignatius Brennan)  find ourselves making a large new joint work for Traditions Futuristes an exhibition that opens on the 14th June. The details are in the side panel. We will have had 3 weeks to design and make the work. Its always quite exciting when these things happen. One minute work is progressing at a leisurely pace on some distant project, and the next you are in hyperdrive frantically trying to meet a deadline for something you haven't really had any time to think about, at all. But, as I have said before, it is often in these circumstances that the ideas appear easily and with great clarity, which is what happened in this instance.

I don't want to say too much about what it is, at the moment, but it  will be quite big, about 3 by 4 metres made of lime twigs, willow, wood  and wire and is called Retroscope. The picture provides hints.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Speak Up!

The Art Workers Guild with the portrait of Thomas Okey to the right of the door.
Speaking publicly about my work is not easy but I really enjoy the challenge.  Last week I gave a talk, to students, staff and prospective students at Brighton University and to members of the Art Workers Guild in London.

Giving two talks back to back was daunting  because  they were two very different audiences but, in the end it worked out well. I kept to the time limit, there was only one technical glitch and no-one shouted ‘speak up’!

The invitation to Brighton was from Margaret Huber and Graham Rawle, the super duo of the Sequential Design and Illustration department and  my thanks go to them. I have spoken there quite a few times before so it feels cosy  and the audience gave me a warm reception.

The Art Workers Guild building I am also very familiar with because it is the same one in which  the Basketmakers Association AGM is held.  The audience was, however, quite different, as the Guild Members are all renowned experts in their own art, architecture or craft fields. My invitation from  Prue Cooper, the current Master and witty ceramicist, to speak to them this year was because 2014  is the Centenary of Thomas Okeys’ year as Master of the Art Workers Guild.

Illustration from "The Art of Basket-Making"

As many of you reading this will know, Thomas Okey (1852-1935) was, also a basket maker.   Born in the East End of London into a basket making family he worked in the family business for 30 years. He taught himself  Italian, French and German from books  before starting work at 6 am and by going to evening classes at the end of the day.  He developed a passion for the Italian language and culture in particular and translated and authored many books on the subject, going on to become, a Fellow at Cambridge despite no formal qualifications He also wrote one the best instructional books about willow basket making An Introduction to The Art of Basket-Making published in either 1912 or 1932 depending on which source you read ( I have a copy marked 1st edition which says 1932). So, having been born 100 years and one week later than Thomas, lived and made baskets in the east end for 30 years,  written books on basket making,  gone back to university late in life and struggled (I think he was a natural) to learn foreign languages. I actually feel a sort of kindred spirit with him.  It was, therefore an honour for me to speak in the same place that he had been Master. It also seems a strange coincidence that David Drew, probably Britains best willow basket maker, also a Libran, has exactly the same birthday as Thomas Okey. Are there many other basket makers out there who are Librans?

For these occasions my talk is autobiographical. It is, after all, what I know best and  it is what I want to hear when I go to talks given by other people. I want to know how and why they became what they are. Grayson Perry and Paul Smith are two people who do this and they are probably the two speakers I have enjoyed the most, so I try to follow their example. As an artist it is impossible to separate my life from my art, I will die on the job, it isn’t something I can retire from. So, I cannot talk about my work without talking about the circumstances of my life that have often been the catalyst for changes in my work.

I work hard at my talks, so it is rewarding when it pays off, as it did on these two occasions.  I knew it was going particularly well at the Art Workers, when I became aware that almost everyone in the room was looking at me, very still and silent, but sitting very upright and alert, craning their necks just a little bit. I hope no-one in the audience that night will be offended when I say it was almost as though their ears had pricked up! It was an unforgettable sensation, one that I imagine many actors experience and one that I will now always have to try to make happen.

Friday 25 April 2014


Just to show you that I do still like willow..... I have been 'stripping' it this week. Actually it is one of my favourite willow activities because you end up with two beautiful end products, the white rod and the bark which have totally different characteristics.

