Growing Willow – Monkswood Community Willow Bed

We have long been involved with the Millennium Wood at Wick and were there at the inaugural planting events in 2000. The woodland has matured slowly due to it’s exposed position right on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast but it is truly a wonderful place to visit for a walk or a picnic. The wood has been managed by the Woodland Trust since 2000 but there have been recent negotiations to hand over the responsibility for the wood to local community group Sustainable Wick. In the winter of 2014 we worked with Sustainable Wick to plant a Community Willow Bed. This is now in its second season of growth and a photograph taken this morning shows how wonderfully well it is doing.

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Growing Willow

Willow is a native UK plant, which grows well in our temperate climate and is very easy to grow from cuttings. There are hundreds of different varieties of willow. Each variety differs in terms of growth rate, colour of stem and leaf shape. Some willows only grow a few centimetres each year while some varieties can grow to mammoth proportions, up to15ft each year. Willow is fantastic for nature – it is the second best after the oak for providing a habitat, a mature tree can support over 250 insects and birds. Many willow varieties provide both nectar and pollen for pollinating insects, often the first source each year. It is also an extremely efficient carbon capturing plant. Willow looks absolutely beautiful while growing and enhances all environments. Willow can be grown in willow beds, like at Monkswood,which are then coppiced, by cutting them down to the ground, annually. Willow is probably the most sustainable material you will ever use.

Willow has been used through the ages as a weaving material for containers and construction. Humans are hunter-gatherers and can only carry a limited amount of any material they need in their two hands. We have therefore always fashioned containers from materials around us. The first archaeological evidence of basketmaking is around 3000 BC. There is evidence that the first pots were shaped around baskets. The first Christian church built near Glastonbury has a roof which was constructed from basketwork. A basket makers apprenticeship was traditionally 5 years long and the first year would have probably been spent learning how to cut and sort willow for the basket maker.

During the war years willow was of national importance and baskets were used for transporting pigeons, gun and shell cases and dropping munitions and supplies to troops stationed abroad. During world war 2 it was forbidden to make baskets for anything other than the war effort.

Willowing at Monkswood

We planted the community willow bed with 12 varieties of basketry willow, such as Dicky Meadows, Nancy Saunders and Flanders Red in the winter of 2013 – 14 and then extended this in February 2015 planting larger varieties which are more suitable for structural work. These are mainly Salix Viminalis varieties.

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Willow bed in winter

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Cuttings waiting to be planted

We have run several craft workshops at Monkswood for families to come and enjoy having a go at a new craft. We harvested our first crop of willow in January and have dried this and carefully stored it for use in future Group willow events.

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The first willow harvest.

We have run several craft workshops at Monkswood for families to come and enjoy having a go at a new craft. We harvested our first crop of willow in January and have dried this and carefully stored it for use in future Group willow events.

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The Broomstick Factory – Halloween at Hendrewennol

Giant Spider Sculptrue

Willow and tissue paper Giant Spider

When Richard at Hendrewennol fruit garden asked us to run the Broomstick Factory at Hendrewennol we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for! We had happily run some willow workshops at the Fruit Farm over the summer so we knew that it was a lovely, friendly and popular place for families but quite how popular only became clear last week when we found ourselves frantically producing in the region of 700 broomsticks ….

Grown ups loved it too!

Grown ups loved it too!

Broomstick Design

We used a centuries old Besom design for our handmade brooms and decided to use a mixture of wild and farmed willow for the brush and extremely thick structural willow for the broom stick handles.  We made a wide variety of sizes and designs to suit the customer – aged from 18 months to around very grown up, from very wild to very neat!

Manufacture

Some of our broomstick factory production line workers came for some ‘broomstick training’ where they learned to quickly make a basic broom and then make a beautiful (some more beautiful than others!) wrap around the handle – we made 35 in around an hour and a half, good practise for the following week!  The children at the event would choose a broom and then weave with us on the day before taking their broom for a happy half hour or so decorating with beads and ribbons and feathers.

