My first willow baskets

The first term of the two-year City Lit basketry course is over, and I’ve had my first experience of making willow baskets.

Our tutor was Annemarie O’Sullivan, an acclaimed basketmaker who trained at City Lit herself. She has a studio in East Sussex where she grows her own willow.

We started off by making round bases. As most of us were complete beginners we were all fingers and thumbs, but Annemarie was very patient, demonstrating several times and emphasising the placement of the willow and the position of the hands.

willow basket base

The base is supposed to be slightly domed (like an upturned saucer) because when the stakes are put in they will tend to push the base down. So if the base is flat to start with you could end up with a rounded base, which will wobble.

By the end of the first session we had all managed to make at least one base – only to be told that we had to make another three bases for homework! Practice makes perfect I suppose. 🙂

willow bases

Most of these are brown willow (willow with bark on), but the top one is buff willow (willow without bark). All willow needs to be soaked before use, but buff willow takes much less time to soak (a few hours) than brown willow (a few days). And if it’s over- or undersoaked the results are not good. So I had to plan ahead, especially if I wanted a bath!

soaking willow in bath

Next we moved on to staking up – adding the side stakes around which the basket is woven. This involves a sharp knife and requires rather a lot of room if you have 32 stakes protruding from the base like a willow sunray! It becomes more manageable once they are tied up.

staked up

The next stage is upsetting – no jokes please! In fact seeing Annemarie demonstrate this was far from upsetting – it made it seem very easy. Upsetting creates a strong ridge at the edge for the basket to sit on and holds all the stakes in position. It’s usually done with a type of weave called waling, which has a rope-like appearance.

For weaving the sides we used English randing, which is woven with one willow rod per round and produces a slight spiral pattern.

English randing

We were also shown French randing, where all the weaving rods (24 or 32) are inserted at the same time. Again, this requires a lot of room, so I stuck to English randing for practicality!

After two sets of randing we wove a few rounds of waling to strengthen the rim and then added a border by bending the stakes. This is where I discovered that some of the stakes I had used in my early baskets were far too thick, which made them difficult to manouevre without kinking (a cardinal sin) and certainly made the basket seem over-engineered!

basket border

It was much easier when the stakes were not as chunky.

basket border

Finally, it was time to have a go at making handles. This was definitely my least favourite part of the process – it involves a technique called cranking, as demonstrated here by a basketmaker in Ireland, Hanna Van Aelst.

I did finally get the hang of the twisting technique, but my handles still look a bit like afterthoughts. Luckily they can easily be cut off. So don’t expect any of my baskets to have handles! 😉

basket handle

So these were my first three completed baskets.

willow basketwillow basketwillow basket

Willow work is hard on the hands, so I was looking forward to giving them a rest in December.

But as some of you may know, I am a trustee of a local charity, the Friends of Windmill Gardens, which runs tours of Brixton Windmill and other events in the surrounding park. Every year they organise a Santa’s grotto in the windmill and have a festive bake off to encourage people to bake items made with Brixton Windmill flour. The winners get a prize hamper.

You can see what’s coming, can’t you! The chair of the trustees asked if I could make a couple of baskets which could be filled with festive goodies as the prizes. I said I couldn’t do square baskets (apparently they are very difficult), but I thought that making another couple of round baskets would be good practice and help to consolidate what I had learnt. So I agreed to make two baskets, one with a base diameter of 30cm and one of 40cm.

The 40cm basket was by far the biggest I have attempted. Luckily, Annemarie used the size as an example in class of how to work out how many stakes and base sticks you need, and what lengths of willow would be required. So I had some help with the planning.

But making it seemed to go on for ever – it’s big enough to hold a small dog! And it also demonstrated the limits of the size of pieces that can be soaked in the bath. 😉 It’s not a perfect circle, but I’m pretty pleased with it. And I can see a vast improvement in the quality of my bases.

willow basket

After such a mammoth piece I couldn’t face making another base so for the 30cm basket I used a practice base I’d made previously. It wasn’t brilliant, but once the basket has been filled nobody will see it! Here are the two baskets together.

two willow baskets

Plaited basketry at City Lit

Last week we finished the first module of the two-year basketry course at City Lit. The subject was plaiting, and the tutor was Polly Pollock. I missed the first week because I was on holiday in Uzbekistan, so as soon as I got back it was straight into a marathon strip-cutting session!

We started off with watercolour paper, as it is strong but flexible. However, we were encouraged to experiment with other materials and also to add overlays (extra elements threaded through after weaving the main basked) to add colour and texture.

