HERITAGE OF BASKETRY IN THE SOUTH WEST OF ENGLAND
WILLOW FOR BASKET MAKING AND STRUCTURES
The low-lying Somerset Levels is still the main commercial growing area for basket willow (Salix) in the south west and the UK. Traditionally there were other smaller areas where willow beds were established growing willow suitable for crab pot making all around the south west coast though these are mostly now not being maintained. Today, some basketmakers maintain willow beds to provide coloured bark willows for their own use.
The deep peat and damp soil of the Somerset Levels ensures long lasting willow beds. It is a drained flood plain and the willow growing area is a network of rhynes (drainage ditches) that eventually drain out into the river Parrett and Tone and from there into the Avon. Water levels are controlled by dredging, gates and pumping. Flooding in the area has become a problem and in 2014 around 25 sq kilometres has been under water for several months.
There are thousands of willow varieties that grow worldwide ranging from Arctic willows only a few inches tall to those which have been developed for biomass that can grow over 12’ in a year. The most important willow (Salix) varieties used in UK basketry are Salix triandra, Salix viminalis and Salix purpurea. Over time many of these have been selected and named as well as crossed and propagated.
Many varieties found growing wild or as ornamental shrubs or trees in gardens are also suitable for weaving ‘hedgerow’ type baskets.
Varieties that are suitable for basketmaking range from fine willow that grows to around 4’ that were used in the Nottingham area for lace baskets to S.viminalis that was traditionally used to make crabpots. Those with red colouring generally have S. alba in their genes.
The main commercial variety grown in Somerset for basketry is Salix triandra ‘Black Maul’; an easy to use and pliable willow that is not entirely straight in the individual rods but that yields a good range of sizes from 3’ to 7’ in each stool (individual plant). Other varieties such as Flanders Red (a harder red coloured willow), Wissender (paler brown, very straight growing rods) are sometimes available and many other named varieties are grown by individuals. Each has its own qualities and bark colour.
Rothampstead Research holds the National Willow collection, one of the largest collections of willow and is the longest running acricultural research station in the world. http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/
Willow is an important energy crop because it grows quickly and will re-grow annually after being cut (coppiced). It is attractive to wildlife and helps to capture carbon in the soil, which could reduce greenhouse gasses and help combat climate change.
Most willow grown for basketry is the product of a single year’s growth. The whole plant is cut to the ground or sometimes grown as a pollard (on a short trunk) so that each year many rods spring from the same place. Willow is cut during the dormant season when the sap is down and once the leaves have fallen. This is usually between November and March depending on the weather. Traditionally willow was cut by hand by pulling a curved cutting knife that resembles a sickle through a bunch of rods at a time. Today on the Somerset Levels willow beds are planted with wider spaced rows that allow it to be machine cut. Small-scale growers will use secateurs or long handled loppers. In all methods the aim is to get a clean downwards sloping cut of about 45 degrees and to encourage the formation of a ‘stool’.
Willow or ‘osier’ rods are also referred to as ‘withies’.
Willow may be bought from the growers in bundles. Traditionally willow was sold in bolts of a standard 1’ diameter and 3’ 1” to 3’ 2” in circumference near to the butt end. Now it is often sold in smaller bundles, the size of these may vary depending on the supplier.
The bundles or bolts are graded into rods that are of a uniform height ranging from 3’ to around 9’.
The main types sold as dry rods:
This is willow with the bark on. Any variety of willow that has been dried with the bark on is called ‘brown’.
Is cut in the dormant season and then boiled in bundles in tanks of water for up to eight hours so that the tannin seeps into the rods. The tank may be coal or oil fired and the tank itself, which was brick built in the past, is now more likely to be made of stainless steel. The wet bark is removed using a stripping machine. This looks like a mangle but the rollers have teeth that strip the bark from the rods. The rods emerge a tan colour that can vary from dark to ‘harvest buff’ depending on the time it has spent in the tank, whether the tank is iron or stainless steel and the time of year that it has been buffed.
Bundles with bark on are steamed for a few hours only, and then dried. The bark turns a shiny dark almost black colour. It is good for adding colour to the basket.
Has been cut in the dormant season and then ‘pitted’; stood in pits of water about 9” deep keeping it alive until bud break in the spring. At this point the bark can easily be stripped off, or peeled offand the willow rods stood to dry in the sun. This produces very high quality willow but is not readily available. White willow is traditionally used for wet washing baskets and baby cribs as there will be no transfer of colour from the willow.
