Friday, 21 December 2012

Woven Tetra Stars

Not every tetra pak has a silver lining, but those for milk do and are useful for Christmas decorations.

These tetra stars cost nothing to make, require no toxic glitter sprays or glues and the only child labour involved will, hopefully, be that of your own children! Northern Europe, America, Scandinavia and Japan are the most commonly claimed locations for the origin of these decorations. It doesn’t really matter where they originated, but in the making of them there is weaving as you might find on baskets all over the world. There is also a whiff  of origami and surface decoration curls that often feature on south East Asian and Native American baskets.

You will need 4 strips of tetra pak 2cm wide and 55cm long. To get strips long enough from a one litre  carton you will have to cut off the top and bottom of the carton, open it out into a cylinder and cut spirally. Start with a taper and gradually widen it  until it measures 2cm. 
You can do this free hand but here are a couple of films that might help.  The first one shows you how to make a simple tool for cutting strips to an even width and the second how to use the tool to cut strips for weaving

Weave the four strips together, silver side up, making sure the weaving is in the centre of the strips so that all the free ends are the same length. 
Now do a “scooby doo” folding the four strips that are underneath forwards, in turn, over themselves and thread the last end under the first. The pictures show the 1st, 2nd and in the last one the 3rd and 4th moves together.
The printed side of the carton is now showing and all the strips are in pairs. 
 Turn the weaving over and repeat the action with the 4 strips that are on the top of each pair. 
 You now have all the strips spread out again.
With the silver side up, look at the edges of the woven square and you will see that half of the strips are behind just one layer of carton and half are behind a folded edge. Using the ones behind the single layer (they may be on the right or on the left of each pair depending on how you wove the initial square) fold the strip out to the side at an angle of 45degrees.
Then take the same strip around the back then forward to the front over the angled part and thread it down under the single layer of carton. 
Do the same with the other three ends that are underneath the single layer of card. You may need to cut points on the end of the strips to help with the threading. 
 Turn over and repeat the action on the other side, again using the strips that are under the single layer. 
 You will now have eight strips spread out.
On the silver side take one of the free ends that are on  top and lift it up into a loop. Now thread it from the centre of the weaving towards the outside and under the strip that it was previously lying on top of.  Pull the end gently down until it really doesn’t want to go any more and pinch the two edges together at the centre and coax the other part into a cone shape. 
Do the same with the other 3 strips that are on top of the weaving
Turn it over and do the same thing on the other side. Trim off the ends. If you want to hang the star, tie a loop of string with a single knot and push the loop up through the centre. You can gently pull the knot inside to hide it.
The variations are endless, not just with the size of strip but also the way in which it is started, the direction of the points and colour combinations.  For the raised parts it is possible to make cones that don’t touch each other, which makes it more spiky looking.  You can also make another set of points in between  these…. but I will let you play....

There is a whole milky way of possibilities for you to discover.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

More Woven Home

Back in July I wrote about some of the things I had been making for my own home and mentioned I was working on a log basket - it is now finished.

The log basket that we were using  I made in traditional fashion, some years ago, with home grown willow. It didn’t however start life as a log basket, as it was made for taking washing out to the line. Since then a narrower door is used to take the washing outside. This basket was too wide to get through the door without tipping  it sideways and sometimes the clean washing fell out ... not a good way to start the day!

It was then  requisitioned  as a log basket but because it was originally meant for washing I hadn't rapped the weaving tightly and  little bits of wood and bark sifted themselves through the gaps and onto the floor. Consequently every time  the basket was moved it uncovered a pile of sawdust on the floor.  To deal with this I had made a highly engineered cardboard insert for the basket!

Perhaps you are getting the message from this, and from previous  posts, that, for me, good design is about making the daily tasks in life easier and more enjoyable and not about making  more housework.

So the new log basket had to deal with the sawdust problem, but I also wanted it to look more interesting and colourful than the brown willow one. I will have to look at it every day and brown makes me feel serious, it doesn’t really cheer me up.  If I am lighting the stove it is because I am cold and I need cheering up. The shape needed to be similar to the willow one, low and wide in order to relate to the shelves above it, but also to make it easy to see the choice of logs inside. It also needed to be fairly sturdy, though not too  hefty, as all it does is contain the logs.

