Category Archives: Basket Making

String Theory

Last Sunday I spent an exhausting (but productive) 4 hours with the Middle Earth Weavers, laying out the rows and planting 600 willow cuttings in our new coppice! Five of us were joined by Sam from Walsall Council on what turned out to be a gorgeous day.

The first job was to start laying out rows using garden string. The willow cuttings needed to be planted 1m apart, and we also needed to be able to access the rows to harvest them when next winter comes, so we ended up with pairs of rows 1m apart, with a 2m gap between each pair to allow us access. Cuttings were placed every 1m along the rows (staggered so that in each pair there was a plant every 50cm).

The hope is that two things will happen: Thing 1 is that we will get lots of willow withies from year 2/3 onwards – Year 1 will just be establishing the trees, which we will coppice in October. The established trees will then send up multiple shoots in year 2, each of which will be cut in the 2nd winter, and by year 3 we should have a decent crop. Thing 2 is that the drainage problems they’ve been having in the area will be alleviated by the thirsty willow trees! Everyone’s a winner!

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We planted three varieties of willow:   Salix purpurea – fine, delicate basketry willow, Salix triandra “Noire de Villaine” – Black Vanilla – which produces rich brown willow rods, and Dickie Meadows – a variety of Salix purpurea that is famed for producing waxy, flexible rods perfect for basketry. We hope to add a few more, and we’re also coppicing an area of hazel in the same plot of land, so we should be all set in a year or two!

 

Basket for Big Ears (Just in time for Easter)

You might remember a post earlier this winter in which I told you about how the Middle Earth Weavers were working on a project with the Brewood Ringers to provide nesting baskets for Long Eared Owls. Based on the dimensions in this study, we created 18 baskets with slewed walls and a simple border out of brown willow.

So a couple of weeks ago I joined members of the Brewood Ringers and the county bird recorder @CountrysideKev to a secret location (one of several in the Black Country & Staffordshire) to install the first of the baskets.  The ringers filled the base of the baskets with upended turf. (Much of the mud will wash away, leaving a matt of dead vegetation – mimicking the nests of magpies or crows – the preferred nesting sites of the Long Eared Owl.)

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Once the baskets were prepared, they were secured into places with cable ties inside trees where the species has been known to roost. Now we just have to watch and wait…

You can follow @Brewoodringers onTwitter for updates, or just keep tuned to this channel as you just KNOW I’ll blog about it the day one of the birds nests in one of our baskets!

Weaving a God’s Eye

Just a quick post this morning – baskets this time! I was teaching a hedgerow basketry course yesterday, in which we used green willow (‘green’ refers to the fact that the willow is freshly cut, and has nothing to do with the colour or variety!) to make framed baskets. I like to teach this course in particular, as it is a basket that you could conceivably make in one day, should you happen to find yourself near a willow carr or pond with enough green material. No preparation is required at all, and the only tool you need is a pair of secateurs.

Freshly cut green willows and dogwoods waiting to be used!
Freshly cut green willows and dogwoods waiting to be used!

As simple and pleasurable as this type of basket is to make, there is one part of the process that people often struggle with: making the God’s Eye. The God’s Eye is the binding that holds the hoop and rim of the basket together, and it forms the base against which the ribs of the basket rest. It is basically the strength of the basket, and so needs to be done right.

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Some people learn best by written instructions and diagrams, so I provide that for them, and I also talk through the process in simple terms, and demonstrate carefully. But one of the attendees of the course yesterday suggested that I did a video showing how it’s done, to which people could refer back. So, here it is!

Have a great start to your week, everyone!

New Year’s Hootenanny

I’ve been working on an awesome project with the Brewood Bird Ringers and the Middle Earth Weavers – we’ve been making nesting baskets for Long Eared Owls. The hope is that the 15 baskets we make (to be installed at secret locations around the Black Country and South Staffordshire) will be taken up by Long Eared Owls. (There has been success in similar projects like this 1998 study which piloted this type of scheme!) The owls and their breeding success will then be monitored and ringed by the Brewood crew.

We’re making the nest baskets to order – 30cm x 15cm (this size is perfect for the owls and also enables the bird ringers to know when the owls are there as their ears will poke up above the rim!) and installing them before the bird breeding season, so the race is on to finish them all in time! (Each basket takes approximately 3 hours to make).

I’ll keep you posted on how the project progresses!

Tasting the Wild in 2015

My year in review. (In photos!) I’ve had another amazing year – looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I’ve fit it all in!

Wild Encounters

From Chasing Violet Carpenter Bees in Andalucia, hunting for Eyed Ladybirds on Barr Beacon and moth trapping on heathlands around Walsall to mist netting for bats in woodlands, ringing birds (including our Peregrines which fledged four chicks!) and monitoring our amazing badgers, I’ve had another amazing year of wild encounters.

