July 2021 roundup

Although the first year of the two-year City Lit Creative Basketry course finished in June, I signed up to do a four-week contemporary willow basketry course afterwards, as we don’t work much with willow on the two-year course and it’s an area where I would like to be more proficient.

The tutor was Debbie Hall of Salix Arts, who was new to teaching at City Lit but has run her own workshops for many years. She very generously brought in some of her home grown coloured willow for us to use alongside the standard buff and Black Maul the college normally provides, which was great.

We all started by making a standard 3×3 base, and then went our own ways when weaving up the sides. I wanted to try zigzag weave, and Debbie suggested using two different colours to emphasise the pattern more. I also thought I would use a piece of found wood as a handle, as my previous experience of cranking willow to make a conventional handle was not very successful. However, attaching the wood handle was really hard work, which made me think that cranking was not so bad after all!

Here’s the result – you can see that the wrapping on the handle is not very even!

Most of the other students in the class opted to practise rope weaving, which I’ve previously attempted by myself from a video tutorial. So I thought I would have a go at herringbone weaving, which is like alternating rounds of twining and reverse twining with rope weaving.

I was concentrating so much on the technique that I failed to keep an eye on the shaping, so the final bowl was rather misshapen (which you can’t see in the photo). The base was quite small (about 12cm in diameter), so when I put the 5ft stakes in for the uprights they kept falling out. I ended up using 3ft willow for the stakes, which I had always thought would be too spindly, but it worked OK.

It’s made me think that I should experiment with some small scale willow work, which would definitely suit better the space I have available!

Exhibitions

It’s been a busy month for visiting exhibitions now that I’ve been double jabbed and keen to venture into the outside world again.

First there were the colours and textures of Sheila Hicks at the Alison Jacques Gallery – great Rothko-like bands of colour and bobbly comets.

Over at the Hayward Gallery, Igshaan Adams is not an artist I’d heard of, but his combination of weaving and sculpture, inspired by indigenous dance of the northern cape of South Africa, blew me away. Clouds of dust created by the kicking performers were evoked by spiralling constructions of wire and beads, while weavings laid on the floor represented the desire paths created by local residents as they walked around.

Finally, a friend offered me a spare ticket to the much sought-after Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. A previous exhibition here in 2012 featured his first works made using an iPad, mixed with his drawings made more conventionally, and I remember being quite intrigued at the time. This time all the works were made with an iPad, and what struck me was the limitation of digital mark making. Not only was everything very flat, but in many works the repetitiveness and regularity of the marks was very obvious – it often felt like digital potato printing. (We were not allowed to take photos, so there are no images.)

Maybe working with textiles, where texture and hand-made irregularities are such a feature, caused my indifference. Where the technology did come into its own was in the animations depicting streaming rain or showing the process of creating the work.

A word about the future

Finally, a heads-up about the future of this blog – you are the first to know!

As you may have noticed in the past couple of years, my focus is moving away from upcycling readymade items and more towards sculptural basketry. So in the next few weeks I will be launching a new website and phasing out Flextiles. I’m not sure yet whether the new site will have a blog, but I will post the link here when it’s ready.

I’ll be resurrecting my email newsletter (which has been dormant during the pandemic), so if you signed up previously under Flextiles you will continue to receive this (you can of course unsubscribe at any time).

This blog will remain open for people to read, and I’d like to thank everyone who has read, followed, liked, and commented over the years. It started out in January 2011 as a personal journal of what I was learning in my textiles evening classes, but more than 10 years later it’s become much more to me, creating connections with so many people around the globe who share a love of, and curiosity about, the world of textiles. Please do stay in touch during the next phase of this journey!

Kim x

June 2021 roundup

A bit of a rush

June has been a bit of a rush – literally, for we started our rush module at City Lit. It’s an interesting material, quite spongy to work with, but surprisingly strong. And when it’s fresh it comes in all sorts of lovely shades of mottled green, brown, and yellow, but apparently over time it all fades to a straw colour.

We started by making a mat with a classic rush construction: a square checkweave centre surrounded by twining, which makes it circular. The stakes are threaded away at the border, which can be a bit of struggle if the rush is thick, but it is surprisingly manoeuvrable with a rush threader (like a giant needle). At first I thought I would leave loops around the border, but then I changed my mind and pulled them all the way through!

rush mat 1rush mat 2

We then progressed on to making a bowl, using the same technique but shaped around a mould (another bowl). This is very important to create a regular shape, as you will find out later!

After that I spent some time experimenting with rush. There is a book called Textiles and Weaving Structures by Peter Collingwood, a weaver who analysed various woven textiles to see how they were constructed.

peter collingwood book

There are lots of fascinating insights into textiles from around the globe, including some that I thought could be adapted for rush.

They included this fan from India. The plaiting was fairly straightforward, but I found it tricky to keep the wrapping tight on the handle.

rush fan

I also tried this intriguing sieve, which is woven flat and then opens out into a cone. It looks as if it will never work – but it does!

rush sieve

Finally, I had a go at weaving a spiral base, inspired by a Greek wastepaper basket. I never got any further because I ran out of time, but the concept has been proved!

rush spiral base

The Commons: Re-enchanting the World

Last month, Catherine Morland, an artist and former basketry student, contacted John Page, one of our City Lit tutors, about The Commons: Re-enchanting the World project. This highlights the complex histories of land ownership, gender rights, labour, and the wage economy as well the decline in communal life and subsistence living. She was looking for basketmakers to make bread basketsย  for the launch meal in September. The baskets will be displayed in the Museum of English Rural Life for a month and feature in a publication about the project.