In my stock of collected materials I found a pile of pressed card beer carriers. They came around bottles of German beer and are strong enough to hold and carry 3 litres of beer in glass bottles. I haven’t used them for anything before, which presented me with an interesting challenge, and the bright yellow design seemed ideal for the kitchen. But the carriers when opened up were not very big, so for plaiting they would have to be joined. I experimented with different ways of joining the strips and in the end decided that stapling would be efficient and quick. It seemed more honest to use staples than glue. The strips were cut quickly with a paper cutter,  stapled into long lengths and then plaited into a square based basket. Various decisions had to be made about how to staple the strips together, in terms of the design on the card, and then about what order to weave them in. I also considered which way to staple the strips so that the overlap could be pulled through the weaving. I only tell you this because you would not know about these things just by looking at the finished piece! A layer of black strapping tape was then woven in on top of the strips adding protection for the card and making the pattern more defined.

Some time ago I developed a way of using bunched willow for borders on plaited baskets. I decided to employ this technique again because it works really well and you don't have to soak the willow (always a bonus in my book). The woven card  basket, when it is only cut and stitched at the top edge, is still quite floppy but once the willow is attached it becomes tensioned and strong.  It seems as though you will never get the two ends to meet in anything other than a pointed leaf shape, but when they finally do, it forms  into a perfect ring and the basket becomes very solid. The process is a bit magical and I always enjoy doing it.

That left the handles and feet to resolve. The handles were made with  two pieces of electric cable with  the outer casing stripped off the ends of the wires.  These were then threaded  through the border to attach them. I decided that feet were necessary to protect the base of the basket from the tiled floor and  used black plastic lids from coffee jars that had been given to me. I riveted these on to the base, one in each corner and one in the middle. I could have stitched them on but that will be the back up if, for any reason, the rivets fail.

When I put the basket in place and took a photo I was quite shocked to realise that my choice of technique and colour scheme had not been my decision at all. It had, in fact, been decided for me by the Scottie dog and the Mexican tiger that have stood  on the shelves above the log basket for several years!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Basketmakers' Association AGM 2012

The Basketmakers’ Association in the UK held its 38th AGM at the  Art Workers Guild in London on the 20th October. I haven’t been able to get to these meetings for a few years and so it was a pleasure for me to be able to go this year. I was  reminded of how atmospheric and appropriate  the Georgian room we hold the meeting in is, with its rush seated chairs and portrait covered walls which  include one of Thomas Okey the author of "The Art of  Basket-Making" (1900).

The AGM is a formal, commercial and social occasion rolled into one. The formal part requires the voting in of committee members and approving the accounts, the commercial is the sale of books and materials, and the social includes hearing a talk by someone interesting. This year we had the bonus of two speakers: Mary Butcher on her perception of the metamorphosis of the definition of “basket” over the last 30 years, and Tim Johnson talking about projects he has been involved in, at home and abroad. It is also possible at the AGM to enter a competition and perhaps most enjoyable of all catch up with people you may not have seen for a while.

This year we had to have a change of Chair and Secretary because Bunty Ball and Ruth Salter have uncomplainingly and very effectively done their time and I was delighted to see John Galloway press-ganged into service in the formidable role of Chair. John became a self employed basket maker at the same time that I did and lived not that far from me in London, but we have not crossed paths for many years.  John's speciality is robust, decorative indigo dyed willow baskets and his screens and “bottles” were highly sought after  in the 1980's. But he gave it all up to became a teacher of Design and Technology at secondary level and has only recently, after 17 years hard graft in the classroom,  returned to basket making.

It was a pleasure to see John elected, not only because he seemed genuinely pleased to be taking on this difficult and time consuming role, but also because he told the assembled audience that he aims to work towards a greater engagement by young people with basket making.  A glance around the room at the Art Workers Guild was sufficient evidence that this approach is desperately needed as there were few people present under the age of 50!

There are of course many reasons why the AGM is probably not the best way to judge the health of our organisation. A geographically spread membership, formal proceedings that can be off putting, no practical instruction on offer and a very large trade union march taking place in London on the same day could all have contributed to the small and not very youthful gathering on this particular day. But  I have spoken recently to members of both the Weavers Spinners and Dyers Guild and the Embroiderers Guild and the lack of younger members is apparently common to us all.

It seems important that we address this because what is the point of us working hard to conserve the knowledge of this amazing craft if we do not also try to interest  successive generations in it? They will, after all, be the guardians of this knowledge when we are gone and if they have no interest in it they are unlikely to be good guardians.

But how are we to do this? School seems the obvious place to start but there is little opportunity for anything practical to be learnt in schools in England now.  A recent political imperative in English education (the Scottish curriculum differs) to make the 3 R’s more important than any other type of education has, in conjunction with overreaching health and safety regulations, made it difficult to teach craft skills in schools.  I can only imagine that the school day must be very tedious for many children who have little opportunity to break up the relentless hours at their desks with fun things like woodwork, metalwork and cookery… well, I thought they were fun because they usually involved sharp tools and fire!

