Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sievers of Washington Island

August 30th a fellow basketry guild member and I set out on the drive from southwestern Ontario to Ludington, Michigan where the next morning we would take the ferry SS Badger across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It was a 4 hour crossing but this trip took 4 1/2 hours due to unusually rough conditions.

No matter, it was a beautiful, sunny day and once in Wisconsin, it was a pleasant afternoon's drive north to the Washington Island ferry.

Sievers School of Fiber Arts is a haven for the serious fibre artist or basketmaker. We settled into the dorm and readied ourselves for a week of willow instruction with Jo Campbell Amsler, focusing on rib technique. The studio was in a converted barn next to the dorm, there was lots of good light and plenty of space. There were just 5 in our class and it was wonderful to have almost one-on-one with the teacher. The class was called Step By Step - Rib Style Basics and we were encouraged to learn how to make 3 or 4 different baskets. There were Scottish egg baskets, pouches, gathering baskets, sieves, melon baskets and other choices too. Almost new to rib construction, I chose to try the egg basket, a harvest pouch and a flat bottomed basket with a curly willow handle. We learned to make our own frames using a wooden form

and how to make perfect gods eyes and 3 point lashings to begin a basket.

There is a sally garden at Sievers and we enjoyed a tour, discovering some varieties I had not seen before along with some familiar ones. There is a class here in October where students actually gather the willow and use it for their baskets, taking the remainder home for more weaving. The week on Washington Island was an autumn delight, with matchless weather, trees still leafy and green and dark nights lit by a full harvest moon. Our dorm, late at night, photo by the husband of a student.

Some of the class with our baskets

and Jo Campbell Amsler with one of the students.

Everyone got together for a night of delicious pot luck. Here is the arrival of the main dish - gazpacho, courtesy of Jo.

There were many of Jo's baskets to admire:

Friday before noon we bid farewell and took the north route back to Ontario, staying over in Escanaba. We certainly enjoyed this willow week and expect to be back to Sievers before too long.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rodent Control in the Sally Garden

The past few years I have noticed the rodent population increasing in the beds because there is good shelter under the geotextile I used for weed control.  They shred the straw mulch and fallen willow leaves for their nests and with a good food source of bark and roots of some of the varieties, they are in rodent heaven.  Some stools have actually died off from the damage.  It's interesting that a few varieties are of no interest to the little pests.

So I decided to try constructing bait feeding stations and have been pleased with the results.  Here is one of them.  

They are made of 1 1/4" ABS pipe cut in 8" lengths and you need 3 pieces for each station.  You will also need a T fitting of the same size and a 1 1/4" plumbing test cap or perhaps a large cork would be cheaper if you can find it.  I have trouble getting the caps off to refill the centre pipe with bait.  The main thing is to keep the bait dry so the cap needs to do the job well.  We used ABS cement to fasten into the T fitting.  To set up, just tie it to a stake, making sure the base is in contact with the ground and level so rain won't collect inside.

As for spacing of the stations, I set up one every 15 feet or so because there was so much evidence of rodent activity.  They should probably be put out in autumn to discourage the usual search for good nesting sites for the winter, so you have a few months to get the stations made up and ready for use.  There are several good commercial baits available, I used a single feeding anti-coagulant rodenticide called Wilsarin, put out by Wilson.  Their active ingredient is called bromadiolone and it seems to be working just fine although the grain type might resist moisture better.

I took off the geotextile and will mulch with straw as usual over the summer and consider removing it after the leaves have dropped.  I was replacing the mulch each spring anyway to resolve a fungus problem.

Monday, April 27, 2009

York Spring School Week

A week in the walled city of York in April, what could be better?  The daffodils were out and the BA’s York Spring School was in full swing.  Classes were at The Mount School and this year featured willow with Roy Youdale, skeined willow with Andris Lapins, twills with Linda Mowatt, split chestnut with Lluis Grau and ropework with Des Pawson.

Roy Youdale’s class was on round square baskets and D-shaped baskets and lids.  As space was limited in my suitcase, I concentrated on the round square and was rewarded with a full week’s instruction on the finer points of willow basketmaking.  We worked with buff willow which takes very little soaking, time is of the essence in a week long class.  The tannin in the willow bark is driven into the rod by boiling and the lovely brown colour is exposed when the bark is peeled off.  

The 8 students produced quite a few baskets.

We were privileged to visit Andris Lapins’ class in session and were given a demonstration on skeining willow.

This was Andris’ sample table. The quality of his work is breathtaking, see the earrings in the little bowl?

Linda Mowatt’s twill class produced a feast of pattern and colour.

Lluis Grau with his students’ chestnut splint creations.

Des Pawson’s students were busy on the ropes all week, too much for one photo.