The Event

We set up a display with a giant woven sculptural spider and web and sorted our Broomstick Shop ready to go for the weekend – stocked with 100 brooms. To our amazement these were all sold by Sunday!  So the fun began – the challenge of making another 600 or so broomsticks ready for the children to weave each day in the Broomstick Factory in the run up to 31st October.

It was an absolutely fantastic week and we have to say a huge thank you to our Broomstick Factory production line workers – Danielle Bastier, Ellie Bastier, Ingrid Walker, Mary Ponting, Tracy James-Liebermann, Kate Wilde, Eva Krasenska and all the Hendrewennol staff who pitched into to help us on the day!

Do you have an event which you would like us to attend – send us an email, visit our Facebook page or give us a ring on 01656 880514/881007!

 

Willowing in the woods

IMG_0314On a lovely sunny Sunday we bundled bodkins, snippers, irons and sticks into our bags and set off to the beautiful Bishop’s Wood, located just behind Caswell Bay on the stunning Gower coastline. With the intoxicating smell of thousands of wild garlic and their delicate white flowers mixed with swathes of  bright bluebells nestled under towering trees, it truly was a sight and smell to behold as we approached the log circle deep in the heart of the wood.

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IMG_0308Eight intrepid weavers looked excitedly on as we explained and demonstrated the age old methods of making a small, round stake and strand basket before they set to work on their own mystical first basket journey.

In fairness a few had already begun their journey so were up and running quite swiftly, so we challenged those with different weaves and the prospect of putting a handle on if they shifted a bit.

The complete beginners were taken through the process slowly and gently, nurturing their first grasp of the willow sticks, encouraging them to work with the curve, wiping brows as they puffed through pairing, challenging them to push those side stakes in a bit further, watching until they were well and truly relaxed with waling until their beautiful baskets started to emerge.

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IMG_0329 IMG_0341 IMG_0322The day flew by as the baskets flew up and before we knew it, it was border time. Using buff outside on a warm day with a slight breeze on the air was always going to be a challenge and despite copious amounts of spraying and dampening down there was no alternative than to take the baskets up to the well and give them a 10 minute dunk to be workable. What a joy that turned out to be, we got to see the fantastic roundhouse built by landowner Dai, complete with outdoor kitchen and cob oven plus his fantastic willow chairs, while our basket babies were baptised in the well’s trough, magical.

Borders complete and handles for a few, it was so lovely to see beaming faces clutching new born baskets, a wonderful end to a perfect day of willowing in the woods.

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Basketry and Beyond Heritage Courses

Last month I was lucky enough to attend 3 courses at the Schumacher college in Dartington, Devon the aim being to learn a variety of new and refined basketmaking techniques and skills. 6 full days of basketmaking – what a fantastic prospect.
The rain was lashing down but it didn’t stop me from being totally over excited as we settled into lovely little Hope Cottage in Totnes, roaring log fire and situated right next to the Ticklemore Cheese shop – what more could you want?
The three courses were Refine your Basketmaking Skills , Devon Fowl Crate and Gipsy Bramble Basket

Refine Your Basketmaking Skills –  Ian Strugnall

IMG_4528This course was all about examining your current basketmaking practice and looking at ways to improve all aspects of your skills and techniques.

We had to prepare our own willow for a round shopper and the first thing that Ian did was have a look at our willow and comment on our preparation. I had soaked and mellowed my favourite Flanders Red (2 different batches) and Dicky Meadows and also had some green Nigricans which had been cut before Christmas and which I thought was about ready to use. We had a really useful discussion about these and Ian manipulated the willow feeling the density of each rod and commenting on how one of the Flanders bundles was really hard and one was very pithy – we decided that was probably the growing conditions, one was from the Somerset Levels and one from the top of a mountain. The whole experience made me much more aware of the properties of my willow as I worked!

We then had to crack on and start making our baskets in our normal fashion. I really enjoyed just having time to reflect on what I was doing and was relieved when Ian said my base was good enough to use. We learned a new method of weaving round bases using reverse pairing which overcomes a lot of common problems with a standard woven base. Ian also uses a ‘Beery Wale’ on all his baskets which is nothing to do with basketweaving when you get home from the pub but a method of extending the base on outstretched side stakes so that your spacing is already really even when you weave up the side of the basket. We watched Ian expertly lay down a border with a follow on and then had time to finish our own baskets.

