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.

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!