After the weeks’ classes, we took a day to explore York.  Particularly interesting were the archaelogical displays at the recreation of the ancient Viking city of Jorvik, found underground at Coppergate.  When in York, everyone walks the wall and we entered by climbing the steps in this picturesque tower.  

Studying at the York Spring School is like going away to camp, you can sleep in a dorm, new friends are made and you feel lost after it’s over.  I felt I wanted to take all the classes but there’s always another year and plans are already being made to attend the 2011 Spring School at York.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hunting the Giant Willow

Visiting northern Germany in April we are intrigued by stories of huge living willow structures, see them for yourself here.

So we took a couple of days to hunt down some of these amazing creations and found the Boizenburger Schneck (Snail of Boizenburg) not too far from Hamburg. The weidenschneck (willow snail) was down by the Elbe River and when we saw all the high waters we wondered if it could be marooned out there, inaccessible. We drove back and forth along the river, searching, searching. We then resorted to asking for directions and hit pay dirt!

Through driving rain we walked down from the town and then found we could have driven up to it! Back to the car and we finally arrived at our goal. The snail was raised in 2005. No leaves yet this year, it’s still winter here but can you imagine walking through when it’s all green and leafy and climbing to the upper deck in the tower? Or watching performances on the stage? What a fabulous idea for any community!

There is a weidensymphonie (willow orchestra) on the same site. See the diagram of instruments

Each instrument is represented by a willow sculpture. Here is the piano and beyond is the bass then perhaps a trumpet on the left and a horn on the right, and is that a saxophone too? The tall straight ones are flutes, this was fascinating.

The entire orchestra must be represented here because the walk is at least 300 metres long. The long drive and the search were well worth it.

Another day, another search. Snowing this time, we drove to Wendeburg, about an hour from Hannover to find the weidenkirche (willow church). There it was in a churchyard right in town and obviously is being used for services, at least in the warmer weather - brrrrr! It was a nasty day - can you see the snow falling in this photo? That looks like espaliered trees in the surrounding fence in the background, it must be wonderful in the summer to worship here. There are a number of these willow churches in Germany and Googling 'weidenkirche' will find them for you. Pappenheim, Bayern, Steinberg are some of the towns and there is actually a cathedral at Rostock which was built in two months in early spring 2001 with over 600 volunteers from 12 different countries around the world. We’ll make a trip to Rostock another time, it’s quite a trek - but a willow cathedral! Amazing!

I found this design at Wendeburg simple and regular, it could be adapted for smaller structures. What to do with that heavy willow, yes this would be perfect for a nice shady retreat, large enough for a bench or two.

We had a great day in spite of the weather and when back in Hannover, drove around to find some temporary willow structures in a downtown church square. They were recently put up right on the pavement in beds of soil which are bounded by heavy logs, interesting to see how they will fare in the summertime. Three of these were put up around this church and they must be intended as decorative structures because there are no real openings inviting access to the interior. Hope the barriers will come down once the rods have taken root and leafed out.

The hunt for giant willow was definitely a fun highlight of this visit to Germany! Thanks to a loving and dedicated daughter who chauffeured her willow-obsessed mother on these day trips!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Colours of the Harvest

January and February are the months I harvest the willow, one of my favourite times. In our part of the world, it’s nice if the snow isn’t too deep so I recommend doing this job after leaf fall and before the snows come. But in this nearly perfect world, the snows came early and stayed most of the winter, so there’s been a bit of clearing involved.

I like to do the cutting with my secateurs usually as close as possible to the ground, using a straw cushion that is perfect for kneeling in the wet. Wear lots of clothes and keep working away at it until it’s done. The sound of the rods against each other as you cut is music, a rhythm develops. It’s exciting to see the colours of the different varieties - here are fresh rods of Chermesina, Brittany Green, Sangria, Lancashire Dicks and Dean Yellow. They dry to darker shades but are still beautiful.

Once the willow has been sorted, labelled and bundled, I lay it out on a rack in the darkened spare bedroom for drying. A fan keeps the air moving and it takes 6 weeks or so to dry down enough for storage. So for a couple of months a year, no house guests!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Willow in Lunenburg 2007

In summer 2007, fellow willow enthusiast Jane and I attended Heather Sanft's 3-day class at the Lunenburg Seaside Craft School at Old Newtown School.  It is a picturesque building near the water and across from the docks.  The historic school is used for home economics classes, students walk across the road from the high school.  It was fun weaving baskets next to stoves, microwaves, refrigerators, washers and dryers.  Our tables had sewing machine desks under them.  Huge bundles of willow were available and there was an interesting selection of projects.  As always, Heather amiably teaches at the student's own skill level.

