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