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!