A number of beautiful round baskets of all shapes and sizes were created by the 7 students, 3 from Nova Scotia and 4 "from away" - Iowa, Virginia, Massachusetts and Ontario.  The third day, after learning how to add different styles of handles, we were treated to Heather's slides revealing her journey through baskethood in France and England and of her wonderful commissioned projects.  The day was quite relaxed.  Heather showed how to make a tension tray and Jane taught a spiral baby rattle.  There was much conversation and once again we have a new set of basketry contacts.  Sian from Antigonish grows her own willow - we had much common experience to share!

Lunenburg is beautiful and picturesque.  The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic is unbeatable, one of the best of its kind.  The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the icing on the cake was a Monday evening concert in the miraculously rebuilt St. John's church.  We were treated to a phenomenal performance by Elecktra, an internationally known women's choir from Vancouver.

Jane and I were still so excited about willow that at the B & B, very late the night after the class, we wove the last few tips of willow into tiny spiral weave baskets.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Willow North of Superior

A sunny day in mid-September 2006 saw us heading up the Bruce Peninsula to Tobermory to take the Chi Chee Maun ferry across Georgian Bay to Manitoulin Island.  The van was tightly packed with soaked willow for a week's basketweaving.  We took three days to drive to Thunder Bay and tented along the way but the weather had turned by the time we camped on Agawa Bay at Lake Superior Provincial Park.  I can't believe we paid a premium for a beach site!  It blew rain all night and we will always remember the sound of the booming surf.  My first time up that way, the drive was nevertheless beautiful and the fall colours were at their peak.

We were welcomed with open arms by Judy and Gerry Nichols at their rural home right on Lake Superior and the basketmaking began that evening.  We took a look at my large bundle of soaked willow and planned our projects.  With the help of friend Sherry, we set to work skeining the larger willows while Ralph worked at making a sharp-bladed tool to refine the skeins.

Some interesting black walnut "slices" would be the bases of two large beauties featuring scallomed stakes and fitching (twining with a twist).  We set up practice stakes in blocks to teach ourselves how to fitch properly.  It took more than a day to figure out the technique from our books and to gain enough confidence to begin.  The finished baskets are quite spectacular, but we're probably biased.

Our next project was a breadbasket from the book, Willow Basketry, by Bernard and Regula Verdet-Fierz - the definitive willow textbook.  New techniques we learned were a French randed oval base, weaving with skeins, a top wale made of a split rod lashed with a skein to the stakes and a braided border.  My stakes are red osier dogwood making the burgundy border quite a contrast to the green and gold willow in the basket.

The final evening, we held a mini-workshop for some friends and neighbours.  Guild member Sharon Breckenridge was there too.  The project was a tension tray made with my coloured willow and resulted in a variety of beautiful trays, everyone had fun.  The week had been given over completely to basketmaking - what a luxury!  Support staff Gerry cooked wonderful meals with a bit of help from Ralph.  Together they even found time to take out the windows in the dining room and install a set of French doors.

Too quickly it was time to head south through more rain but I couldn't seem to stop weaving baskets, taking along a supply of willow and creating a small spiral weave basket en route, whipping the long-suffering driver only slightly.  We're planning a return trip in 2008 - can't wait!

Willow in Lunenburg 2005

In summer 2005, I stepped out of my life in Southwestern Ontario into a week where baskets were the main event.  I took a trip to picturesque Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to weave willow with instructor Heather Sanft and six classmates from faraway places such as Newfoundland, North Dakota and Hawkesbury, Quebec.  Two of us were Ontarians, only one student was from Halifax!

Heather is an experienced teacher who has studied in France and woven many commissions, including some for films.  She and husband, Dan, operate a pick-your-own blueberry business and the Lunenburg County Winery in Newburne, Nova Scotia.  She has planted willow on their farm including a living willow fence.  We were treated to a delicious meal there one evening and afterward we shopped in their wine and gift store!

Classes were run by the Lunenburg Seaside Craft School's Paulette and Bill Hackman who spared no effort to make our week a memorable experience.  We were cared for in every way, the week began with a reception for the class at their home where we met fellow students.  Lunches were catered and the food was first rate.  Our classroom on the third floor of the Lunenburg Academy offered a breathtaking view of the town and countryside beyond because the Academy is atop the highest point in Lunenburg.

Three baskets were taught:  an English fruit sieve in white peeled willow, a French casserole basket in buff willow and a Swiss berry basket in brown willow but we had the opportunity to make other baskets as time permitted.  Our Nova Scotia student wove five baskets that week!  I enjoyed weaving my baskets but had to keep them small so they would fit into my suitcase for the flight home.  Here's our week's output, not bad, eh?

