Burkina Faso technique at City Lit

For the past few weeks my creative mojo has been curled up in a little ball somewhere under the duvet and refused to come out. It started with a relative’s sombre funeral (nothing to do with covid-19) and continued through the agonisingly drawn-out US elections (when all I wanted to do was sit in a corner and knit while watching CNN). Now I just seem to be in a state of general lethargy.

The first lockdown in March/April was quite a fruitful creative period for me. With exhibitions and shows cancelled and no deadlines to meet, I was able to rediscover the joy of creative play and experimentation. This time round it’s a bit different – the thought of a long dark winter with no or few opportunities to meet up with friends, visit exhibitions and restaurants, or travel anywhere is dispiriting, to say the least.

A little light in the gloom was a course in Burkina Faso plaiting with John Page, run over four consecutive Saturdays at City Lit – one of the few remaining courses that was held face to face rather than online. Because it counts as education it was allowed to continue, albeit with perspex screens, copious hand sanitation points and mask wearing.

Henrietta and Jo, two of my cohort from the two-year City Lit basketry course, also attended, so it was good to see them and catch up in person.

Traditionally in basketry you have upright stakes, around which you wind the weavers. But with Burkina Faso plaiting there is no distinction – the stakes and weavers are constantly changing places. And if you use rigid materials, such as cane or willow, it tends to produce a rather lovely spiral. With softer materials, which are easier to manipulate, you can also weave more regular rows.

We started with rattan (cane) and soft materials like sisal, to learn the basic technique. Because cane is a regular thickness along its whole length, it tends to form a cylinder, but the ends can be tied off to produce a vessel that could be used as a bird feeder or garlic basket.

burkina faso cane piece

Here are some samples made by the group in varied materials, including cane, sisal and telephone wire.

burkina faso group samples

We then moved on to using willow. Because willow rods taper, they naturally form a cone shape. We practised making flat tops and spiral tops.

burkina faso willow vessels

We also tried making flat-bottomed vessels. Quite a lot of strength is needed here to pull the willow into place!

burkina faso flat bottomed willow

Finally, we worked with rush – first time with this material for us all. It’s strangely spongy but is much easier to manipulate than willow.

I started by making a small rush pouch.

burkina faso rush pouch

Then in the final week most of us made rush bags.

burkina faso rush bag

Learning a new technique or working with new materials is always stimulating, and I could feel my creative mojo starting to stir at last!

Here’s a flat spiral I made using paper yarn.

burkina faso paper spiral

And I started making a pouch from telephone wire.

burkina faso phone wire pouch

But then it wanted to turn into another spiral – so I let it!

burkina faso phone wire spiral

Then I had another block – what to do with the ends? The consensus on Instagram was to leave them loose and wild, but they were rather long, and the piece just didn’t feel finished to me. Then someone suggested bending the spiral outwards to create a double-walled vessel. This was slightly tricky, as it meant I would have to plait in reverse. I couldn’t work out how to do that, so I had to plait from the inside looking through the other side of the basket.

burkina faso phone wire spiralburkina faso phone wire spiral

But I was pleased how the piece finally resolved itself in a sort of jellyfish form. And I left the ends free, so managed to have my cake and eat it! 😉

Arctic: Culture and Climate at the British Museum

As England moves into another lockdown tomorrow, yesterday I took the opportunity to go out while I could to visit the British Museum’s latest exhibition.

Arctic: Culture and Climate examines the creative resilience of the indigenous peoples of the region, using local resources to survive and adapt to their environment over the past 30,000 years. There are more than 40 different ethnic groups, but they share many cultural traits and were trading and communicating with each other long before the “southerners” arrived.

“We’re from the High Arctic”, says Inuit seamstress Regilee Ootoova. “We rely on what’s available to us.” And what’s available to them is largely animals – seals and walrus, reindeer and caribou, fish and whales. They view hunting as the giving and receiving of gifts – that animals will only give themselves up to those who treat them with respect, and that the souls of these animals will be reborn, keeping them infinitely renewable.

