Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Baskets for foragers

Tiny Dickie Meadowes frame basket
 The very first basket I ever made was yellow and purple and is now thankfully lost. But the construction method remains one of my favourites  - it was a frame basket, a very old style that has many alternative names and which  was traditionally made by ordinary people as opposed to trained basketmakers, using the most basic weaving techniques. They apparently originated in Europe and from there the style spread to the New World with early settlers. More complex and accomplished variations are now extremely popular amongst North American basketmakers - which is where I learned to make my first one, and was told it was called an egg basket. 

Black maul
The shape is determined both by the shape of the rim, be it round, oval, or square-ish; and by the length of the various ribs that are inserted by the basketmaker for weaving around - if they're all of a similar length the basket will have a rounded feel.

Dickie Meadowes

A weaving teacher once told me these were called bodgers' baskets; bodgers are very skilled in working with greenwood, often using pole lathes to turn bowls and chair legs and so on. Although I can't find any record in my various weaving  books of these baskets being given that name, it's easy to imagine that years ago these workers would have used materials they'd found in hedgerows to make baskets. Perhaps that's a fanciful notion, but they certainly are ideal for weaving while sitting with a bunch of greenwood workers on a sunny afternoon, breathing in woodsmoke and drinking tea from an enamel mug - which is exactly how I spent last Sunday.

Starting a basket, with all the ribs inserted ready for weaving.

What is clear is that they were traditionally made as working baskets for fruit picking or fishing, and usually by the workers themselves or by gypsies who would sell them as they travelled. Local materials would have been used green, and while I use willow for mine, hedgerow materials would work very well. 

Detail showing rib placement and weaving

I like to call these foragers baskets, as they're ideal for hooking over your arm while you go blackberrying or searching for elderflowers or similar.They are light and strong, and one of my favourite baskets both to make and to teach. I've listed a couple in my etsy shop, and am always happy to take commissions. Alternatively, if you're local (ish) to Cambridge and fancy having a go yourself, drop me an email and we can work out some details!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Star garlands for everyone!


It's been an embarrassingly long time since I wrote anything here - not for lack of wanting to but I started a new job in the spring that's taken most of my time, plus my little willow business has started to take off, and I couldn't be happier about that!

Anyway, I thought I'd make my comeback with a tutorial for a garland of tiny stars - these are only about 2cm across and are perfect for stringing across a Christmas cake. I'm also offering a kit to make them in my Etsy shop, and finished garlands if you like them but just cannot fit in one more activity before Christmas!

So - you will need:

Very fine centre cane - available from Fred Aldous. I use 1-1.25 mm but 1.5mm should work too.
Butcher's twine, ribbon or whatever you prefer for stringing
A pair of scissors
A bowl of water

It might be helpful to practice drawing a five pointed star before you start - make sure you don't lift your pencil from the paper. The path of the cane is the same as the path of the pencil line.

1. Cut a piece of centre cane about 40cm long. This is far more than you need but it is very frustrating to run out!

2. Soak cane briefly in cold water - 5 minutes is plenty for such fine cane. Don't be tempted to oversoak! Wipe the water from the cane by running your fingers down the length of it. It should be extremely flexible and should bend without breaking or cracking. If it cracks, give it another minute or two of soaking.

3. Each time you make a bend, pinch the cane between finger and thumbnail so you get a sharp bend, exactly where you want it. So, make the first bend about 6 cm from one end of the cane.

4. Make a second bend about 2cm from the first, and arrange the cane as shown. Note that the longer end is lying on top of the shorter end.

5. Make a third bend 2cm from the second- this will form the horizontal top of the star. Thread the cane under and over the two pieces forming the top point of the star - see photo. You should feel the star starting to hold together.

6. Make a fourth bend 2cm from the third, and again feed the long end of the cane over and under the point it crosses - now you have a star!

7. To strengthen the star we're going to take the cane along the same path as before but just lying to the outside of the first star. Bend the cane carefully at each point and take it around the star.