My finished shopper is far from perfect but I am very pleased with it nonetheless and feel my basketmaking has risen up a level since this course in terms of speed and neatness. Thanks Ian for sharing your extensive knowledge and expertise – and also for my lovely little Flanders shopper!

Devon Fowl Crate – Hilary Burns

I was really excited to be able to learn how to make a traditional Devon Fowl Crate, this course was taught by Hilary Burns. I have found that one of the best ways to learn new techniques is to study and copy old baskets but I had never seen anything quite like this one before!  The basket is a 2 lidded oval basket made on an underfoot base with side rope handles, fitched sides with a decorative cross weave.  Masses to learn and practice and the finally put together to make an authentic copy of the basket.

Devon Fowl CrateWe started by watching Hilary deftly make an underfoot base which is actually an incredibly quick and efficient method of starting the base and then subsequently weaving away.  We worked with extremely chunky willow which gave good strong bases on which to sit our weaving.  The sides were a combination of french randing and fitching with a pretty cross weave inserted below the border.

Weaving detailLid DetailIt was very interesting – as always the biggest challenge was to ensure the lids fitted the basket.  These lids were different from anything I had tackled before as they are fitched to allow the hens to see out.  Once the first one is made you have to match the second one to it.  This was also at the end of a very long 2 days and I was just about to thread through my last scallom when my bodkin slipped and unhappily ended up in my hand – in that lovely soft bit between the thumb and forefinger.  I hadn’t planned to test out the facilities there, but Totnes Minor Injury Unit is highly recommended! Luckily it was a quick patch up job as I wouldn’t have missed the last 2 days for the world.

Gipsy Bramble Basket – Geraldine Jones

This was a quite amazing basket!  A copy of a beautiful old basket which was made by a travelling man named Tom and given to Geraldine – as I was making it I swear I could almost smell the woodsmoke from his caravan and hear the horses stamping around, very evocative.

The two days were spent faithfully reproducing the basket which was made from split willow and bramble.  It was fantastic just spending the first day practising splitting and shaving willow ribs with only a knife and billhook, until they were flat and smooth and of equal thickness – just wish I could have had a bit more laissez faire where the thickness was concerned and then perhaps I would have finished my basket.  I can’t imagine Tom running each rib through his fingers to detect minute differences in thickness!

Weaving with brambleThe second day was spent splitting bramble into quarters and removing the pith to produce even skeins ready for weaving, again a wonderful job.  We then had to construct the basket as shown in the photograph, bending the prepared ribs up to make a typical basket shape and weaving to keep everything in place, not easy at all.   I am really glad Mary Ponting, our great friend and helper was there too to produce a beautiful finished basket for the photographs …. one day I will post mine on here as an update!

It was a really wonderful 6 days, thanks to the Basketry and Beyond team for arranging such fascinating  courses with such great tutors, so enjoyable ….

Mary's beautiful Bramble Basket

Coastal Project at Sony Environment Centre

We have been very lucky to have been working with the Bridgend Coastal Project this year.

The project was put together with the staff of BLeaf and WoodB with the aim of developing a range of willow weaving skills of staff and service users. It is hoped that the skills learned will be able to be used in the future to create a range of items in the workshop and to give the fantastic grounds maintenance team the skills and confidence to maintain and use their own willow growing at Sony Environment Centre.

After initial meetings with key staff, including Shelley Morgan-Ford who is in charge of the project down at Sony Environmental Centre, we came up with the following programme which was particularly suited to the location and the activities of the team.

