Friday, 25 April 2014


Just to show you that I do still like willow..... I have been 'stripping' it this week. Actually it is one of my favourite willow activities because you end up with two beautiful end products, the white rod and the bark which have totally different characteristics.

There is something very satisfying about the physical task of pulling the willow through the brake and feeling the bark slide off in two neat ribbons. It is also outdoor work and can be sociable if you get someone to help. In willow growing regions of Britain at the end of the 19th Century beginning of the 20th, whole villages turned out to strip the willow because the time frame is fairly short. The sap rises and separates the layers then, as the weeks go by, it starts to adhere to the heartwood and becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible to peel.  It was accepted that children would not be at school during those weeks and although the work was hard you get the impression from old photos that it was fun too. The first photo came from the Devon County archives but I have no information about where the photo was taken, it could have been Devon or Somerset or possibly East Anglia given the eel traps and style of building.
The second one was taken in Spalding Lincolnshire in about 1910.

Illustration from Baskets and Basketmaking by Alastair Heseltine ISBN 0852636113

Usually I 'pit' the willows I am going to strip, cutting them in the winter when they are dormant and standing them in shallow water where they grow fine water roots. I then strip them when the leaves are bursting out, normally about May.

This year I decided it wasn't necessary as I had a good stock of white willow that I haven't found a use for yet. But there were some willows in the plot I hadn't cut when they were dormant  and now they are coming into leaf. As they are 'Jaune', which make a really good creamy white willow, I thought I would try stripping them and it worked really well. As it was a sunny day they dried very quickly in the sun and I have never had such dazzling white willows before. Obviously timing is critical and you have to strip them almost as soon as you have cut them. I left a few with their butts standing in water overnight but because they had no roots by the next day the sap had dropped and they wouldn't peel.

Illustration from Basketmaking in Bedfordshire by TW Bagshawe ISBN 0 907106003

My willow brake I bought because I liked the shape, but its not a good design because you have to fix it to something in order to use it. Better ones have a spike at the base of the circle that you can stick in a handy post, tree stump or crevice in a wall . Hence my arrangement with a screw block and clamps. David Drew made one for me out of a length of chestnut, note the discreet signature. It is kinder on the willow than the steel but is intended for use on a saw horse which clamps it in place and is not so easy to use without the horse.

"Strip the Willow" is also the name of an old British folk tune and dance. Bizarrely there are Orcadian and Shetland versions even though willow was never a native plant in Shetland and they certainly never had enough to strip ! You can see some Scottish experts perform it here.