There is something very satisfying about the physical task of pulling the willow through the brake and feeling the bark slide off in two neat ribbons. It is also outdoor work and can be sociable if you get someone to help. In willow growing regions of Britain at the end of the 19th Century beginning of the 20th, whole villages turned out to strip the willow because the time frame is fairly short. The sap rises and separates the layers then, as the weeks go by, it starts to adhere to the heartwood and becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible to peel.  It was accepted that children would not be at school during those weeks and although the work was hard you get the impression from old photos that it was fun too. The first photo came from the Devon County archives but I have no information about where the photo was taken, it could have been Devon or Somerset or possibly East Anglia given the eel traps and style of building.
The second one was taken in Spalding Lincolnshire in about 1910.

Illustration from Baskets and Basketmaking by Alastair Heseltine ISBN 0852636113

Usually I 'pit' the willows I am going to strip, cutting them in the winter when they are dormant and standing them in shallow water where they grow fine water roots. I then strip them when the leaves are bursting out, normally about May.

This year I decided it wasn't necessary as I had a good stock of white willow that I haven't found a use for yet. But there were some willows in the plot I hadn't cut when they were dormant  and now they are coming into leaf. As they are 'Jaune', which make a really good creamy white willow, I thought I would try stripping them and it worked really well. As it was a sunny day they dried very quickly in the sun and I have never had such dazzling white willows before. Obviously timing is critical and you have to strip them almost as soon as you have cut them. I left a few with their butts standing in water overnight but because they had no roots by the next day the sap had dropped and they wouldn't peel.

Illustration from Basketmaking in Bedfordshire by TW Bagshawe ISBN 0 907106003

My willow brake I bought because I liked the shape, but its not a good design because you have to fix it to something in order to use it. Better ones have a spike at the base of the circle that you can stick in a handy post, tree stump or crevice in a wall . Hence my arrangement with a screw block and clamps. David Drew made one for me out of a length of chestnut, note the discreet signature. It is kinder on the willow than the steel but is intended for use on a saw horse which clamps it in place and is not so easy to use without the horse.

"Strip the Willow" is also the name of an old British folk tune and dance. Bizarrely there are Orcadian and Shetland versions even though willow was never a native plant in Shetland and they certainly never had enough to strip ! You can see some Scottish experts perform it here.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Anything But Willow!

Last night I burned most of the hundred plus willow experiments I made for my research at the RCA and it was good, it warmed the room for a short period of time and felt like a little act of revolt against the stuff.

Willow has been an important part of my life; I have grown it, made lots of things with it and devoted four years of my life to researching it.  But, for some time now I have been jokingly saying to friends that I will set up a facebook page called Anything But Willow !

Of course, I mean no disrespect to the plant or the many friends and colleagues who make lovely things with willow, so why do I feel like this? Because it seems to me that in parts of Northern Europe, at least, we have become infatuated with it to the exclusion of lots of other wonderful natural materials and that by not using these other materials we are losing the knowledge of how to work with them. 

A quick analysis of the workshops and courses on offer at the moment by the English, Scottish and Danish Basketmakers associations shows that willow predominates. It also shows that there is very little instruction on offer for its cultivation . In the latest Basketmakers Association newsletter, however, there are just over a hundred courses on offer of which more than 90 include weaving with willow.

It is easy to buy a bundle of commercially grown willow. It is a good way for people to learn how to make a basket without having to deal with the often difficult and time consuming, yet very important part of basket making, which is gathering and preparing the material. But, it has always seemed to me that if you don’t enjoy preparing the materials you probably won’t ever really like making baskets. The materials need preparation, whatever they are, and that preparation can often take longer than making the basket so you really need to enjoy that part of the process as well as the weaving bit.

gathering wild oats
Basket making used to be done by the people who needed the basketry for their day to day existence. They used whatever material they had in their vicinity and managed it sustainably, knowing that if they didn’t there wouldn’t be any of it there next year. They knew everything about the growth cycle, how and when to harvest it and how to prepare it for use. Now we can order a bolt of willow on line without really knowing anything about how it became this beautiful, even bundle of rods and the various processes that have to be undertaken at precise times of the year for it to arrive on our doorstep whenever we want it.  It's a bit like  buying strawberries from a supermarket in December that have been flown in from the southern hemisphere and willow can  have an equally heavy ecological footprint as that of the  strawberries, if it hasn’t been grown organically.
iris and gladioli leaves
There is an astonishing richness of natural materials available to us in Northern Europe to make baskets with. But why are there so few classes in using straw, wild clematis, dock stalks, hazel, ash or some of the myriad varieties of shrubs, trees, rushes and grasses that are everywhere in our countryside for us to use for free? Not forgetting the even more varied range of materials that can be ‘harvested’ for free in our cities or on our beaches.