Marie Rexford
Marie Rexford prepares muktuk, frozen whaleskin and blubber (photo by Brian Adams from the photographic series I am Inuit)

But animals are not just hunted for food – almost every scrap of them seems to be used in some way. Here I focus mainly on textile and basketry items, but there are some fine carvings and paintings in the exhibition too.

This bag is made of salmon skin, seal oesophagus and caribou fur. There’s a very good post on the British Museum blog on how fish skin is processed.

salmon skin bag

Seal gut, being waterproof and breathable, was used to make parkas. The seams of this one incorporate beach grass – if any moisture enters the seam, the grass absorbs it and swells, thus tightening the seam and keeping the wearer dry.

seal gut parka
Gut parka by Flora Nanuk

Another bag, this time made of duck feet.

duck feet bag
Duck feet bag by Zipporah Innuksuk

This lovely basket is made of baleen, with a walrus ivory handle.

baleen basket
Baleen basket by Marvin Peter

Baleen, sourced from whales, is flexible and does not freeze, so it was also used for making sieves to scoop away slush from ice fishing holes. The frame of this one is made of reindeer antler.

ice sieve

Certain animal characteristics were often thought to endow the wearer with similar powers. So this visor decorated with sealion whiskers bestowed the animal’s hunting prowess on its wearer – each whisker represented a successful hunt.

visor with sealion whiskers

Sometimes hunters would mimic animals so they could get closer to them. This ice scratcher, made from seal claws bound to driftwood with sinew, made a noise like a seal sunning itself on ice, lulling the prey back to sleep so a hunter could approach it unawares.

ice scratcher

Plant materials

As well as animal products, beach grass was woven into mats, bags and socks.

socks woven from beach grass

bag woven from beach grass

Wooden fish traps like this were placed into holes cut into frozen rivers.

wooden fish trap

In north-east Russia the Sakha people hold a summer festival, or yhyakh, asking the gods for good weather and plentiful pastures. As part of the celebrations, large birch bark containers stitched together with horsehair are filled with meat, wheat porridge and berries with whipped cream for serving to everyone.

birch bark container

Integrating traded materials

As Arctic peoples came into contact with “southerners”, they started incorporating their materials into their tools and garments. The first Europeans arriving in the Bering Strait traded beads for furs. This national costume of the Kalaallit, Greenland’s largest Inuit group, incorporates sealskin sewing with the embroidery and beadwork on northern Europe.

Kalaallit national costume

In the 19th century, Moravian missionaries encouraged Yupiit basketmakers to make coiled baskets that appealed to collectors and tourists, like this one with a puffin design.

coiled basket with puffin design

More recently, on Nunavak Island, Alaska, basketmakers have recycled nylon fishing rope washed up on the beach to crochet into colourful bags.

crocheted nylon bag

Sadly, as in so many other instances, this contact led to colonisation, forced conversion, imposed migration and forced settlement. And now there’s climate change.

The exhibition ends on a hopeful note, with displays curated by two indigenous organisations explaining how they are transforming their heritage by adapting, innovating, collaborating and resisting to determine their own future.

Arctic: Culture and Climate is due to run at the British Museum until 21 February 2021, although it’s temporarily closed until at least 2 December due to lockdown. Please check the website for updates.

Frame baskets with Stella Harding

I’ve always liked the organic nature of frame baskets. These are baskets made by connecting two hoops at right angles, and then gradually inserting ribs around which the weavers are woven to form the basket. The skill lies in making the hoops and adding the ribs to create the shape.

Unlike conventional stake and strand baskets, which are woven in the round, frame baskets are woven starting at the sides and finishing in the middle. Most were traditionally made not by professional basketmakers but by ordinary people, often using hedgerow materials or whatever else was to hand, for gathering fruit or foraging.

For our classes at Morley College with Stella, we used thick cane to make the hoops and ribs, and finer cane (some dyed) for weaving.

We started by practising the “god’s eye” binding, which is used to join the two hoops together.

god's eyes practice

This technique is easier with something flat, like chair cane, but I also had a go with centre cand and some homemade cordage.