The three main techniques we covered were bias plaiting, straight plaiting and skewed forms. We combined these with different borders – zigzag, flat and sandwich and sew.

Here are some of my practice samples made with bias plaiting using khadi paper, an old map, newspaper cordage and vinyl wallpaper.

bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl

Here’s a straight plaited vessel made with watercolour paper.

straight plait vessel

And here’s a skewed vessel, also made with watercolour paper.

skewed vessel

For our final module assignment we had to make a series of three related pieces using some or all of these techniques, inspired by the modern architecture of Rotterdam.

I have to admit that this was a bit of a challenge for me, as my inspiration usually comes from natural rather than human-made forms. But even I got drawn in by the weird and wacky architecture of this Dutch city.

Here are the results, all made with watercolour paper, damp proof membrane and flattened corrugated cardboard.

plaited basket plaited basket plaited basket

I have to admit that the third piece, of a vessel within a vessel, was actually inspired by another building in London, and its spiky “haircut” was just a piece of whimsy on my part (though I could argue it’s supposed to be a roof garden 😉 ). It’s also not really tall enough, but I ran out of paper and time as it had to be finished for evaluation last week.

I really enjoyed this first module. It was quite intense – and hard work cutting all the strips! – and moved me out of my comfort zone.

This week we move on to willow, which I suspect will also be challenging!

Suzanis of Uzbekistan

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan visiting cities of the former Silk Road, including Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

The Islamic architecture was stunning. But this is a textile blog, so I am going to focus here on suzanis, which are large embroidered panels originally made by nomadic tribes in central Asia.

Traditionally, every girl had to produce 10 suzanis as part of her dowry – not an insignificant task. To make it easier, the base fabric was made up of narrow strips, which were sewn loosely together and the pattern drawn on them. Then they were taken apart again so that family and friends could each work on individual strips. When they were joined together at the end the pattern didn’t always match perfectly, as you can see in some of the photos.

The main stitches used were basma (also known as Bukhara couching) and tambour (chain stitch done with a small hook). Basma was used to cover surprisingly large areas – from a distance it can look like fabric appliqué and you only realise it’s actually stitched when up close.

According to the Museum of Applied Arts in Tashkent, there were 11 different schools of embroidery across Uzbekistan, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. Each had their own style and motifs. Flowers and star medallions are particularly popular, along with fruit (especially pomegranates) and vines.

At the beginning of the 20th century the process of tambour stitch was mechanised, replacing a lot of hand embroidery. Sellers of modern suzani are usually happy to say whether a piece is machine embroidered.

The natural dyes of indigo, madder, cochineal, pomegranate and walnut were also replaced by synthetic dyes in the 20th century, though some workshops are now returning to natural dyes, which are considered to give more intense hues.

Suzanis were used in yurts to protect belongings, or as seating, sheets or prayer mats, so not many old ones survive. The oldest examples are from the late 18th century, but they were almost certainly in use before then.

However, there are lots of colourful modern pieces wherever you go in Uzbekistan, so there is no shortage!

Finally, to finish, just a few pics of Samarkand – a very special place.

Wandsworth Artists’ Open House 2019

I’m delighted to be taking part in Wandsworth Artists’ Open House for the first time this year with my friend Emma Gibson. The event runs over the first two weekends in October.

Emma makes beautiful handmade contemporary jewellery.

She works mainly in silver, combining traditional and experimental techniques to produce bold pieces, which often retain the texture of the hammers used to forge them.

Emma allows for an element of chance in her work so that even if a design is repeated each piece remains individual.

I will be showing and selling some of my basketry work – another first for me!

I will also have my latest batch of upcycled indigo and ecoprinted accessories and clothing.

When: 5-6 October and 12-13 October, 11am-6pm
Where: 46 Drakefield Road, London SW17 8RP

Hope to see you there!

First Time Felting review

There are many craft books around these days that are project-led, showing pretty things that you can make once you’ve mastered a particular technique. These are great for inspiration and showing beginners what they can aspire to – but they can also be frustrating if they skimp on technique in favour of result.

first time felting by ruth lane

So it’s refreshing that First Time Felting: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Ruth Lane prioritises technique above all else. I think this is particularly important with felting, where even the apparently simple process of pulling off a small piece of fibre from wool tops can be tricky.

I should declare an interest here. I’ve never met Ruth Lane in person, but we follow each other’s blogs and I have written guest posts for the Felting and Fiber Studio, for which she is one of the co-ordinators. But the review below is my honest opinion.

The book is divided into needle felting and wet felting – sensible, as they are completely different techniques. Each process is broken down step by step with accompanying photos, making it very easy to follow.

