On this page I will give you some background on how I grow willow and the various steps that go into creating baskets.
Willow is the most marvellous species of plant. Willow was traditionally grown on river banks, swampy or waste ground. Willow will grow practically anywhere but it grows better in richer soil.
Traditionally sown in cottage plots near the dwelling house, commonly known as the "sally garden" This plot provided enough material for home use only.
To plant willow you simply cut a slip from another plant and stick it into the ground in springtime. The willow will take root and grow into a tough little plant, at a rate of about 8 foot in the year.
I usually prepare the ground first with a sheet of polythene pinned down and stick the willow slips in rows spaced roughly 2ft apart and with about 1ft between each plant.
As the plant slips take root they produce 6-8 shoots in the first year of growth. In the first year they are not suitable for use but the shoots can be used for replanting in subsequent years. The reason they are not suitable is because they grow braches. After a few years growth the plant develops a circular stump which is mushroom shaped and this is know as the stool.
There are many varieties of willow suitable for basketry. I grow various shades of willow myself for use in my baskets.
Some of the varieties I grow are harrison, slender tip, brittany green and blue, red hermesia, packing twine, brown and black maul and various others.
With one particular variety I cut it before the leaves fall. This causes the willow to turn black when it dries and provides a nice colour variation in my baskets. I like to mix and match these different varieties in my baskets to create a unique product.
Harvesting is done from the end of october to febuary. This can vary in different parts of the country. They cannot be cut until autumn leaves are shed and the sap is down (dormant). Climatic conditions dictate this process.
This is probably the most labour intensive part of the process, but enjoyable nonetheless as there is a mystical quality to working within the willows.
It is usualy done with a willow hook but can be done with a syceters. I have a few different types of harvesting tools in my toolkit.
The plant is cut as close as possible to the stool which develops into a gnarled stump after a few years harvesting. Once the willow is cut it is bound into bundles called bolts using a length of the freshly cut willow to bind it. (no inorganic binding material is used here!).
Each bolt is unsorted and left to stand in the field for a few days to aerate before being collected and brought indoors for sorting at a later stage.
Sorting is done using a barrel, ideally inserted into the ground. The entire unsorted bundle is left into the barrel with a measuring stick calibrated in feet. A single strand of willow is called an osier. Sorting begins with the tallest osiers up to 9 feet. Anything above 8ft is classed as a nine footer, above 7ft is classed as an eight footer and so on. The reason now becomes apparent why the barrel is sunken into the ground as otherwise a stepladder would be required to reach the 9 footers.
Bolts of up to five footers contain about 1000 osiers. For bolts containing osiers more than 5 foot there are around 500 osiers per bolt.
The bolts are stored in an airy shed to dry, tied loosely until dry then rebound tightly, left standing upright until required.
When the osiers are required for use they are selected from the bolts and placed in a soaking trough until they become pliable enough for use. The rule of thumb being soaking one day per foot of length. The osiers are then withdrawn from the trough, left standing to drain wrapped in a damp cloth material to mellow for a day to make them easier to work. Then the willow are ready for use.