PROPOSED DRIED WILLOW WORKSHOPS

Session 1 Introduction to willow weaving. Birdfeeders, circles, flowers and butterflies
SKILLS: Basic manipulation of willow, introductory skills

Session 2 Dragonflies – some small and a large
SKILLS: 2d sculpture, simple weaving skills

Session 3 Garden Trug
SKILLS: Introduction to basket weaving to create collecting basket for garden

Session 4 Apple or pear sculpture 1
Session 5 Apple or pear sculpture 2 about 3ft high in the time allowed and can be floor mounted or hung on a post and hook.
SKILLS: 3D sculpture, random weaving

Session 6 Living Willow tunnel
SKILLS: Maintaining existing willow, planting living willow to create garden structures, creation of approximately 9m of willow tunnel

We have now completed all sessions and it has been absolutely amazing to watch skills develop and see people so engaged with their surroundings and their learning. The students have progressed so fast that we have included a couple of other projects into the programme, including weaving a small round fruit basket, weaving a giant compost bin for the copious grass clippings generated by the mowing team and also a little mini woven back chair for the children visiting Sony. Shelley has already asked WoodB for another 11 to create a woodland Fairy Ring – Jason needs to get his boys working!

Our last session was  in November (when the living willow season begins) when we coppiced  the willow at Sony and used it to create a giant tunnel over the walkway to the environment centre.

The culmination of the project came in a moving celebration evening last week when we saw members of the team on stage and fantastic photos of the project on the big screen.  We even sent the Mayor of Bridgend home with a birdfeeder he had woven himself!

I have to say that this has been one of the most rewarding projects I have ever worked on. The staff and students are absolutely outstanding and being able to be part of such a superbly valuable project, which is providing such a worthwhile and vital service, is an absolute privilege. Thanks very much to the Coastal Project and Mary and Ingrid for your invaluable and much appreciated help with the project.

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Neil sony basket

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sony apple basket

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IMG_2124for having us.4O0IJAMtUNvm5PZyyOVkz7etCe3o9HyLYZHeFJLq-bg

Willow sculptures galore

gruffalo5This year we’ve been lucky enough to be commissioned for several lovely sculpture projects. Some have been a lot bigger than others, a hard old slog at times, but nevertheless all very rewarding.

Gruffalo – Dare Valley Country Park
Set in 500 acres of Welsh woodlands and pasture and bordering the Brecon Beacons National Park, there stands a willow gruffalo peaking out from the trees overlooking the children’s play area. This handsome fella was lovingly created by adult and children helpers who worked with us to build the main structure and fill in with a creative bit of weaving during May 2013. The head, which took a whole day, was done at home and attached a couple of days later, hopefully no children were traumatised by the sight of the headless gruffalo in the interim.  Last reports were that both children and adults were enjoying his company.

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Willow tree take two at Pendoylan Primary School
Back by popular demand a willow tree has sprouted at Pendoylan Primary School.

Over two days all the children had a go at weaving the main structure of the tree whilst some wove beautiful leaves which were attached to the branches at the end.  Sitting in a corner of the yard the tree is a place for reflection and storytelling.

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Yes, it’s a willow Toto
We’ve been asked to do some unusual sculptures over the years but never a lifesize willow Toto. Residents of  Ty Enfys care home in Pentwyn joined in the afternoon session of weaving to create the famous furry canine as part of their Wizard of Oz themed garden display.

IMG_7552The residents are pretty experienced willow weavers as this is the third time we’ve been back to run a workshop.  Willow garden trugs are filled with the fruit and veg from the garden, at Christmas willow decorations hang on resident’s doors and at 90 years old Naomi, our star pupil had her first willow experience making a beautiful basket for her granddaughter.

Butterfly emerges at the RHS Spring Show in Cardiff
Last but not least, as part of the Wildlife Trust garden at the RHS show, we wove a giant willow butterfly. Lyndsey Maiden from the Wildlife Trust came up with the idea of having the butterfly overlooking the garden and large enough for people to stand behind and poke their heads through a hole in the butterfly’s head, making a  perfect winged photo opportunity. Slightly bonkers but right up our street. Weaving took place two days pre-show and with the much appreciated help of Leigh’s wonderful directional weaving skills, was completed five minutes before opening 🙂

willow butterfly

Creative Crafts Skills Awards

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Fantastic News – we have been shortlisted for the Creative and Cultural skills national Crafts Skills Awards in the category ‘Engaging new and diverse audiences in Craft Skills’.

