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! 😉

Lockdown week 8

I said last week that I would post more information about the coiling project I’m working on for my City Lit basketry course. The original deadline to finish was today, but because the course is currently on hold, the deadline has been extended indefinitely. Just as well, because I haven’t finished yet! 🙂

I’ve been working on the project in fits and starts over the past eight weeks. There’s been a lot of sampling to get the effect I want, but I think I’ve finally nailed down the materials and techniques to use.

The theme of the project is animal markings. From the start, perhaps leading on from the pattern on the cane platter I made, I was attracted to the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) and Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans). Both are endangered species.

Radiated tortoise
Indian star tortoise

It’s not just the pattern – it’s the domed form of the individual parts of the shell (called scutes) that appeals. My plan was to make several individual units and then join them together to create the shell.

Looking at the shapes of the individual scutes, I could see that the central ones were hexagonal, while those at the edge had five or four sides.

I made the first samples with raffia, both with a wrapped core and an exposed core. I decided I really don’t like wrapping with raffia – it always seems to fray, and it feels quite plasticky. Shame, because raffia comes from Madagascar, like the radiated tortoise!

I liked the idea of an exposed core evoking the concentric ridges of a tortoise shell, but it was tricky getting a defined pattern this way.

I also toyed with the idea of creating a more openwork shell, to represent the fragility of such an endangered species. But this came out more domed than conical – more like a jellyfish – so although I loved the effect I decided to put that in the box labelled “Ideas to pursue later”.

Then I moved onto working with a solid core, using sash cord wrapped with knitting yarn. The pattern here was very distinct, and though this started as a sample I couldn’t help myself and carried on to make a complete bowl (as reported in Lockdown week 3).

The scale of this was too large for my tortoise (unless I swapped to a giant tortoise!), so I replaced the core with thinner string plus copper wire (to help shape the pieces) and started experimenting with different wrapping materials – soft string, fine hemp, linen thread.

In the end, I concluded that the finest pattern was obtained using linen thread (shown in the sample at the back in the photo above). The wire in the core enabled me to shape it into a hexagon.

Next was the problem of how to join the individual units. The first samples I made had no border, so the edges were a mixture of black and neutral stripes.

I tried joining them together with figure of eight stitch in neutral thread, but this looked messy against the black. Overstitching was less messy but somehow too intrusive.

So I made more samples with the outermost round entirely in neutral-coloured thread, and joined these with figure of eight stitch, which was much neater.

I then joined all the samples I had made together to test out how an overall border, enclosing them all, would work.

The joining on these samples isn’t very neat, for the reasons explained above. But I learned two things from joining them all together.

  • The overall border will undulate because the angles where the individual scutes meet is not sharp. I don’t mind that – in fact, I think it adds more movement and fluidity.
  • With three central hexagonal scutes (as in the page from my sketchbook above), the overall shape would be disproportionately long and thin. So the final piece will have only two central hexagons. This will mean making 10 individual units rather than 13.

Phew! Just have to make it now. And as I envisage this being the lid of a box, there’s still all the planning to make that work. More to come!

 

 

Cane platters

The first half of this term’s basketry course at City Lit focused on working with cane, with Polly Pollock. Many of the stake and strand techniques that we used are similar to those we learnt when working with willow last term, but subtly different.

After learning how cane is grown and harvested, we started with dyeing, using Rit dyes. Initially we were very careful to use different bowls for every colour, but by the end we were dipping the cane with abandon into many colours (or was that just me?). 😉

dyeing cane

These dyed samples were only for experimenting with, so for once I moved away from my normal palette into shades of raspberry and pistachio.

dyed cane

To learn the basic techniques, we used discs of MDF pre-drilled with holes rather than making a base, which was a lot quicker!

cane basketry

We used these to practise stepping up, packing and waling.

cane basketry

Polly likes to set a project for each module, and the theme of this one was to make a cane platter inspired by aerial photography. I played around with a few ideas, but was most attracted by the patterns formed by mountain ridges.

cane platter sketchbookcane platter sketchbook

This didn’t involve packing and waling, but relied on pairing using weavers of different colours. Because the platter was worked from the centre, we would have to add more “spokes” as it grew, and this design would also make a virtue of this necessity, as the spokes are an integral part of the pattern. I thought I also might be able to create texture by varying the tension or using weavers of different thicknesses so that the spokes sat higher than the background.

To test out the idea I worked a couple of samples  – which was very useful.

cane sample

Having ascertained that the technique was feasible, it was on to the real thing. For this I reverted to my normal colour preference!

dyed cane

Unfortunately, I made a couple of elementary mistakes in the planning.

First off, I completely forgot to leave half the weaving cane undyed. So I had to use another batch of undyed cane, which was a slightly different shade (you can see this in the photo below).

cane platter wip

Then I added too many spokes too soon, forgetting that they had to be a minimum distance apart of 2cm at the border. So I had to undo a large chunk of weaving to remove spokes I had added, to insert them at a slower rate.

