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! 😉

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!