Jo, another City Lit student, and I, along with John, decided to make bread baskets for the project. Because the project was about common land and shared resources, I decided to use foraged materials, including cordyline leaves for the stakes, and cordage made from day lily leaves, daffodil leaves, and crocosmia leaves.

However, this was before we started the rush module and before I knew about the importance of using a mould to get a regular shape. As a result, the first one I made was terribly wonky. I couldn’t decide whether it was just charmingly rustic or simply crap – but after I made a second one around a mould I decided it was the latter!

The photo below shows theย  one made around a mould on the left and the one made without a mould on the right.

bread baskets

And here are all three bowls – John’s rush bowl is at the top, and Jo’s straw bowl is bottom left.

bread bowls x 3

Talking of foraging, it’s peak bindweed season at the moment, so I’ve been harvesting like mad, turning tangles of foliage into coils, ready to weave with.

Working with willow

After a long break, private workshops have started to resume, and I spent another very enjoyable day with Nicki Rowling of Willow and Yoga, making a tiffin bag. Because it has a wooden base, it’s quicker than if you have to make the base as well, and it’s very sturdy. It’s the perfect size for a phone, purse, sunglasses and bottle of water, and I love it!

tiffin bag

Nicki’s woodland studio is all off grid, with no electricity or running water, and compost toilets. It’s difficult to believe you’re just outside Dorking! ๐Ÿ™‚

I’ve also signed up for a short four-week course on contemporary willow basketry now that the first year of my City Lit creative basketry course has finished (having taken two years!). I’ll report back on that next month.

Holiday in Scotland

After months of being confined to barracks, ESP was climbing the walls, so we decided to sneak in a quick six days in Scotland between basketry classes. The weather was glorious, as was the scenery, and we even spotted seals off the coast.

I’m not going to bore you with all my holiday snaps, but I must just tell you about the Highland Folk Museum outside Kingussie. This open air living history museum features a collection of relocated buildings, including “Baile Gean”, a unique reconstruction of an early 1700s Highland township. These buildings were particularly fascinating, with foundations of stones supporting turf walls, thatched with heather. The texture of the lichen and heather was rather lovely.

highland folk museum thatch

There were also a few baskets around, including coiled straw baskets (now critically endangered) and a mudag, a rugby-ball-shaped basket for holding carded wool.

highland folk museum coiled straw basketshighland folk museum mudag

And of course there were also some highland cattle – what’s not to like?

highland folk museum highland cow

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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Making a zarzo basket

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.

zarzo basket base

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.

weaving zarzo basket sides

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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

We finished by locking the weavers in by crossing them over at the ends, and binding the handle.

zarzo basket finish

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.

Willow rope coiling

It’s been nine months since I last worked with willow on the City Lit basketry course. We were supposed to have a couple of willow sessions in the summer term, but of course that was cancelled due to coronavirus.

So I thought it was time for a little revision. First was the base – I had to keep referring to my notes, but it started to come back, and my base was pretty neat (and even slightly domed).

willow basket base

Although the piece was intended as revision, I also wanted to try something new, so I decided to make a shallow bowl using rope coiling. This meant that when I inserted the stakes I didn’t bend them sharply upright but just tied them loosely together.

After securing the stakes in position using four-rod waling, I started on the rope coiling. This essentially continues the four-rod waling, but every time you weave in and out you add another weaver. This means you end up weaving with four or five weavers at a time (new weavers are eventually cancelled by the old weavers running out).

rope coiling

The hardest part was shaping the bowl to rise gently upwards – it’s trickier doing a shallow curve than a vertical side!

I finished with a two-rod border, as the stakes were quite far apart by then.

rope coiled bowl

There were a lot of ends to be trimmed off on both sides!

I’d forgotten how tough willow is on the hands, especially dealing with so many weavers at once. And the bowl is slightly wonky and gappy, as it’s also harder to close up big bundles of weavers.

rope coiled willowrope coiled willow

But I love the movement and rhythm of this weave, so it’s something I’d definitely try again.

rope coiled willow dish

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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

Willow bark basketry with Maggie Smith

I’ve just returned from a three-day workshop on willow bark basketry with the wonderful Maggie Smith. Having worked with neither willow nor bark before, I was slightly worried, but Maggie’s work is fabulous so I couldn’t pass up the chance.

baskets by maggie smith baskets by maggie smith baskets by maggie smith

We started by learning how to strip the bark from willow, with a knife, willow brake or by pounding. Easing the bark off around joints or knots without tearing it can be tricky!

maggie smith stripping willow

But by lunchtime on the first day we had all started to pile up little rolls of bark. The colour of the interior was amazing, ranging from pale yellow to chartreuse green to deep orange. However, this colour does tend to fade as the bark dries.

willow bark stripping willow bark rolls

Maggie told us to discard any preconceived ideas about what we wanted to make and study the bark very carefully to see what was suggested by the marks and texture.

willow bark exterior willow bark interior

I liked the arrangement of holes on one of my pieces of bark so decided to make a pouch consisting of a random weave container wrapped in a whole piece of bark.

The next day we learnt how to cut the bark into even strips, and I started making my random weave piece around a sawdust mould.

willow bark random weave willow bark random weave

Then I cut the whole piece of bark to length, punched holes in it and wrapped the container, stitching on a handle to keep it in position.

willow bark random weave

I left it to dry overnight and the next day managed the tricky task of removing the mould without damaging the bark!

As I had a bit of time left, I also made another coiled piece, using different widths of willow bark strips.

willow bark coiling

Here are the two final finished pieces.

willow bark baskets by Kim Winter

And here are some of the wonderfully diverse and inspiring pieces produced by other students in the class.

willow bark baskets willow bark baskets

Even better, I managed to add willow bark to my cordage collection!

willow bark cordage