Throughout the book Ruth also gives extra tips on technique, highlighted in tinted boxes. These cover everything from how to remember which way you turn the felt to blocking the finished piece so that it holds its shape.

It starts with an overview of different types of wool and embellishments, which is very helpful, though perhaps a photo showing the difference between wool batting and wool tops might have been useful for beginners (there is an extensive glossary at the back that explains all the terms used).

first time felting

I would also like to have seen a mention of Bergschaf wool, which is popular in Europe (and increasingly popular in the UK), but maybe this is difficult to source in the US.

There is essential health and safety advice – not just on how to avoid stabbing yourself with a felting needle, but on posture (avoiding hunching) and working on the correct height of table when wet felting. Many felters suffer from back problems, so it’s important to try to develop good habits from the outset.

I’m obviously not an absolute beginner when it comes to wet felting, but the book starts with needle felting, a technique that I use only occasionally, usually for covering a wool core. And then I usually wet felt it afterwards. 😉

So I learnt a lot from this section, from how to make a flat shape to deep needling attachment techniques and how to make bendable joints. For more advanced shaping Ruth also covers felting around a wire armature and string jointing, using a teddy bear as an example.

The section on wet felting is equally comprehensive, covering the basics like laying out, wetting down, the pinch test and rolling. I also learnt for the first time about palming – so even experienced felters can get something out of it!

There is also advice on special techniques for nuno felting, dealing with edges and seams, and mosaic or collage felting.

In short, this is a book that offers beginners a solid grounding in felting techniques – and even more experienced felters may learn a thing or two!

First Time Felting is published by Quarto Books and costs £12.99. But if you’re quick they’re running a giveaway over on Felting and Fiber Studio, so you could win your own copy!

Basketry – function and ornament at Ruthin Craft Centre

Practically everyone who is anyone in the world of British basketry is featured in “Basketry – function and ornament” at Ruthin Craft Centre in north Wales, so it’s well worth making the effort to visit this wonderful, inspiring exhibition, curated by Gregory Parsons.

As the title implies, the show includes everything from beautifully made functional baskets to pieces whose impact relies more on form than function. I must admit that I tend to be drawn towards the latter in the selection below.

Alison Dickens
Anna King
Anne Marie O’Sullivan
Clare Revera
Dail Behennah
Jane Crisp
Joe Hogan
Laura Ellen Bacon
Lise Bech
Lizzie Farey
Lois Walpole
Maggie Smith
Mandy Coates
Mary Butcher
Mary Crabb
Polly Pollock
Rachel Max
Sarah Paramor
Stella Harding
Tim Johnson

“Basketry – function and ornament” runs at the Ruthin Craft Centre until 13 October 2019.

As you  may have gathered from all these recent posts on basketry, it’s an area in which I have developed quite an interest. So much so that I have signed up for the two-year City Lit basketry course. This is quite a commitment, but I’m really looking forward to starting on 19 September.

Look out for a few more basketry posts in future! 😉

Casting baskets in glass

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that Ever Supportive Partner (ESP) has accompanied me on many jaunts and tried his hand at a few textile ventures, such as dyeing with safflowers at the World Shibori Network conference in Oaxaca in 2016.

So now it was payback time. ESP has done a couple of glass courses recently and was keen to go to a four-day masterclass at the International Festival of Glass. He suggested I accompany him.

I was a bit concerned at first, as the term “masterclass” usually implies that you need some experience to be able to attend. However, I found a class with Georgia Redpath that looked right up my street, making beautiful geometric moulds for cast glass. So after checking with the organisers that complete beginners were welcome, I booked.

Unsurprisingly, I was the only person in the class with no previous experience of working with glass. But Georgia made me feel very welcome. And her work was as stunning in real life as it was on her website.

georgia redpath cast glass georgia redpath cast glass

When casting glass, it takes time to heat up the glass and then let it cool gradually. This meant that our glass would not be ready to collect until a few days after the end of the class.

So we started with a group exercise, where we each made a couple of small moulds from card. These were then cast together as two group moulds so that we could see the process and the end result during the class.

