Indikola weaving

You know those oriental goddesses, like Kali or Guanyin, that have several pairs of arms? I think I met a real-life incarnation in Sri Lanka.

Meet Soma Edirisinghe, who makes incredibly delicate purses, boxes and bags from indikola, a kind of palm. The tender leaves are picked, bleached or dyed, dried, and cut into thin strips. You can see her holding some in the photo above, along with some of her products (more close-up shots below).

She uses a long metal needle called a bodkin, pointed at one end and with a cutting edge at the other, to help manipulate these incredibly delicate strips – some no more than 1mm wide.

Soma could see I was fascinated by watching her work, so she gesticulated that she would show me how to make a simple box. (She spoke no English and, needless to say, my Sinhala was not up to this.) So with sign language only, we set to work.

Now, I did make a woven basket last term at Morley College. But it was made from cardboard, on a much larger scale, and I used clothes pegs and masking tape to help keep the strips in place. By contrast, Soma used just her hands and the bodkin to do everything. Which is why she seemed to have more than one pair of hands – when I was in the middle of making the box, I certainly felt as if I needed at least two more pairs!

First she takes a leaf of indikola and scrapes both sides along the length of the needle (a bit like using scissors to curl a strip of paper – only in this case it is to straighten the palm, not curl it). Because the leaf is thicker at one end (where it was attached to the stalk) and tapers to a point, it’s not of uniform width. So she cuts off the thick end, and uses the point of the bodkin to slice thin strips off each side of the leaf so that the width is more consistent. The art is to get all the strips the same width – which isn’t as easy as it sounds, as it’s quite tricky to get the leaf to split exactly where you want it!

While I was attempting to get 10 strips about 1cm wide, Soma was preparing five much narrower strips – about a third of this width. Then I lined up five wide strips vertically, alternating the thick and thin ends. Using just the weight of the needle to keep them in position (no masking tape here!), Soma then helped me weave five wide strips horizontally through the vertical strips, again alternating thick and thin ends. Then we added five narrow strips at the top.

Now the fun began. Faster than you can say “Where does that bit go?”, Soma had formed the corners and indicated that I should carry on weaving. This was really tricky, trying to keep the bits I had already woven in position just using my hands without the help of clothes pegs. As you can see, I did have some help!

When I had woven three vertical rows with the wider strips, Soma showed me how to weave in the narrow strips to form a decorative border. Then I was ready to finish off, weaving the ends in and cutting off the ends. Success!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to make the top of the box (you can see a complete one among the products in Soma’s photo), as I had to go off and interview some other craftworkers. But I had a great time, and I think Soma did too. Despite all the help she gave me she said I was a natural – so I had to confess that I had done something like this before, though not on such a small scale.

Soma has won Unesco and Presidential Awards for her skills – and justly so. I can only admire her skill and dexterity in handling these delicate strips of indikola – not to mention the beautiful designs and colours – she dyes the leaves herself.

Sri Lankan crafts

Just back from Sri Lanka after an 11.5 hour flight that left Colombo at 5am, only to find that there’s been a leak in the house while I’ve been away, with wallpaper peeling off the ceiling. 😦

Never mind – even that can’t take the gloss off the amazing craft experience I’ve had in Sri Lanka. The last hotel I stayed at was actually in the middle of setting up a craft centre, with weavers, basket makers, lace makers, woodcarvers and mask painters all giving demonstrations and even letting me have a go. As part of my assignment I interviewed a few of them and will post some of these later.

Also, shops like Barefoot have a fantastic selection of goods, from colourful handloom and embroidery work to contemporary batik designs, ceramics and carving. I came back with a bulging suitcase and had to buy another bag to hold everything!

I’ll post more details over the next week or so, but the photo above shows a few of the items: two cushion covers (one an example of Dumbara weaving, the other embroidered) and a couple of purses woven from indikola, a kind of palm.

Plarn coiled bowl

I’ve written before about knitting and crocheting with plarn (plastic yarn). But you can also use plastic like any other yarn or fibre to make coiled baskets or bowls.  Cindy’s method of making plarn is best for this, as the joins are relatively smooth and you don’t get big knots sticking out (unless that’s the look you want).

The main problem with using plarn for coiling is that it’s quite fragile. It depends on how thick the plastic is, of course – the bags I used for the bowl in the photo above were very thin. If I pulled the plarn hard, it stretched; if I pulled even harder, it broke. But the wrapping needs to be quite firm, especially the wraps that join two coils together. So it takes a bit of practice.

I also found it easier if the strands of plarn are not too long. I joined two loops of plarn, started wrapping, and when I had nearly reached the end joined on another two loops. If it’s longer than this the plarn tends to get caught or tangled, and there was more risk of it being stretched or broken as I tried to untangle it.

The bowl I made is a bit ‘fluid’ in places (‘expressively organic’, I’d say!). But it was very satisfying to make, and I’m going to try some more.

Coiled baskets

Last week there were only five of us in class – a rare luxury (for the students) of lots of space and attention. Everyone ended up working on different techniques, such as knitting with paper strips cut from magazines and sewn together, or weaving strips of pelmet Vilene dyed in the heatpress.

I’d missed the previous week’s class because I was on holiday, so I decided to have a go at making a coiled basket. Essentially the principle is that you wrap strips of one material (in my case raffia, but you can use strips cut from plastic bags or fabric) around some kind of cord (sash cord is ideal, as it doesn’t fray, but it’s rather expensive, so I used nylon clothes line). As you wrap the cord, you also coil it around itself, and then on every fourth or fifth ‘wrap’ you thread the wrapper through the previous coil to bind the whole vessel together.

By coiling the cord around the outside of itself you produce a flat disc; if you want a 3D version, you coil it on top of the other coils. Indian and native American baskets are often made this way, using materials like split twigs and yucca fibres.

You can also produce ‘open’ structures by keeping the coils apart and binding them only occasionally where they come into contact. I decided to try both methods in a bowl with a flat bottom and open sides.

Work in progress - the bottom of the basket is closely coiled, while the sides are more open loops
Nearly there - I'm not sure how to finish it off!

Coiling is quite a slow process, so I took the basket home with me to do some more work on it. The problem is, I’m not quite sure how to finish it off, so at the moment I have a bit of the blue nylon washing line sticking out! I’ll have to ask my tutor on Wednesday.

Basket case

No – not me, though I’m frantically rushing around before I go on holiday, so I do feel a bit frazzled!

Term started this evening at Morley College, and we began with some basketry weaving. To get the hang of it, we cut 12 long strips of card, and wove the centres together to form a square, six in each direction.  (We kept them in position by taping the six vertical strips on the table with masking tape.) Then, to form the corners, we wove the two central strips together on each side, adding the others as we moved upwards, holding the strips in position with clothes pegs, as in the picture above.

Those who wanted a flat, square bottom added creases using a spatula (I preferred a round bottom!). Then we pulled all the strips up as tightly as possible to get rid of large holes, and used either staples or hot glue to hold them in place around the top. Some students cut a strip to stitch or glue around the top to finish off; it’s also possible, if the strips are long enough, to weave them back in.

Next week they will be using craft (pelmet) vilene for weaving, colouring it in the heat press first, and also experimenting with coiling. I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I’ll be interested to see what they’ve produced when I get back!