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.