Wild in the Woods

I’ve also done lots of playing in the woods this year, and have concentrated on working on my fire craft skills (from just practicing lighting fires to experimenting with different tinders and kindlings). I’ve made a willow crayfish trap and learned some new basketry techniques, honed my corn dolly skills and bashed the heck out of some plants to make hapa zome flags. Culinary foraging has been limited to hedgerow berries and birch sap tapping this year, but I’m still reaping the benefits of my hedgerow vodka!

Travel

Kind of spent a ridiculous amount of my pocket money on travel this year, with a trip to Andalusia in March, followed by Edinburgh in May, the 5th annual Girls’ Birdwatching Trip (Norfolk), camping in the Derbyshire Dales and hiking from Ft William to Inverness. And I wonder why I have no money now that December is here! Highlights were definitely the seals at Blakeney Point and my first ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis whilst camped on Loch Ness – amazing! (You can read the blog and see the videos of the hike across scotland here.) I’m planning on Florida, Cornwall and lots more camping in 2016!

Bats

Oh, the bats this year! I’ve been involved for a few years with the Herefordshire Mammal Group, doing mist netting and harp trapping surveys, and this year their project organisers helped BrumBats to undertake some woodland surveys of our own. With help from the Shropshire Bat Group, we surveyed Cuckoos Nook & the Dingle, Merrions Wood and Sutton Park. At BrumBats HQ we are very excited to get stuck into another season of study!  We also had a crazily busy year of bat care, and with this mild weather, are anticipating some winter grounded bats and (most likely) a very busy (and early) bat maternity season in 2016!

Space

The sun and the moon had amazing things in store this year – a total lunar eclipse, and a near-total solar eclipse. Both events had (uncharacteristically) clear skies. Over 600 people turned out on Barr Beacon for the solar eclipse. Amazing that so many people value natural phenomenon enough to come out and experience them together. The atmosphere was just incredible! I’m hoping to be in the USA for the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

Botanising

I had a fantastic summer, spending most of it undertaking botanical surveys of grasslands. I think we’re going to get a few new nature reserves out of it, and certainly some relaxed mowing regimes.

Becoming an Auntie again…

In January I became an auntie again – this time to a little girl – the enchanting Eleanor Hughes, whom I’ve got to spend time with twice this year (which is pretty good going seeing as she lives 3,500 miles away!). Can’t wait to see you in March, Elley!

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I hope that everyone has had a merry Christmas full of comfort and Joy, and I’m sending you wish-grenades for a prosperous, healthy and bright new year!

Thanks, as always, for reading. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover in 2016, please let me know!

Morgan x

Two-rod Slewing with Gretchen Border

Had yet another awesome Sunday afternoon with the fabulous ladies of the Middle Earth Weavers! This time I was determined to have a go at slewing. I’ve done this before once or twice, but was keen to do it properly, and well. So I used white willow and Dickie Meadows willow to make this two-rod slewing basket with a Gretchen border.

Two rod slewing is basically a technique where you are working with two pairs of weavers on opposite sides of the basket at the same time, and it produce a beautiful basket-weave effect. This was basically a practice run for some baskets I’m making for the Brewood Bird Ringers – some nesting baskets for Long-Eared Owls. (Really looking forward to that – I’ll post on the project as it develops!)  Anyway, here’s the finished basket (below). I have a basket course coming up in January, so drop me a line on facebook or twitter if you’d like more info!

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Getting Frozen #TeamAnna

Had an amazing day today with the ladies from the Middle Earth Weavers, as we froze our butts off at Aldridge Christmas Market in order to sell corn dolly Christmas decorations and white willow wreaths.  This time of year (as in, more than 2 weeks before Christmas) we make wreaths out of dried materials (pine cones, cinnamon, etc) and some artificial stuff (bells & ribbons) as using foliage usually makes for a drab looking wreath come December 25th. We also held a raffle to name our white willow reindeer, who we’re glad to say was won by an Aldridge family who chose the name Sprinter!

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The market was populated by a giant giraffe, a minion, and the sisters from Disney’s Frozen. (We are all #TeamAnna as we don’t think much of self-absorbed princess Elsa. She has nothing on the feisty, smart and funny Anna – what is wrong with kids these days and WHY do all little girls want to be ELSA??!!?)

Anyway, here are some photos from today – hope you make time to get out and make some natural christmas decorations this season – SO much nicer than tinsel! You can also pop to the Arboretum in Walsall during xmas week as we’re doing reindeer making and wreaths (Will post the flyers at the bottom of the page!)

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Ella Carstairs and the Chamber of Secrets

Ever have one of those moments when you end up somewhere you hadn’t planned to be, but it turns out to be special – SO special you could almost believe you were meant to be there?  That happened to me this summer, on a rainy day in Norfolk.

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Straw Marquetry of Kinfishers by Ella Carstairs

I was searching around the internet for things to do in the rain in Norfolk, and found a website recommending the Straw Museum. As it was only 10 miles from where I was staying, and it happened to be on a Saturday (the museum is only open Wednesdays and Saturdays), I thought I’d give it a go, and I’m so very glad I did.

