Basketry day course

2017 has seen the launch of a range of day long craft and skills courses in our woodland venues.

For those of you who have fancied the idea of trying your hand at weaving follow this link to see what our day of weaving and basket making entails. For those of you looking for a few tips on soaking your willow, read on…

Our first day of basket making got under way last Saturday morning over at our fantastic woodlands in Leicestershire near to Belvoir Castle and our students went away with some great looking round baskets.

The material we used as you might expect was willow which had been farmed and dried for long term storage so four days before the start of our day course we get our willow into a suitable water source to re hydrate and take on that amazing characteristically bendy property of willow wood.

A general guide for soaking your willow is to allow around 24 hours for every 1 foot of length in material – this is when you are dealing with thin willow wands up-to say 1cm, over this diameter and the soaking time would need to increase, as it would if you were soaking willow with its bark left on.

You will notice from the photo of some of our students here that the willow we used this time has had its bark removed and so is termed ‘buff’ this material soaks far more quickly and you can generally use the guide of soaking for half a day per foot of material.

Traditionally willow would have been removed from soak a day before it was used to make something and allowed to dry ever so slightly in a slow and controlled way known as ‘mellowing’ – easily achieved by wrapping the material in hessian or wool or simply laying it under a shady hedge out of the drying breeze.

As with all wood when willow is wet it expands and when it dries it contracts. For this reason if you were to go into the woods and cut a bundle or green willow wands and make a basket there and then you would likely have a lot of ‘play’ in your finished basket resulting from all the wands in your weave contracting slightly as they dry.

The contraction of one willow wand is pretty insignificant but you may have hundreds of wands in the side of a basket and all those tiny contractions add up to what can be alot of movement in your weave resulting in lop sided or flimsy baskets.

To avoid this the sensible thing to do is cut your willow green and allow it to dry completely before re soaking it and allowing it to mellow as described above to reduce the excess moisture in the wood so that when your basket is complete there is negligible amounts of drying contraction. This exact same rule applies to many types of plant fibre when it comes to making cordage, nettles being the old classic example.

In terms of where to soak you only need to make sure that all of your willow is submerged from one end to the other and not allowed to float so that some of your wands may dry out above the surface. Some options that may be available to you are a local pond (stationary water tends to make the willow have a higher smell but this fades as it dries), river, lake or even just a farm land drainage ditch. The bath at home does work but prevents any human soaking for the duration.

It always pays to ascertain who has responsibility for the water and obtain permission to soak your willow (especially if you are using the bath..) so as not to annoy other local users of the water…last thing you want is all your willow ‘disappearing’.

It goes without saying that if children are involved that they are accompanied by an adult for the soaking and retrieval of willow in an open water source and make sure to be hyper vigilant with hygiene as you will be getting dirty water on your hands during this stage.

My last tip for soaking willow is if you start a basket and for some reason cannot get round to finishing it in one go so that the willow becomes stiff and brittle you can always invert your basket in a bucket of water and re hydrate the same material to make it just as workable. Always try to soak what you need plus a small amount for accidental wastage but rest assured if you soak too much and have lots spare you can simply spread it out to dry until it is needed next time.

Adam Logan,

Senior Instructor Woodland Ways.