8. You're done! Trim the ends neatly, make a few more and tie them as you please along a length of twine. You can use bamboo skewers or cakepop sticks to make uprights, or make a crazily long one to hang on the tree!

I make lots of these stars in willow, but it is a bit less forgiving than cane, and takes a lot more preparation!

Happy Christmas! I'd love to see photos of any garlands you might make.

PS This tutorial is for your personal use. It's my tiny variation on a common technique, so you can make (small quantities) to sell but please respect the copyright on my photos!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Bowing to the inevitable

Apparently the top left and bottom right faces are cats ... You need to squint a bit!

When I started writing this blog, my children were very small - one had just started school, one was still at  nursery. They're quite a lot taller now, and live life at about a million miles an hour while I run behind trying to keep up with them.

But, I must confess that in the middle of all the after school activities and homework and house untidying, they manage to fit in quite a bit of time playing Minecraft. OK, a *lot* of time playing Minecraft. I haven't actually played myself, but they seem to be having a fine time building online worlds and playing together. And while in school holidays and at weekends it can seem to be taking over, I remind myself that they also both play instruments and belong to sports clubs, as well as being busy at school, and as a child I probably spent just as much time watching TV as they do playing.

Anyway, just before Christmas I saw a tutorial for making patchwork Minecraft cushions. For those who are unfamiliar, the faces are highly pixellated and translate easily into *very* simple patchwork. So, I started by making Steve, the face all players start off with. And then I moved on to Stampy Longnose, who is apparently some sort of cat. They're angling for more - including a rather disturbing looking squid! But I think perhaps they can make those themselves ...

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Waste not, want not


Over the last month on & off, I've been overhauling a neglected willow tunnel at a local school - more on that another day. Part of the deal was that I would take away the willow  they couldn't use, so I've ended up with a variety of lengths and sizes that will become basket handles and frames and plant supports and legs for willow animals.

I also had a couple of bundles of shortish, thinnish willow that was no use for basket making - it's quite a brittle variety and wouldn't make a border. Last year I learned how to make runs of low garden fencing and have been wanting to have a go but the willow I've had has all been intended for a specific purpose - until now!

An ex-sandpit...

There's a metre square patch of earth in the middle of our patio that used to be a sand pit; when our girls were tiny they would climb right into it and have a fine old time. More recently it has been a tiny vegetable garden but now we have raised beds that are more useful for that, so I decided to empty it out, build a little fence and make a planter.

Heath Robinson would be proud

I used a good old stick and string compass to make a circle, then set about preparing the uprights.

Stripping the willow - surprisingly time consuming!

Willow roots from its bark and I really don't have space for these to grow so I stripped all the bark from them, plunged them into the soil and will be watching like a hawk for any signs of life.

Sort of circular. Rustic, that's the word!

I wove around and around until I ran out of willow, secured the top edge and then had an awful thought ; I was planning to line the planter to protect the willow but what if the rods at the very bottom that are in close contact with the earth decided to root?

First row
Second row
In the end I cut a ring of pond liner and wriggled it between the base of the fence and the earth. I removed the middle to make sure water can drain, lined the planter itself and then filled it with compost. Done!

Nearly finished ...

Weaving done!

I decided to sow a bee friendly flower mix - I always grow flowers for cutting but these are a more haphazard jumble. I can't wait to see how they turn out!

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Learning curves

I think I've mentioned before that I've been weaving on and off for much of my adult life; admittedly more off than  on while the children were small but in the last year or two it's become a more regular pursuit and one that I am now feeling confident enough to start selling baskets. I have a regular stall at a local farmers' market; there's only been one occasion when  I haven't quite covered my costs with selling the stock from my stall, but the commissions are coming at a regular pace now and that's a lovely feeling.

I'm continually trying to learn new techniques, and ways of making my baskets a little bit individual so when the opportunity recently arose to design and submit a piece for the Basketmakers Association spring exhibition I decided to give it a go.