You might have read my recent blog post on the making of corn dollies. I got the patterns from the Guild of Straw Craftsmen website. Well, it turns out that in 1989, the Guild was founded by a lady named Ella Carstairs. What does 86 year old Ella do now? She runs the Straw Museum!

Ella is a force of nature. An incredibly talented artist (and singer!) and a true British eccentric. There’s a fantastic bio of her on the Hole and Corner website which  perfectly sums her up:

“Meeting Ella Carstairs is like finding a meadow in the middle of a dual carriageway.”

You can see her for yourself here in this clip above, teaching the fantastic Ade Edmonson how to make a corn dolly! The clip is taken from Ade in Britain (Season 2, Episode 4 – you can watch the whole season on Amazon Instant Video – episode 12 has basket weaving in Northern Ireland!)

The museum itself is laid out in the form of a series of wooden huts, each with a different collection of straw art: one mostly marquetry and quilling (above), and others general straw work – hats and so forth (below).

Ella was full of fascinating information about the use of straw for crafts – including the use of straw in clothing, such as Princess Margaret’s wedding dress (pictured below) into which straw was embroidered with great detail.

I particularly loved the marquetry work, which seems to take hours upon hours and is done with such attention to detail that it took my breath away. The three cranes (below) and the kinfishers at the top of the page (Ella’s work!) were the most stunning. Ella tells me that she devotes most of her time to music these days and it is looking forward to a performance of a new arrangement of it coming up soon. Though she doesn’t do much straw work at the moment, her passion for the impressive collection of hand made artefacts from around the world is huge, and Ella’s joy for life is quite infectious!

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But by far, the highlight of the day was the incredible privelege of meeting the vivacious, funny, quirky, sassy Ella Carstark – an encounter I’m not likely to forget easily!

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Children of the Corn

Summer is drawing to a close, and while this means no more bees or wild flowers, it does mean the season of harvest crafts, jam making, mushroom walks and willow harvesting! The Middle Earth Weavers started off the harvest season with an afternoon of straw work, making corn dollies. (Yes, we know they are made from wheat and not corn – ‘corn’ just refers to the fact that they are made from grains, and it can include wheat, barley, oats or more.)

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Okay, so it looks more complicated than it is and hopefully the following photos will help. First, make a clove hitch (or a normal knot will suffice) to tie five strands of wheat together, then spread out the stems like a star. To weave, I start with the bottom right stem, and moving anticlockwise, pass it over the next two stems.  Then take hold of the stem you last passed over (the one immediately to the right of where the first stem is lying) and then pass that over the two stems to its left. Repeat until the end!  You can join in new stems by sliding the narrow end into the hollow end of the original five, and go as long as you like. To make the Countryman’s Favour (above – also called a Harvest Knot) you’ll need three sets of five, looping and passing it through itself before securing at the base.

If you’re struggling, there are a couple of simpler versions HERE and HERE on the Straw Craftsmen’s Guild website. Another fab project (literally my new favourite thing) is the 7-straw plait shown below. You can download instructions here. Its really simple and really effective – “Over one, under two, pull it tight and that will do.”

Endless hours of fun can be had and there’s a wealth of regional designs out there to discover.

 

Beeswax and Basketry

Normally, for basket work, tallow is used to lubricate parts of the basket into which you want to insert stakes or rods.  The tallow is applied by dipping your bodkin (an awl-like traditional basketry tool) into it and inserting the bodkin where you want the tallow to go.  It works really well.  But the main drawback is that tallow really isn’t very pleasant at all.

On a rush basket course I attended some time ago, the teacher was using beeswax instead.  Genius!  So when I recently got to the end of my tether with the smell of tallow, I decided to get my hands on some beeswax (thanks to Jim from the Brewood Bird Ringers!) and created an alternative.

Initially I was concerned about using beeswax, which at room temperature can be pretty hard, and I wanted something to serve as an analog for the tallow – so I needed another oil to mix in that was softer – I opted for coconut oil. Here’s how to do it:

*Tip: Coconut oil can be pretty expensive, even in supermarkets, so before you go rushing to the cooking oils aisle, try the TOILETRIES aisle – the coconut oil there is less than half the price and is also food grade!

You need to melt down equal parts of beeswax and coconut oil (I did this by weight, not volume) in a bain marie (place the wax and oil in a pyrex dish over a small pan of simmering water). Grating the wax first helps to speed the process along but it can take a bit of effort so I gave up and opted for the slower chuck-it-all-in-and-hope-for-the-best version.  Once completely melted, pour slowly into your greasehorn (which I placed inside a latte mug so it would stand up and behave) and allow to cool completely.

I also took the opportunity to bind a handle onto my horn while I was at it. I’m pretty chuffed with the results, and will let you know how I get on with the beeswax later this week. :-