Once we’d mastered the technique, we used it to join our two hoops together.

joining hoops with god's eye

Then we inserted a couple of ribs and started weaving with fine cane. After a few more rows of weaving, we inserted more ribs. Getting the length of the ribs correct, and judging whether you have the right number of ribs, has to be done by eye and is important, as it determines the final shape.

frame basket in progress

As you can see, in addition to weaving with cane, I used some of my homemade cordage and also some periwinkle stems that I’d collected and dried from my garden. This gave a more varied texture.

frame basket in progress

Weaving alternates from one end to the other, so that both sides eventually meet in the centre.

frame basket in progress

Joining is usually done on the outside so that the inside of the basket remains neat.

It can get very fiddly finishing the last weaving in the centre, as the gap gets increasingly smaller. However, because I used cordage, which is softer and easier to manipulate than cane, this was less of a problem.

frame basketframe basket

And here’s the finished collection of baskets by the class. Plus a quick platter I managed to whip up to practise working with flat chair cane. 🙂

frame baskets morley college

Barbara Maynard Challenge Cup

I’m thrilled to announce that I have been awarded the Barbara Maynard Challenge Cup for 2020 by the Basketmakers’ Association.

Every year at its AGM the Basketmakers’ Association holds a competition for members and presents the winner with the Barbara Maynard Challenge Cup. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the AGM was held online this year. So instead the committee decided to award it to a member whose work has really stood out on social media in the past six months. And that turned out to be me!

I feel really honoured to see my name alongside some great basketmakers, including Tim Johnson and one of my tutors at City Lit, John Page.

If you’d like to see the images that led to the award, head over to my Instagram feed. At least now I have a justification when ESP complains about me spending too much time on social media! 😉

Twisting and interlocking

My fascination with Möbius strips continues. Although the first triple-twist loop I made was rather small, I have a friend with very slim wrists, so it proved to be the perfect birthday gift!

I then went on to make a slightly larger version, this time wrapping with paper yarn, which produced a much stiffer piece than wrapping with wool.

triple mobius loop

Some of the yarn I dyed with indigo and onion skins.

triple mobius loop

What next? Obviously it was time to try interlocking Möbius strips (but with only one twist in each!). 😉

I did a paper mock up of how this might look.

interlocking paper mobius strips

Then I set to work. Previously I had used both wire and paper yarn as the core, but I now decided to try using wire on its own.

interlocking mobius wip

However, without the paper yarn, the wire on its own provided less grip for the wrapping, which tended to slip more. The piece also had less body. So I went back to including paper yarn in the core.

interlocking mobius wip

I also found that the initial slippier core meant that the parts of the strips that were supposed to be flat started to curl over at the edges. (This was probably also caused by too much tension when wrapping on my part.) Although this was not intentional, I actually liked the increased movement caused by the curling, so I didn’t try to correct it.

interlocking mobius

As a result, the final piece of interlocking Mobius strips doesn’t look anything like the paper mock up! But I’m OK with that.

interlocking mobius strips

And now for something completely different – well, almost

A couple of months ago I signed up for an online course with Australian basketmaker Catriona Pollard. The course was on making sculptural basketry with found wood, as I was really interested in finding out how to incorporate found objects such as wood into my work.

However, finding suitable pieces of wood was a bit tricky in the middle of London in August. There were alternatives I considered, but in the end I just started on the sculptural part, which involves twining.

I soon found out that twining with paper yarn produces a satisfying (for me) twist. So I’ve decided to go ahead without the wood for now and see what happens.

sculptural twining

I have no plan for this – I just decided to start with five “arms”, like a starfish, and see how it developed. Sometimes they come together, sometimes they wind over or under each other, depending on how I feel. At the moment it’s fairly symmetrical, though it may not look like that in the photo.

Although twining is a different technique from coiling, I’m enjoying exploring how to achieve similar twisting and interlocking effects. Let’s see how it goes!

Making a zarzo basket

In these times of social distancing, meeting up with other people is a rare pleasure. So it was a delight to attend a workshop last Saturday on making a zarzo basket with Nicki of Willow and Yoga, especially as the course had been postponed from April.

Education is exempt from the limit of six people in a group, but there were only four people in the class plus Nicki anyway. With tables well spaced out and plenty of hand sanitiser, we didn’t feel unsafe at any stage. And we had an interested audience of cows looking in from the field beyond the large windows!