Luther Weston Turner, was in 1909 the Director of Manual Training in the Hill School Pottstown, Pennsylvania. and in his lovely little book, “The Basket Maker”, which I have mentioned  in a previous post, he explained why he thought  it was a good thing to teach basket making in school ….

“The fruition of thought is expression. Thought along the line of manual training is susceptible of expression in many ways and through many mediums. The expression of thought through wood and iron necessitates a more or less elaborate equipment of tools, and for this reason those mediums of expression are denied younger pupils. But the expression of thought through basketry, requires almost no tools, has variety as to form and color and almost unlimited possibilities in design.”

But with little real hope of basket making being considered an important addition to the curriculum in England we will probably have to think of other means.

As followers of this blog will be aware the exhibition of my work Urban Baskets toured for two years and having been seen by 57,000 people, including lots of children, in UK and the Netherlands it has now been returned to me. Initially I was tempted to burn the whole lot, it was such hard work finding venues and I am not ready to go through that struggle again just yet.  Disposing of it all, therefore, seemed a simple, if polluting (given the amount of waste plastic I use in my work) solution to a storage problem! For a few weeks the 10 very large boxes glowered at me every time I squeezed past them, but eventually I plucked up the courage to open one and by chance it was  the one with the copy of the visitors book in it. I had not seen the comments from the Harley Gallery, (the last venue) and there were pages and pages of comments almost exclusively enthusiastic and many of them written by school children. Their excitement at seeing the work is evident as this example shows.

Many of their comments made me laugh but also made me realise that children can be excited and interested by baskets. You could tell that many of these children were just itching to make one. Some children did get a chance to do a weaving workshop during the time Urban Baskets was at the Harley but it was led by a permanent member of staff, not a basket maker, and they didn’t make a basket!  These workshops have their own 'health and safety' problems as I described in this post.

In all the time that I have been a member of the Basketmakers' Association, both on and off the committee, there has never been any determined effort, that I have been aware of, to engage children or young people with the craft, or our activities. This is probably because there have been too many other imperatives and too few members willing to take on the work. John's willingness to take on the job of Chair therefore seems opportune and hopefully his knowledge, experience and passion for the subject can, with our assistance, be the catalyst for us to develop a new way to engage young people with this fantastic, versatile, easy and inexpensive craft.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Basket Sanctuary

Drying out

Its cooler, the nights are closing in on the days and the bric-a-brac season in the Charente is, thankfully, coming to an end.

It has been a good summer for the local ‘brocanteurs’ wanting to offload their abused traditional straw baskets and now I have more than I really know what to do with in the basket sanctuary. There is no need for me to seek these baskets out at bric-a-bracs as they seem to find me quite easily. I can hear them calling out to me from under tables or behind boxes, it’s a plaintive attention seeking cry and I appear to be the only person that hears it. Sometimes I try to walk past them, but the cry just gets louder and more distressing. Occasionally they use their charms on me and it’s as though I have caught the eye of an attractive stranger across a crowded room. I look away but within minutes I cannot resist looking back to find them working their spell. 

I resisted this one because he was trying too hard and I wasn't going to be fooled by the so-called 'lid'!
 Each basket is different, with its own personality.  There are solid, rough, rustic ones made by impatient people with big hands. And there are fine ones made with thinly pared strips of ronce (bramble) and stitches so close together that the maker must have spent a whole winter making it. I try not to buy two the same shape or form but sometimes I do, because each one was made by a different person and they all have their individual characteristics.
When I bring them home I give them a good dusting with a bristle brush, then a hoover, followed by a bath in cold rain water, as they are always filthy, then they are left to dry naturally in a warm sunny spot. It may not be an orthodox conservation technique but they seem to like it and come out shiny and warm and smelling like hay. Sometimes they have evidence of woodworm, but if the suction and drowning haven’t killed any live larvae then drying out the basket properly will usually make them move home because they prefer moist materials. 