It was wonderful to be a part of this group of basket enthusiasts and to watch each weaver as they created their projects.  Some had not woven a basket before and many had not woven with willow.  I highly recommend the Lunenburg Seaside Craft School and will certainly return to Lunenburg again to weave willow.

A Sally Garden

Green Dicks, Acadian Yellow, Farndon Red, Oxford Violet, Purple Dicks, Blue Streak, Black Maul - the names of these basket willow varieties tell a rainbow story.

In the old country, the sally garden was the name for the willow beds that were planted to supply material for making the many baskets that were a necessary part of daily life. Salix, the Latin word for willow, derives from its Celtic counterpart, sallis, which leads naturally to the name, "sally". "Down by the sally gardens, my love and I did meet . . . . "

I planted my first willow in the late 1990's but 2005 was the year of the willow at our farm. Following a wonderful weekend of weaving willow in Lunenburg, I was badly bitten by the willow bug and in January I ordered cuttings of 43 varieties of coloured basket willow from an English supplier. Disaster struck in March when I was notified by Canada Customs that the shipment was seized for lack of an import permit! Richard Kerwood of Windrush Willow kindly gave me the names of some Canadians who had successfully taken delivery of his willow and I immediately emailed them an appeal for cuttings. A willow basketweaver and grower on Salt Spring Island sent me 19 of her varieties and another in Nova Scotia sent me 10 of his which together with my own cuttings made a respectable collection of 37 varieties of willow and red osier dogwood.

After marking out a 7.5' x 21' bed and removing the stump and roots from a 10' spruce and the remains of a large plum tree, further preparation included breaking up the heavy clay soil and the addition of plenty of compost to give the cuttings a good start. Geotextile was marked in a 9" grid and Xs cut to indicate the location for each cutting. We set up a scaffold above the bed so as not to compact the clay soil and planting was done through the holes in the geotextile in late April shortly after three days of snow and rain. The cuttings were more than ready for the soil by that time; they were covered in little roots and the buds were bursting.

To preserve moisture and keep the soil cool, I carefully mulched with a heavy layer of straw over the black geotextile and before long an array of green shoots appeared. I settled into a routine of watering and checking for stray weeds and looked forward each morning to strolling over to visit my sally garden which held such promise of many beautiful baskets. Over the summer, I became acquainted with each variety, learning about its appearance and growth habits. The cuttings performed well, of 136 planted just 2 did not grow. It takes 3 years for each stool to produce enough withes or rods of sufficient length for baskets.

In early January, the plants were dormant and there wasn't much snow, a perfect time to coppice the willow. In their first season each plant had thrown 3 to 6 whips and these were cut at ground level. The colours were so vibrant, you could almost see the basket. Now that the winter is past, I am checking for signs of life and wonder how many have survived the cold. Even more exciting, I have saved 60 starter cuttings from the best and most colourful varieties and have begun the work of preparing a new bed for 2006 planting!

Basket Class in Nova Scotia

This is a story I wrote for our guild newsletter, thought I'd share it with you.

In September and October 2004, the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild hosted two-day willow basketmaking workshops at locations around their province. The event was called "The Nova Scotia Basketry Tour." Students had the privilege of learning from Master Basketmaker Werner Turtschi of Switzerland.

After I arrived at guild president, Joleen Gordon's home in Dartmouth, Werner and I travelled to the farm of Heather and Dan Sanft where this class was held.  Here they operate the Lunenburg County Winery, run a pick-your-own blueberry operation and host their B & B. Located on high ground with a breathtaking view of surrounding lakes and hills, this was a wonderful place just to be, even without the basketmaking. A pleasant bonus was the seemingly endless supply of fresh blueberries and a variety of delicious fruit wines with dinner.

Heather grows a collection of cultured basketry willow and shared some cuttings of her favourite varieties with me. One of the students brought a couple of rods of his more interesting willow including a heavy variety used for furniture making. The one year growth was over 9' long! I was thrilled to be adding five new varieties to my willow beds and planned to plant several more in the spring.

The first day of the workshop was sunny and cool, perfect for weaving outdoors.  Werner took the ten students through each step in the construction of a classic round willow basket in the Swiss tradition, completing the base, bottom 4 and 3-rod wales and one set of French randing on day one.  The next morning was rainy but we moved inside a quonset building and forged ahead, weaving the second set of French randing and the top 4-rod wale.  After lunch, we wove the border but the piece de resistance was the set of roped handles, a good way to learn the skill because if you did not quite succeed the first time, you got another crack at it with the second one.  It took some persistence to learn to rope a piece of willow to prepare it for the handle.

The workshop ended with a feedback session, complete with Swiss chocolate and posing for a "family portrait".  All in all, October was a perfect time of year to spend a weekend outdoors in beautiful rural Nova Scotia weaving willow baskets with Werner Turtschi.