Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Of Willow and wonder

I've always appreciated baskets...loved having them around, using them for hauling gear on trips in the car, working out of them. Is there anything more enticing than a basket of brightly coloured wool? sure to beckon me from across any room!

 I make tiny baskets often to accompany the figures that I felt. A grandmother brings her knitting, Lady Spring carries her chicks, one of the Moss Elders stows his work-in-progress while he takes a break to talk to a passing hedgehog ; )

 For these I do coil basketing or simply crochet, usually with hemp. But I've been wanting to try the real thing. I really liked the idea of  having some baskets for my wool that I'd made myself. I've long been intrigued by the process, which has such deep-rooted, ancient traditions in many cultures, especially here in Ireland. 

This Spring, on an introductory day-workshop I took locally, the tutor displayed some traditional Irish willow work he had done. He spoke of how the handles and foot of many a turf carrying basket would eventually wear and be repaired maybe even a few times, then ultimately would become a storage basket without handles and sit by the fire holding turf or kindling. How great, the life cycle of a single basket in a time when nothing was or could be wasted. My uncle recalls the use of  willow woven calf muzzles at home in Co. Limerick to stop them from suckling when it was time. I listened to his memories of making of a blackbird trap, an exact replica of one we found pictured in Joe Hogan's definitive book 'Basketmaking in Ireland'. 

Can I say, this was hard! I can also see that it's tricky to teach. There is a lot more to building up a basket than I'd imagined. I'm so accustomed  now to working with soft materials, my fingers felt thin and weak and I watched wishfully our tutor's strong wide fingers effortlessly wrapping the rods in and out of the uprights. Also with felting I just feel my way, basketry is much more of a head thing, you must count at times and follow a particular pattern. Intended to be a bread basket, I fancied this as a small work basket for ongoing wool projects. And I have to say that walking in home to my family with the finished basket was fun, they were excited! My small son instantly wanted to claim it for his own, telling me how much he needed a basket just like this ; ) It is solid and strong and will last a long time, helped apparently by an annual bath!

Knitting out of a basket you've made yourself is a whole other layer again, of understanding and of intimacy with your creative work, the materials, and what you're capable of producing with your own hands.

 I'd barely begun to understand how to work with willow though, how to use the bodkin and the rapping iron... so in May I went to CELT's event 'Weekend in the woods'  where I've taught Nuno Felting with Jenny in the past, set in the beautiful Bealkelly Oak Woods in Tuamgraney. This Centre for Environmental Living and Training is a community based charity, who work towards nature conservation and the teaching of traditional skills. In the midst of bluebell season, a carpet of blue and green on the forest floor took my breath away. And so, to work.

The spidery feel of this stage was such that I could imagine it would just creep away under the nearest ditch : )

Our tutor, the lovely Linda Scott a professional basketmaker has specialised in recent years in the making of willow cradles and coffins. We worked with willow she'd grown and harvested.
I've learned that it takes a while with any new craft and you've got to hang in there through the tricky stages, give it a chance, give yourself a chance, and for me - concentrate!

This time around I managed to get past that beginner's feeling of awkwardness, and the struggle to remember what needs to happen next. Once I got used to the weave, I loved the rhythmic quality of this craft, very meditative. Wonderful to eventually find your way and to feel that you actually understand what's happening in the work... and I relished knowing that I was building a functional vessel that would serve a practical purpose at home.

 Freshly made, I showed my basket to a dear friend and the first thing she did was to smell it : ) There is a particular earthy aroma from the willow that was new to me, gorgeous. Sore fingers that night. But how great a craft that will make your body ache the next day, like rolling felt, that quite literally stretches you.

While it's a very satisfying material to work with, I wouldn't want to be confined to willow alone or its varied hues, beautiful as they are. I'm really interested in combining materials and crafts. I'd love to try some crochet borders on the baskets, working with a massive hook. Or weaving in moss and hedgerow materials, simple pieces where I can get my small boy involved, for he's longing to give it a go. Alas, a lifetime may not be enough for all the things I want to try, and make ; )

Interestingly, we learned that basket weaving has not be mechanised. It amazes me that every basket we see or buy is handmade by someone, somewhere.
 Anytime I see one now out of the corner of my eye, I find myself trying see the inner structure and imagine the weave, wonder who made it and where they go home to.

This was designed to be a log basket, but I was in need of a laundry basket and it makes a great one. I've a feeling this trusty basket might have many uses over the years : )


  1. Oh my your wee man and baskets are just lovely, thanks for sharing, a real interesting read, cheers Marie

  2. What a beautifully written piece. We have tons of willow you know. The former owner was a basket weaver (Peter Sheahan). It was lovely to read of your struggles, for Jim and I took a course in basket weaving too. Jim was much better at it than I, being stronger in the hands. I found it just hurt too much. I like your idea of weaving in natural materials and crochet too. Pass me the knitting needles.... One of my blog posts is rather similar to this one, only not as eloquently written!

  3. PS, your little boy is gorgeous! And that big basket is amazing.

  4. Wow, Mia! I didn't know you made all these! Now we got another workshop you'll teach next year :D! Start to prepare the willow; I love to learn it!


  5. This is beautiful, Thanks Mia. I can just imagine how different a material it would be to work with, I like the idea of coming out of the house to do it, Perhaps you could make baskets in summer, and your woolen works in the cooler months. I have found this summer it somehow doesn't quite fit to keep up the crochet, I am happier in the garden , pulling weeds or walking in the woods with M. Little L looks so lovely here. Isn't it amazing how we are naturally inclined to carry baskets on our heads? It is a very beautiful basket xx E

  6. It's lovely to have you all stopping by, and to read of your ideas, thanks! x M

  7. Beautiful basketry. Basket weaving was part of my textile degree a thousand years ago...I've forgotten so much of it. So willow cradles and coffins - beginning and ending.