The injuries will take longer to deal with as there are feet and bottoms missing and cuts around the mouths. At the moment I see two options. They can either be stitched back together in the traditional way, with straw and split ronce, or they can be repaired with other materials in such a way that it draws attention to their scars and makes the viewer see them differently and not just as old baskets repaired. These 'old' baskets were young once and served their families well for many years, now they deserve to be respected and celebrated and given some tlc because they have tales to tell us of past lives we can hear no other way.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Salt Cure in the Pays Basque

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea."
 Isak Dinesen, The Deluge at Norderney, Seven Gothic Tales, 1934

Wild, windswept, west facing Atlantic beaches suit me.  Perhaps it has something to do with my Shetland heritage but, maybe, it is also  the Robinson Crusoe in me that knows there will be flotsam scattered on them. East facing beaches are not the same, the sun feels as though it is in the wrong place once the spectacle of dawn has passed and at sunset there are no livid reflections on the water.  Town ‘beaches’ don’t really merit the name, surrounded as they often are by cliffs of flats, cars and intense commerce. I appreciate my taste in beaches is not everyone’s but the 300km long one pictured above created by Napolean and his engineers to keep the sea out of Les Landes is really quite special. Backed by vast man made sand dunes and around a million hectares of pine forests there are no buildings, cars, sewage outlets or ice cream sellers and you can walk miles in each direction and still not find any of those things. Almost every year I return for a few days to this coast and it never fails to perform its cure.

Admittedly flotsam has always held a particular attraction for me. I cannot lie around on beaches with idle hands so I like places where there is a ready supply of materials. This coast has always obliged in the past with rope and plastic of all types and in all colours. Last year I found these small plastic wheels.

I have no idea what they are, or why they were in the sea, but this year …..nothing!! The beaches had been cleaned and my source of materials removed leaving just clean white sand. I walked for hours and only found a handful of short pieces of rope barely enough to make a table mat. So I just had to lie around and not do anything, and actually it was quite nice, I might even consider repeating it, one day.

Forty kilometres south of this beach is the town of Bayonne in the Basque country and here the Musee Basque beckoned me in. Amongst its treasures were these folded “handkerchief “ hats, origami with a black handkerchief,  one of  which appeared also to be woven. The label was skimpy and the on line catalogue didn’t add anything, but I came to the conclusion that the pattern had in fact been pressed and starched into the fabric – possibly using a basket as the mould. If anyone knows more please enlighten me.

Other gems were the little flutes made of hazel bark used by goatherds in the mountains, I had seen similar in the Santiago de Compostela museum in Galicia.  There were also beehives and eel traps but I was running out of time and still had not found any ‘chistera’ (bats for playing jai alai ). Finally reaching the attic space I found them in a purposely dimly lit room that resembled a cathedral treasury, I could hardly make out these poetically arranged precious ‘relics’ in the gloom but their significance in the culture of the region was evident.

The chistera on display made of chestnut and willow were all part of a single collection acquired in the 1950’s, each one slightly different and strangely mystical displayed in this way. You can see them in better detail in the Museums online catalogue and read a concise history here of their origin and present day manufacture by the Gonzales family in Anglet.  The Basque country spans the French -Spanish border and many things are the same either side of the frontier including jai alai bats. You can read here about a Spanish maker of these bats. 

In a local bar on the counter were these small chestnut baskets and again this is a basket form that is found right across northern Spain. Later in the day I saw a municipal gardener working on a roundabout loading a larger version of this basket with prunings but I haven’t yet mastered the art of steering round roundabouts whilst taking photos and I was keen to get back to my salt cure.....  I just hope that I don’t end up looking like a kipper!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Woven Communities Symposium

Scotland was very green last week when I went to the University of St. Andrews for the Woven Communities Symposium, and I couldn’t stop looking at the beautiful grass everywhere. There is a dust bowl in my garden where the grass normally grows, as there hasn’t been any rain for over a month with temperatures close to 30C for most of that time.

A group of basket makers, conservators, archaeologists, philosophers, anthropologists, educators, museum directors, curators  and artists met for two days to hear fragments of each others research and views on baskets and basket making. This Symposium was similar to the conference at University of East Anglia last year with several of the same speakers. This one, however, had a Scottish focus to it. It was initiated by Stephanie Bunn, a textile artist, willow sculptor and lecturer in Social Anthropology at St. Andrews who is currently engaged in research into the vernacular baskets of Scotland with the assistance of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle.
Image from Scottish Country Life by Alexander Fenton,
John Donald Publishers Ltd.1989
Threshers on Foula

This symposium had a practical element each day which the academics present seemed to particularly enjoy. One of the anthropologists told me he had never been to such an enjoyable symposium and that it was because the makers and artists were all so passionate about their work.  For me it was an interesting, if tightly packed,  two days and although we were not a huge group there were still some people there that I never had a chance to talk to. Greta Bertram has written a good description of the event on the Heritage Crafts Blog.