This might sound like we are blowing our own trumpets but we thought you might like to know why! Here are some details from our application:

We are applying for this award as we are incredibly proud of our wide variety of educational, hands-on workshops and courses, teaching the art of willow weaving and basketmaking to adults and children. Our audience ranges from nursery school children, young offenders and residents of nursing homes to the general public. We have worked all over South Wales, and beyond, passing on our own skills to many thousands of adults and children. We are passionate about our work and absolutely committed to reaching as many people as possible to enable them to experience this incredibly rewarding and ancient craft. We provide high quality instruction through a variety of workshops and courses.

Willow Weaving Courses – Cover the history, cultivation and use of willow then hands-on to weave a specific item eg Willow Taster Courses and Garden Structures
Basketmaking Courses – 1 day, 2 day, 5 day Residential and Progressive Basketry Courses (3 innovative series of 6 courses offering structured progression of learning basketry skills.
Teacher’s Courses – Designed for school staff to take simple weaving projects back to the classroom eg Baskets and Crafts for the classroom and Sculpture for schools. Supported by full visual instruction pack
School Workshops – To train adults in situ and teach children a variety of willow weaving skills eg Christmas Decorations and Living Willow
Community Craft Workshops – Each participant is taught and gently supported on a one-to one basis, to weave a simple item, eg a willow heart
Talk and Weave Workshops – a slide show with examples of all our work and then instruction to weave a simple willow project, eg an oval shaped birdfeeder, achievable by everyone.
Event Workshops – mini ‘have a go’ workshops, small-scale projects such as willow star wands

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We encourage the highest of standards and always urge students to strive for excellence in their craft skills. Students are encouraged to take part in progressive basketry classes where we keep detailed records of learning so that we know which skills students have covered individually and then can advance their individual skills accordingly. Individual projects are evaluated at the end of each course and students given targets to improve on.

In 2007 we set up the Welsh Basketmakers South Wales group to ensure that students had support between courses to continue to practise what they had learned. This group, which we are still very active within, is now a thriving community co-operative with over 120 members. The group has recently won an award for their work with the judges quoting ‘I am delighted that the Welsh winner this year is Welsh Basketmakers South Wales Group. It is encouraging that in our modern world, with all its digital technology, there is not only a place for traditional arts and crafts, but that the achievements of the group have been recognized. Not only are they producing work of the highest quality, they are also ensuring that this ancient craft and artform continues, something that we should all celebrate.”

During our courses and workshops we teach skills needed to produce projects that are achievable in the time available. At a show or mini workshop we will teach participants to handle willow safely and learn a simple weave in order to produce an easy project such as a heart or birdfeeder. On longer courses students will learn specific skills to produce more complex items such as baskets or garden structures. We always stress the highly skilled nature of the craft and have high expectations of our students. Most people are extremely proud of their hand-produced items and eager to continue learning.

Since 2006 our one-day courses have provided 982 course places. 35 students have attended our Progressive courses. Our school workshops have reached approximately 5800 children. Our teacher’s courses and workshops have trained 1000 adults who work with children and young people in schools and in the community. We have worked with around 2500 adults and children at shows, most of whom have never experienced willow weaving before. Many show visitors attend courses after meeting us. We have worked with around 2400 adults and children during community workshops and talks.

Many students stress the therapeutic nature of our workshops saying they are relaxing, satisfying and absorbing. One student told us that the day she learned to make her first basket was the day she began to recover from a gruelling divorce.

These are 2 of our endorsements:

‘Clare and Mel have revived the craft throughout the area with their enthusiasm, hard work and commitment. I am particularly impressed with their “progressive” basketry courses and their work with children and schools’. Bob Summers, past chair of Oxfordshire Basketmakers.

‘They have worked tirelessly to generate an interest in the traditional craft of Basketmaking since setting up in 2006. Much of their work has been with children and in the Community. Their skill lies in transferring their acquired knowledge, with enthusiasm, to new people. There is a need to pass on these skills before they are lost.’ – EJ(Bunty) Ball, Vice President and Past Chairman 2008-2012, Basketmakers’ Association

Are we proud to be shortlisted?  You bet we are …..