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.
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.
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.
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.
And here’s the bindweed dish – much smaller, around 11cm (4.5in) in diameter.
Here they are both together. The perspective does funny things – the bindweed dish is relatively much smaller than it looks here.
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. 🙂
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.
Here are some samples made by the group in varied materials, including cane, sisal and telephone wire.
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.
We also tried making flat-bottomed vessels. Quite a lot of strength is needed here to pull the willow into place!
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.
Then in the final week most of us made rush bags.
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.
And I started making a pouch from telephone wire.
But then it wanted to turn into another spiral – so I let it!
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.
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! 😉
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.
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.
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.
Another bag, this time made of duck feet.
This lovely basket is made of baleen, with a walrus ivory handle.
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.
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.
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.
As well as animal products, beach grass was woven into mats, bags and socks.
Wooden fish traps like this were placed into holes cut into frozen rivers.
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.
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.
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.
More recently, on Nunavak Island, Alaska, basketmakers have recycled nylon fishing rope washed up on the beach to crochet into colourful bags.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Weaving alternates from one end to the other, so that both sides eventually meet in the centre.
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.
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. 🙂
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! 😉
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.
Some of the yarn I dyed with indigo and onion skins.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.