The penultimate session was a round table and open floor discussion about the future of the craft but we had very little time for it. I found it to be the least satisfactory part of the event with ideas and observations left hanging in the air.  I am an optimist and it seems, to me,  that the cultural and economic climate in Europe at this time is particularly propitious  for engagement with the craft of basket making by many different sectors of society.

“Basket making” is really a misnomer for all that this craft encompasses because it is possible, with these materials and techniques, to make plenty of things that are not baskets: jewellery, buildings, sculpture, boats, fences, shoes, furniture.  The list is endless, and much of  it can  be done with little money and without causing undue harm to our ecosystem. Perhaps, it is both these things that make it so right for the time we are living in.

Baskets, traditionally, have always been sustainable, being made with the materials of the maker’s immediate environment. Ultimately biodegradable and requiring no fossil fuels for their production they are the perfect model for a contemporary product. These are exactly the qualities that every product designer is now seeking for their products.There is a strong movement in Britain and many other parts of Europe and America towards the local and organic. I see no reason why anyone wanting to make a living from "basket making" should not have a ready market for their work as long as they do not compromise the sustainability and authenticity of their products.

It was surprising then, to hear one of the speakers at the symposium make a point of stating categorically that it is impossible to grow willow organically on a commercial scale. Yet, prior to the invention and marketing of pesticides in about 1940 all willow was grown organically and certainly in the 19th  and early20th Century much of it was grown for commercial purposes. An example being Chiswick Eyot in the Thames, where, between 1800 and 1934 willows were grown for the local basket making industry and without the aid of pesticides.

Chiswick Eyot
The commercial willow growers in the UK are mainly located in Somerset  and the reason they may find it difficult to grow organically is all about contemporary agricultural practice and the scale of it.  These willow growers, like most other non-organic farmers, grow their crops in vast fields of single varieties and like most of the other farmers suffer with all the attendant pest and disease problems associated with such practices. Given the time scale between planting and harvesting the first willow crop – usually about 3 years – it is understandable that the Somerset growers are reluctant to rip up their fields and start again with smaller parcels of land and more varieties in order to grow organically. As willows have been grown in the Somerset Levels for centuries, long before pesticides were invented,  they could perhaps find out  how to do it from  old  maps of the area.
Commercial willow crops on the Somerset Levels
In an appendix to the Cultivation and Use of basket Willows produced in 2001 by the Basketmakers Association and IACR Long Ashton Research Station there is a list of the chemicals that have been tested on willow beds for weed control and it reads like a poisoners bible. It isn’t just weeds, there are plenty of insects and fungi that like willow, but one of the main reasons commercial growers are spraying their crops routinely from May onwards with pesticides is to control “button top”, caused by the button top midge Rhabdophaga hetcrobia, which results in branched or stunted willow rods. I remember visiting Helen Tyler, a commercial grower in Somerset, some years ago to find her painstakingly trimming tiny branches from the tips of thousands of rods in order to sell them. This more than likely negated any small profit she may have hoped for from their sale but she did it because she thought she would be unable to sell them unless the bolts looked perfect. Perhaps the growers need to ask their customers if they wouldn’t prefer to accept that some willows may have branched tips, if they knew that it meant they did not have to be sprayed.

Few of the main grower’s web sites discuss the company’s spraying policies and neither do they offer non-sprayed or organic willows. I imagine therefore that a lot of the people buying these willows assume that they are buying a natural, organic product because it  looks like one and not one that could indirectly be harming the environment in which it grows, and that  also contributes to yet more profits for Monsanto et al!

Ultimately, it comes down to education, and this is something we briefly touched on in the discussion, but which seems to me to be very important.  The general public in the UK, despite being the purchasers  of large quantities of basket ware, (according to UK trade statistics over 28 million pounds worth of imported wickerwork and basketwork so far in 2012) is still largely ignorant about basket making and its related activities. I still meet many people who think that the cheap imported baskets they buy in shops  are made by machine and  very few people can distinguish between native willow and imported cane.  Perhaps we need some 'TV basket makers' who can show people not only how easy it is to make something, but who could extol the virtues of  indigenous  'ingredients' and 'recipes' and enthuse a whole generation with the magic of cooking up wonderful things with this amazingly versatile and sustainable activity.

I know it isn't easy to grow willows organically, I grow them myself,  but it is certainly possible and there are plenty of individuals and several companies operating in the UK selling a good range of organic willow that they cultivate Water Willows in Milton Keynes is probably the biggest certified organic grower but there are smaller ones such as Blencogo and Barfad in Scotland.

It is still a dust bowl here in France but maybe it isn’t just the grass that is greener in Scotland.