 The classes aren’t there because there are only a few people capable of teaching us how to use these materials.  Much of this knowledge has not been handed down and is now lost. So it’s a chicken and egg situation, there may be lots of people who want to learn how to make baskets but the only courses they can go on are for willow. So that is what they learn, often unaware that there are many other materials that you can make baskets with.

wild clematis
However, something has happened recently that may alter things. The French magazine Le Lien Creatif has arrived on the scene. This magazine devoted to basket making is turning into a superb resource for learning about all the other natural materials there are out there that can be used for basket making.  Fortunately in France there are still some elderly makers who specialise in materials other than willow and Bernard Bertrand, the editor who  is the  hero in all this, is doing his best to track them all down to  record and publish as much of their precious knowledge as he can. It’s a Herculean task that he has taken on, but worth it because each magazine is richer than the previous one. Even if you don’t read French there are many step by step instructions for material gathering and preparation as well as  basket construction.  Bernard is hoping to produce an English version of the magazine either on line or in print. So, if anyone reading this is in the publishing business and is interested in helping to get an English version off the ground please contact Bernard at the magazine. Hopefully if enough people get to see Le Lien Creatif some might get excited by these other forgotten materials and in a few years time there will be many more classes using other materials.

In truth, I burnt the willow samples because the brown willow had become riddled with woodworm but that is just one of many reasons why willow is not the only and most perfect material to make baskets with – woodworm love it!

Friday 28 February 2014

Shetland Workshops

 Like much of Britain the weather in Shetland since Christmas has been wetter and windier than usual. Many folk here don't remember it being as bad for the last 40 years. For three weeks in January the wind blew at gale force almost every day which, accompanied by rain, meant the simple act of going out of doors became almost impossible. The front door on the house is positioned facing east to avoid the normal southwesterly gales but these January gales came from the south east requiring a shoulder barge of rugby playing proportions to close the door. But if you give up the struggle and stay indoors the wind howling round the house and down the chimney can quickly drive you crazy so, I organised a couple of workshops to fend off cabin fever.

My thanks go to Chris Dumont for helping to organise the twining one at Baltasound on Unst. A small group, but hardly surprising given that several inter island ferries had been cancelled due to the weather in preceding weeks, something that happens rarely. People from the mainland of Shetland are understandably nervous of getting stranded in the North Isles as there is little in the way of hotel accommodation or eating places in either Unst or Yell at this time of year. The prospect of spending the night in your car is therefore a real and not very appetising one.

Chris made a kishie out of the fine polypropylene netting that crofters use on their bales of silage. We had to devise some ways of weaving with it because, unlike straw, this material made it difficult to differentiate the various strands making up the hjogs. It worked in the end and he has used it to go shopping with.

The following weekend the frame basketry workshop at Levenwick on the mainland was fully booked and my thanks go to Barbara Dinnage for helping to organise that one. 

Frame basketry is not part of the Shetland basketry tradition because there are few trees to make the frames out of. But, it is a good technique for people who enjoy textile weaving as the process is more akin to loom weaving than stake and strand basketry. It is also a great technique for using a wide variety of found materials. I don't normally do any preparation for students because I believe it is important for them to learn the whole process from gathering the material to completing the basket. But in this instance I made the frames out of willows from my garden in advance so that they could dry a bit, because flexible frames make controlling the shape much harder. However I did demonstrate how to make the frames so that they weren't missing out on that information and they had to make their own ribs. People brought along a wide variety of found materials including felted off-cuts from knitting machines, which was anew one for me and it worked really well. My thanks go to all the students at both workshops for making the effort to come and dragging themselves away from their warm houses.