Still, the platter made progress.

cane platter wip

We finished off with a few rows of waling to hold everything in place before adding the border. Here I sneaked in a bit of the pistachio cane I’d dyed for the samples.

cane platter

It was a big learning curve but I’m pleased with the final result.

I think it could be interesting to do a monochrome version using undyed cane (all the same colour!) and just dark blue – what do you think?

 

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!

Making a coiled sycamore seed

In a previous post I mentioned a course on coiled basketry I was taking with Polly Pollock at City Lit and described the different samples I had made.

The second half of the course focused on our own personal projects, developing the techniques we had learned to produce a piece or series of samples inspired by the seedpod theme.

My inspiration actually came from a piece of driftwood.

driftwood

It reminded me of a sycamore (US: maple) seed, so I thought I would try to weave something around it to create the “wings”.

At first I tried wrapped linear coiling with paper yarn, but it felt too solid and heavy – this was supposed to represent a floating, spinning seed.

linear coiling

So then I tried a more open weave approach, using blanket stitch with cordage, still with paper yarn. This worked better but was a bit too large.

sycamore seed sample

I tried changing materials, using a thinner cordage and enamelled wire for the blanket stitch. This was much better!

sycamore seed wire sample

There was still more experimenting to be done with varying the tension of the stitch to evoke the marks and form of the seed, but I finally got started.

sycamore seed wip

Finally, the finished piece:

sycamore seed

As ever, it was fascinating to see the very different pieces that everyone produced. I don’t have permission to post photos of others’ work, so you’ll have to take my word for it! But it was a fantastic course and I would highly recommend it.

There is also an exhibition coming up of work by students who are completing the two-year City Lit diploma in basketry. It’s at the Espacio Gallery in London from 23 to 28 July. I’ve seen some of the work on Instagram and it looks well worth a visit!

Marbling on paper and silk

About four years ago I did an evening workshop on marbling paper. It was fun but the results were not fantastic. So I thought I’d give it another go on a three-day workshop at City Lit with Royston Haward.

marbled paper

We started by learning about the history of marbling and saw examples of different patterns.

Then we started to get our hands dirty with suminagashi, a marbling technique used in Japan. This uses sumi calligraphy ink or other permanent inks, just floating on water, no size. These are some of the small samples I did.

suminagashi samples

We also tried it on rice paper.

suminagashi on rice paper

And I’d read that it works on silk too, so I took some unmordanted fine habotai silk in to try – it worked beautifully.

suminagashi on silk suminagashi on silk suminagashi on silk

Then we moved on to Western marbling. Unlike suminagashi, this mixes carrageen moss (a kind of seaweed) with the water to thicken it and support the colour. Patterns are created with toothpicks, combs or spatulas – sometimes a combination.

We tried with acrylics and gouache – most people seemed to get better results with gouache. The colour of the paper also affected the final result. Below are some combed patterns.

Below left is another combed pattern; on the right is a freeform pattern.

Below left is an antique straight pattern; right is a freeform pattern.

Below left is Spanish Moire pattern, made by rocking the paper as you place it on the size – close up it looks like folds of fabric. On the right is Italian pattern (nearly! – I should have added more wetting agent).

Below left is ghost marbling – one pattern marbled on top of another. On the right is a combed pattern.

I did have a go at marbling silk with gouache, but this came out very faint. It may have been better if I’d mordanted the silk first. (Paper for marbling requires mordanting with alum, unlike suminagashi.)

We also learnt how to make our own brushes and combs, as well as about polishing the paper afterwards, so it was a busy three days!

I have since washed the suminagashi silk and the pattern remains very clear. Could be another new product line? 😉

More on random weaving basketry

Sadly, the short course on random weaving basketry with Polly Pollock that I started four weeks ago at City Lit has come to an end. I loved every minute and think I’ve found a new obsession.

After the first basket made with cane, we moved on to working with paper yarn. Here are some samples made by Polly to inspire us.

First we dyed some of the yarn using Rit liquid dyes, which were new to me but are pretty simple to use – just add to water and vinegar, put in the yarn and leave until you’re happy with the colour, rinse and dry.

As before, we made a mould with rice, clingfilm and sticky tape, and created a base layer with some thicker paper yarn. Then we used the thinner dyed yarn to weave into the base layer, using soumak stitch – essentially looping it round a base strand – going in random directions.

You can build this up in the same or different colours. Here’s my piece in progress.

And here’s the finished piece. I didn’t leave the yarn in the Rit dye long enough to get a really dark blue, so I dyed some in indigo. 🙂

indigo paper vessel

I also started on a more ambitious piece but didn’t manage to finish it. Here’s a sneak preview of the beginning – watch this space for a progress report!

At the end of the class we had a display of all the work created over the four weeks – there were some really lovely pieces in paper, cane and wire, as well as some wrapped glass.