April 2021 roundup

It definitely feels as if spring has sprung. The weather has turned (for now), the garden is a riot of green, and I’m back at college. There does seem to be a sense of hope and renewal in the air – let’s hope it lasts!

Our first sessions back at City Lit are focusing on twining with John Page. We started off using sisal and jute, getting a feel for tension, increasing and decreasing the width, and use of colour.

twining with sisal and jute

We also looked at an alternative start, the square start, which results in a double-layered base, which can be two different colours. I combined this with waling in three colours, ending up with a bowl where the inside is completely different from the outside.

square start basket inside square start basket outside

I also had a go at making a bowl in my signature pattern from discarded telephone wire, begged from phone engineers whenever I pass a junction box.

bowl made from telephone wire

We then moved on to making pouches, where we learned about the tendency for flat pieces to twist, and the importance of using reverse twining to help counter this. It produces a chevron pattern, which adds extra interest.

twined pouch

I also attempted to make a ribbed pouch, by using alternating thick and thin stakes and thick and thin weavers. My hope was that the thin weaver in front of the thin stakes would recede, while the thick weaver in front of the thick stakes would protrude, giving a ribbed effect.

However, this didn’t work out, partly because the last stake on one side is the same thickness as the first stake on the other side, so while the thin weaver will be in front of the thin stake on one side, it will be in front of the thick weaver on the other side! It’s not very obvious from the photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it. However, it does give the stakes more prominence in the overall pattern.

Thin weaver in front of thin stakes
Thin weaver in front of thick stakes

So far we had worked with soft materials. For homework we were asked to make a sample of twining materials on rigid stakes. Nobody said it had to be flat and straight. 😉

I had some cane that was coiled up, so it was curved. I cut out a series of C shapes and twined them together roughly in the centre. I decided not to use reverse twining to see if I could get the piece to twist. And it worked!

Time to try some openwork twining. One of the handouts we were given had various diagrams showing different types of staggered twining, including one over a double warp (“staggered weft twining over double transposed warp” was the actual description). Nothing like jumping in at the deep end, so I had a go.

First I tried a flat piece, which worked fine – once I remembered to keep the warps in the same layers and not to cross warp threads of the same colour.

Then I tried a piece in the round, but I couldn’t get the pattern to work continuously. You can’t see it in the photo below, but the pattern along the edge where the rounds joined is a complete mess. It wasn’t until I gave up and looked more closely that I realised that I needed an odd number of each colour of warp threads – d’oh! When I pulled out one of each thread the pattern did indeed work – though I then had too many twined threads.

So I had another go, this time with odd numbers of warp threads – and it worked. I finished off by twining around the warps from both sides at the bottom to create a pouch. Apologies for the photo – it’s tricky to shoot a two-sided see-through object.

And after all this, I’ve also made progress on the twined Work in Progress I showed you last month. Hopefully by next month it will be finished!

March 2021 roundup

The big news this month is…drumroll…I have finished the Tetrapak dog!

tetrapak dog 4tetrapak dog 5

Any suggestions of what to call him or her? 🙂

I also tried a variation on a theme, making a circular coiled pot with a lid based on my previous tortoise vessels. Because the peaks resemble limpet shells, I’ve called this a limpet pot.

limpet pot 1limpet pot 2limpet pot 3

Another construction I’ve been involved in was a bike shed in the front garden. This was not particularly creative – I just mention it because it took a lot of time and effort this month! The very heavy shed arrived in bits and had to be pieced together on a concrete base that we had previously laid.

Much huffing, puffing, and swearing ensued, not to mention a couple of broken drill bits. I also ended up falling into wet concrete at one point – and the local wildlife were determined to leave their marks too!

But now the shed is up, and I am able to get into the house without squeezing past a couple of bikes and associated paraphernalia. We just need to plant a fast-growing shrub to cover up the unattractive exterior.

bike shed

With restrictions on lockdown slowly lifting, our two-year basketry course at City Lit is due to resume in mid-April, more than a year since it stopped. I’m really looking forward to being back in the classroom, especially now that I’ve had my first coronavirus vaccination.

We are going to be starting on twining, so I thought I might try to get ahead a bit and started on a new experiment. This is very much a Work In Progress! 😉

twined wip

Hopefully this will be more presentable next month.

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy Easter.

February 2021 roundup

I’ve spent most of February working on a commission for a tortoise vessel. Someone saw my black and yellow one on Instagram and asked if I could make one in a different colourway.

As before, I started by making the individual scutes.

coiled turquoise tortoise scutes

Then I joined them together and added the border.

coiled turquoise tortoise lid

Then I made the base with the hidden tortoise design.

coiled turquoise tortoise vessel

The client was very pleased, and so am I.

Dorset buttons and looping

Although our basketry group has still heard nothing about when our course will resume, we are still meeting every fortnight on Zoom, and choosing a theme to work on for each session.

The first one was Dorset buttons. To be honest, I found this a bit fiddly. I normally like fiddly, but maybe I needed a break after the fiddly work on the tortoise. But I did manage to produce a button!

dorset button

Then we had a go at looping. I found this more relaxing and tried two methods. The first one was looping around a stone, starting at the opening on top and closing it together on the bottom.

looped stone top
looped stone bottom

As you can see, the looping pattern looks quite regular on the top and sides, but becomes more irregular and organic on the bottom where I pulled the loops together to close up.

I also made a looped basket with homemade cordage, this time starting at the bottom and working up to finish at the opening. The advantage of this is that I made the cordage as I went along, so didn’t have to worry about how to hide the joins.

Tetrapak dog update

I’ve made a bit of progress on the dog. The back half is complete, along with the head and the front legs.