I was cutting it fine for time so chose to make my favourite basket shape - a gently curving round that reminds me of treasured garden pots; and then I added a feature that I learned last year, a plait. Plaited borders are reasonably straightforward but trying to work out how to get the pieces in place to plait on the sides gave me a few head scratching moments. With only a very little time to spare I put on a handle, took some photos and sent them off.

Well, the basket was judged by some of the best basketmakers in the country and sadly, it didn't come up to scratch for the exhibition - apparently they had a few traditional baskets and so those that were accepted had to be absolutely perfect. I'd be the first to admit mine has flaws.

But, after a couple of days of wanting to just pack it in and throw all the willow away I decided not to be daft, but to practice some more and try again. The original basket is on Etsy if you'd like to have a look.

I can't imagine not weaving now. It's become a huge part of who I am.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Justification for junk

My house is frequently a mess. There are boxes and boxes of wool and fabric stashed away (and frequently not stashed away), endless books of maths and Latin and violin and piano music, willow and rush offcuts on the kitchen floor, clean laundry piled on the beds waiting to be put away, a dishwasher full of clean dishes needing to be emptied and dirty ones stacked ready to replace them ... you get the picture.

But sometimes, just sometimes, my inability to throw anything away proves very useful. Today, for example, I am having lunch with a work friend but have no time to shop this morning and anyway, my knee makes shopping trips a trial rather than a pleasure at the moment. But ... last year I made a lot of jewellery for craft fairs, and I have some earrings and necklaces left along with the organza bags and pillow boxes and cord I used to package them. And look! There's a birthday card bought on the offchance of needing it one day. Sorted.

Also, last week the children's craft group at the local church wanted to make lighthouses, but the battery operated tealights they had ordered didn't arrive in time. Guess who just happened to have 30 stashed away ready for a project next year? 

And I'm finally getting round to making little penguins from a pattern I bought two Christmases ago. It calls for felt, stuffing, tiny black brads for eyes and empty mint tins. No problem.

I realise that having large bags of battery tealights is probably not normal behaviour. I'm hoping I can keep my tendencies in check sufficiently to avoid being featured on a Channel 4 special but it's touch and go ...

Please reassure me that I'm not alone - or am I?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Cure-all cookery

Tea & biscuits

A couple of weeks ago I hurt my knee in a ridiculous racing up the stairs and swerving suddenly incident. I'm having physio and doing my exercises, but the predicted recovery time is ... depressingly long. Perfect for sitting and weaving and knitting, hopeless for walking and stomping through leaves.


Anyway, this weekend it's been pretty sore and the weather hasn't helped my mood - it has been particularly grey and November-ish and yesterday I found myself craving biscuits. Not just any old biscuits - comforting, spicy, warm, knee healing biscuits. Magical biscuits.

K beater
The K beater from my beloved ancient Kenwood mixer. It belonged to my mother in law, and
is the same model my mum had when I was little. 

And as it turned out, non-existent biscuits - the cupboard was empty, and no one had the energy to go out and buy any. I thought of making some, but couldn't find any I liked the look of. It was that sort of day.


But today - well, today it's all come together in the form of a recipe from Country Homes and Interiors of all places. These biscuits are very sweet - possibly too sweet, if I'm honest. They're also a bit ramshackle - I don't think I chilled the dough for long enough and they spread with joyous abandon and all met up in a great big friendly biscuit cuddle. But paired with a cup of tea, they are *exactly* what I need this afternoon.

Biscuit hug

(I tried to find this recipe online but it doesn't seem to be up yet - this is my adaptation of their recipe as I didn't have all the ingredients they suggested)

Spice biscuits
120g butter
180g caster sugar
1 egg
3 tsp mixed spice
220g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg & golden syrup. Add spice, flour & baking powder. Roll into a  cling filmed cylinder and chill for at least an hour - I think even longer would be better.

Slice dough and bake at 180C for 10-12 minutes. These get very crunchy as they cool - yum!