The zarzo basket is apparently based on the design of a Spanish tray that was used to drain cheese. I love the movement of its flowing lines.

Nicki explained about the different types of willow and had provided different colours to emphasise the design of the basket. These included Flanders Red, Black Maul and steamed chocolate willow.

Unlike the stake and strand baskets I’ve made with willow before, all the weavers for the sides are added at once, rather than as you go along. So once it’s set up, all you have to do is weave!

Here’s the base set up with all the weavers added.

zarzo basket base

The different colours of willow look very attractive.

Then we used the weavers to create the sides of the basket – here’s the first set.

weaving zarzo basket sides

Nicki had lots of useful advice about how to slide the weavers in smoothly and keep the uprights, well, upright.

I got carried away after this and didn’t take any more photos until the basket was practically finished. But we wove another two sets of weavers along the sides. The different coloured willow not only looks attractive – it helps you keep count of where you’ve got to! 😉

We finished by locking the weavers in by crossing them over at the ends, and binding the handle.

zarzo basket finish

It was wonderful learning a new technique and having the space to accommodate 8ft willow rods. And the other three students in the class, who had never done any basketry before, were also very pleased with their baskets.

Willow rope coiling

It’s been nine months since I last worked with willow on the City Lit basketry course. We were supposed to have a couple of willow sessions in the summer term, but of course that was cancelled due to coronavirus.

So I thought it was time for a little revision. First was the base – I had to keep referring to my notes, but it started to come back, and my base was pretty neat (and even slightly domed).

willow basket base

Although the piece was intended as revision, I also wanted to try something new, so I decided to make a shallow bowl using rope coiling. This meant that when I inserted the stakes I didn’t bend them sharply upright but just tied them loosely together.

After securing the stakes in position using four-rod waling, I started on the rope coiling. This essentially continues the four-rod waling, but every time you weave in and out you add another weaver. This means you end up weaving with four or five weavers at a time (new weavers are eventually cancelled by the old weavers running out).

rope coiling

The hardest part was shaping the bowl to rise gently upwards – it’s trickier doing a shallow curve than a vertical side!

I finished with a two-rod border, as the stakes were quite far apart by then.

rope coiled bowl

There were a lot of ends to be trimmed off on both sides!

I’d forgotten how tough willow is on the hands, especially dealing with so many weavers at once. And the bowl is slightly wonky and gappy, as it’s also harder to close up big bundles of weavers.

rope coiled willowrope coiled willow

But I love the movement and rhythm of this weave, so it’s something I’d definitely try again.

rope coiled willow dish

Microbasketry workshop with Rita Soto

On Saturday I took part in an online microbasketry workshop with Rita Soto as part of the Selvedge World Fair.

Rita Soto is a Chilean artist who makes jewellery using basketry techniques. She works mainly with horsehair and agave fibre, producing wonderfully organic wearable forms.

Rita Soto brooch
Brooch by Rita Soto

These materials are traditionally used by the Rari community in southern Chile, where the technique has been passed on through generations, mostly via women.

But ecause horsehair is not particularly common here, we used different thicknesses and colours of fishing line (before this workshop I never knew that fishing line comes in different colours, so that’s another thing I’ve learnt!).

As you can imagine, the tiny scale of this technique makes it a bit tricky to demonstrate on a videoconference platform, but we did our best, with a cameraphone focused on Rita’s hands as she worked. We were also immensely helped by some clear written instructions distributed in advance.

In the two-hour workshop we learned how to start, how to weave a flat disc, and two ways of finishing off, as well as how and when to add “stakes” and join weavers. You definitely need good light and eyesight to tackle something like this!

Here’s what I managed to make during the workshop – a piece smaller than my thumbnail!

After the workshop I decided to experiment with using paper yarn for the stakes, or warp, with fishing line as the weaver, or weft. I also curved it into more of a basket shape. This piece was a bit bigger!

I like the delicate reflectiveness of this technique and material. The light plays beautifully across the surface as you move it in your hands, but this is difficult to capture in photos – it looks more like wire.

I’m not sure at the moment whether I will take this any further, but it’s another material to add to my armoury!