Back legs and tail
tetrapak dog  head
Head

I only need to drink another five cartons of orange juice to get enough material to finish it!

Packaging material and ice

One of the highlights of my month was receiving a delivery (replacement butter dish, not very interesting) wrapped in some fantastic packaging material – some kind of pierced brown paper.

What was interesting is the way the paper had opened up and retained the form of what it was wrapped around, a bit like memory foam.

Apparently, according to comments on my Instagram post, it’s called Geami WrapPak. I’ve saved it until I can work out what to do with it!

We also had a very cold spell, where temperatures didn’t rise above 0ºC for several days. A basin of water I’d left in the garden froze solid – a chance to try making an ice sculpture by moving the frozen block into a different position every day.

However, the temperature rose again before I could get the full propeller effect!

As I write this, it’s warmed up enough for the first frogspawn to appear in the pond.

The other news is that I am to be the new editor of the Basketmakers’ Association newsletter. Although it’s called a newsletter, it’s a 68-page journal that is published four times a year, so it will be quite a lot of work! But there is a very supportive team (we are all volunteers), and I’m looking forward to making lots of interesting contacts with some fantastic basketmakers. So wish me luck!

January 2021 roundup

So where did January go? Perhaps there’s a wormhole associated with Covi-19 that makes a month where every day seems to be the same suddenly pass in a flash. It’s too late to wish you all a happy new year, but Chinese new year is coming up on 12 February, so happy Year of the Ox to everyone!

Second shell vessel

Between Christmas and new year, I had an idea to try making another shell vessel to go with the tortoiseshell vessel. This one was inspired by a scallop shell.

I started by making some sample pieces of the shell segments.

scallop sample coiling

Once I’d worked out the process and shape, I made seven segments of varying sizes.

scallop shell segments

Then I stitched them together and added a border.

scallop vessel lid

The base was a bit trickier. Even with wire in the core I found it difficult to get the correct scallop shape. In the end I created a fan shape by leaving small gaps. So the vessel is not ideal for holding tiny items, but I think the effect is quite shell like. Some commenters on Instagram have also said it reminds them of an art deco shell clutch bag.

scallop coiled vessel

Here are the two vessels together.

scallop and tortoise vessels

I’m now thinking about a third vessel to complete the series, but it may take a while! 🙂

Bindweed vessels

I also carried on experimenting with bindweed, this time making some random weave vessels.

bindweed random weave vessels

Someone on Instagram suggested that a large group would look good as an installation – so I made some more.

bindweed random weave vessels

I’ve now run out of bindweed. I discovered that bindweed harvested after a heavy frost is rather brittle, so I guess I’ll have to wait until it regrows later this year!

Forces in Translation

My City Lit basketry course, which was due to resume this month after being halted last March, has again been postponed due to lockdown. 😦

However, an interdisciplinary group of basketmakers, anthropologists and mathematicians, called Forces in Translation, organised a couple of one-day public online sessions. These explored, among other things, cycloid weaving, looping in the Pacific, windmill knots, sand drawings and the topology of knots, through demonstrations, talks and practical activities.

cycloid weaving half hitches windmill knots windmill knots

Some of the maths was a bit challenging (Gauss topological notation for knots anyone?) and I wondered how I could apply it to basketmaking. But it was intellectually stimulating, especially once I grasped the principle, so maybe that’s the point. 🙂

Now I’m saving up my orange juice cartons to make a Tetrapak dog from windmill loops. This is an updated version of a cigarette packet dog, which apparently was popular in the 1950s.

So far I’ve got enough for three legs, so this could take a while!

tetrapak dog legs

Merry Christmas 2020

The image above is a work by Ruth Asawa shown at an exhibition in London I visited at the beginnning of this year. How long ago it seems, when museums and galleries were open and we could visit without making an appointment in advance!

It’s been a tough year – but we’ve survived, unlike many.

Thank you for reading, following, liking, commenting – online support has meant so much during this period of social distancing.

I wish you all a safe and relaxing Christmas, and hope that the light will return next year.

Autumn harvest

For the last week or so it’s been heavily overcast in London – a series of dull grey days that seem to sum up the feelings of everyone as we headed towards the end of the second national lockdown period (though some areas will still be pretty restricted in what they can do when it ends).

But yesterday, the first day of meterological winter, the sun actually appeared, bringing all the autumnal colours to life during my walk in the park, especially this glorious purple cotinus tree.

cotinus tree cotinus tree

There were also loads of roses still in bloom – in December! This was in the walled garden, which is very sheltered, but even so – it seems that climate change is definitely having an effect.

roses in brockwell park roses in brockwell park roses in brockwell park

At the weekend, back in my own garden, it was time for a bit of a tidy up. My gardening approach tends towards the neglectful (my excuse is that it’s better for wildlife), but with most of the branches bare it became clear just how much the bindweed had run amok. So I spent a bit of time untwining it and coiling it into loose bundles. I also cut back the Virginia creeper, having enjoyed its stunning leaf colours before they fell.

As the stems of both the Virginia creeper and the bindweed were so long and flexible, I decided to try using them for some random weave. I used the thickest stems to make a hoop, and then wove the other stems around it to produce a shallow dish.

Here’s the one made from Virginia creeper. It’s about 25x20cm (10x8in). The little dried tendrils caught on everything, making it tricky to weave with, but they add  interesting detail.

random weave virginia creeper dish

And here’s the bindweed dish – much smaller, around 11cm (4.5in) in diameter.

random weave bindweed dish

Here they are both together. The perspective does funny things – the bindweed dish is relatively much smaller than it looks here.

random weave dishes

I also managed to finish knitting the sweater that I started while watching the US election results, so it’s not been a bad week. 🙂

knitted sweater

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.