We each made one mould with a star-shaped base and one with a circular base.

card moulds for glass casting card moulds for glass casting

These were grouped together and silicone moulds were made.

silicon mould for glass casting silicon mould for glass casting

Then another mould of investment plaster was cast from the silicone mould.

plaster mould for glass casting plaster mould for glass casting

These plaster moulds are then filled with glass and put in the kiln.

group exercise glass cast group exercise glass cast

I love the clean geometric lines of Georgia’s work, so I made a small geometric mould as one of my samples.

geometric glass mould

However, I also wanted to incorporate the work that I do as a fibre artist, so I made a couple of small coiled bowls from some dead lily leaves I found in the hotel garden(!) and a 3D stitched kantha piece. These were cast in Gelflex rubber rather than silicone, as it is more viscous and less likely to seep through holes in the fibres.

bowls for glass casts gelflex moulds of bowls

Here are the plaster casts of the rubber moulds. It was amazing to see the amount of detail picked up, right down to individual stitches.

plaster moulds of bowls moulds for glass casts

We then calculated how much glass was needed to fill the plaster moulds and left them for a couple of days with Georgia to be put in the kiln.

It was very exciting to return a couple of days later to pick up the glass casts. Unfortunately, on one of the bowls I had underestimated how much glass was needed, so there was a small hole in it.

glass cast bowl with hole

But I’m still pleased with the detail picked up in the glass. And the others were equally detailed – on the stitched piece you can even see the weave of the cotton muslin as well as the individual stitches.

cast glass embroidery cast glass bowl geometric cast glass

I have limited facilities for coldworking (finishing them off by rubbing down and polishing) but I’m extremely happy with them even as they are.

It was a great workshop, and Georgia is a very enthusiastic and encouraging tutor. It’s made me think more about moulds and negative space and how I might develop this in my work. So thanks to ESP too for pushing me out of my comfort zone!

Georgia’s studio is at the Ruskin Glass Centre in Stourbridge, where you can see lots of other stunning examples of studio glass in the British Glass Biennale, which runs until 28 September 2019.

Dyeing with dried indigo leaves

Because we had such a long hot summer in the UK last year my homegrown Japanese indigo lasted well into the autumn, and I didn’t have time to use all the fresh leaves for dyeing.

I’m always reluctant to waste anything so at the end of the season I cut the remaining stems, tied them into bunches, and hung them in my airing cupboard to dry out. Quite a few of them had flowers on, so I snipped these off and dried them separately in a paper bag to save the seeds.

bundles of indigo leaves

Within a few weeks the leaves had dried out and gone slightly blue (dried bunch on the right).

dried indigo leaves

I stripped all the dried leaves off and stored them, hoping to find a method of making an indigo vat with dried leaves.

I then managed to acquire a copy of John Marshall’s excellent book Singing the Blues, which contains lots of ideas for using fresh indigo leaves, as well as a method of making a vat with dried leaves. Eureka!

John’s method involves heating the leaves with soda ash (alkali) and thiox (thiorea dioxide – reducing agent), but I didn’t really like the idea of heating thiox, which produces harmful vapours above 40ºC. So I decided to try making the vat with lime as the alkali and fructose as the reducing agent. This is how I make organic indigo vats, following Michel Garcia’s 123 recipe (1 part indigo, 2 parts lime, 3 parts fructose).

The problem, of course, is that I had no idea about the quantity of indigo contained in the leaves. It was at the end of the season, and some of the plants had flowered, so the level of indigo was likely to be low. When I extracted indigo from fresh leaves earlier last year, I obtained 4g of solid pigment from 215g of fresh leaves – but I don’t know how pure the indigo was.

dried indigo leaves in pot

Fresh leaves weigh more than dried leaves so I decided to assume 4g of indigo in my dried leaves, which was probably on the optimistic side!

Here’s what I did:

  • I simmered my 104g of dried leaves in 5 litres of water for 20 minutes to remove impurities, strained the leaves and discarded the liquid.

dried indigo leaves in water

  • I simmered the same leaves in another 5 litres of water with 8g of lime and 12g of fructose for 20 minutes. John Marshall says a dark blue film should form on the surface, but I didn’t see this. The liquid was a very dark yellow. I strained it and kept the liquid anyway.

straining dried indigo

  • I then repeated the previous step three times. The second time I got a little blue, but by the third and fourth times there was significantly more blue and even a little indigo “flower”.

  • I combined the second, third and fourth extractions and decided to discard the first extraction, as it didn’t look as if it contained much indigo.
  • I let the extractions cool down and then added a couple of pieces of cotton – one plain, one with shibori bindings. I left them for five minutes, wrung them out and hung them to oxidise.
  • There was barely any colour at all after the first dip, so I repeated this three more times. The final result is shown below. The colour in the photos actually looks a bit darker than in real life.

shibori in dried indigo leaves vat shibori in dried indigo leaves vat

So the technique does work. The pale colour is probably due to low indigo levels in the leaves at the end of the season.

It is quite time consuming, but may be a way of preserving indigo leaves for later use if you don’t have time to use them fresh or don’t have facilities for composting.