Sticks – buff willow
These are rods that have been grown on for a second year and so are thicker in diameter and longer, approximately 7 – 8’. They are useful for handle rods and base sticks in large baskets.
This is freshly cut willow. Some basketmakers will use willow when it is ‘semi-green’ as this is the one time you would not have to pre-soak it. It would be left for several weeks until it is ‘clung’; some of the sap would dry, the skin would wrinkle but it would still be pliable enough to be weavable. Crab and lobster pot makers would use ‘green’ willow as would travellers who made frame baskets from hedgerow willow.
‘Green’ rods are used for ‘living’ willow structures. Green willow is only suitable for planting between November and early March. The rods need time to establish roots before the leaves appear. Domes, arches and tunnels have become very popular, be aware however that willow will seek out water and should not be planted anywhere near buildings as it will grow towards and into drains.
Sets or cuttings
These are slips, 9” long for planting. This is done during the dormant season by pushing the sets into the ground so that there are only two buds showing above ground. Willow does not tolerate weed competition. Regular hoeing between rows must take place for the first few years until the leaf litter in autumn is sufficient to prevent weed growth. For establishing a small willow bed planting through 500g black plastic is usual.
PREPARING WILLOW FOR WEAVING
Willow bought from the growers will have been graded by hand in the following way:
• Un-sorted bundles are placed in a barrel sunk into the floor.
• The rods are pulled out from the longest 9’s and then in foot graduations down to 3’.
• In each bundle there will be rods that vary by 1’.
Bundles bought from the growers can be further graded for weaving by sorting and separate separating the rods into thick, medium and thin rods and removing any that have canker spots or are split or broken.
Grading willow into bundles of similar length is helpful both as a preparation for weaving and to eliminate bundles of mixed sizes that may get under-soaked or over-soaked.
This is especially true if you grow your own crop. In this case freshly cut willow should be sorted and graded into bundles of similar length rods before is stored away in a dry place.
Dry willow must be soaked in water before it can be woven. A tank such as those suitable for feeding cattle is most suitable, failing that smaller sizes of willow may be soaked in a bath but tannin from the bark will eventually stain the enamel brown. A water butt will do for 3 – 4’ willow if you soak the thick (butt ends) first and then turn the bundle around to soak the tips. Small quantities may be soaked in a purpose made long plastic bag.
Times for soaking willow vary depending on the temperature of the water the size of the willow and the variety. In summer a tank in full sun will speed up the process enormously but in winter in very cold water soaking could take twice or three times as long. Times given below are average for Black Maul variety. To test whether your willow is properly soaked try wrapping it round your hand at the butt end of the willow rod. It should not crack and there should not be a dry core.
Buff and white: Two hours maximum for anything over 5’ and less for 3’ and 4’ is usually sufficient. Buff willow can be prepared very quickly – an hour would be enough for the smaller sizes. Over-soaking will mean that the fibres are waterlogged and likely to split and shred when used. They will look very dark. In this case allow the willow to dry for a while uncovered. Otherwise keep it covered with a damp (not wet) cloth.
Brown willow: Allow a day per foot as a general guide. Steamed willow is very variable in it soaking.
Once willow has been removed from the tank it should be wrapped in a damp towel (damp, not wet – wring it out well) for at least an hour and overnight if possible to mellow.
Mellowing allows the surface water to be driven off and the dampness driven into the core of the rod making it supple to use.
Brown willow takes longer to mellow. White and buff willow will only keep well for a few days – 2 or 3, less in warm humid weather. Cover willow you are not using with a damp towel but do not wrap closely, and allow some ventilation. After a few days when the rods become greasy to touch, mould will quickly follow and once this happens, unless it is washed off blue marks will appear which will spoil the rods.
If you are not going to use buff and white rods quickly then it is better to dry them out and re-soak them. If you do this too often they will become brittle and crack.
Brown willow will keep longer, up to a week before going off, but brown should not be re-soaked as the bark will flake.
Prepared willow though will last longer if it is kept cool when not being used. In winter putting it outside at night will keep it from deteriorating. You can even maintain willow in a ready-to-use state if you wrap it in plastic and store it in a chest freezer!
Robert Drake, White Croft Cottage, Balbeattie, DG5 4PG
English Willow Baskets
P H Coate & Sons, Meare Green Court, Stoke St Gregory, Taunton, Somerset TA3 6HY
Musgrove Willow Growers Ltd
Willow Fields, Lakewall, Weston Zoyland, Bridgewater, Somerset TA 7 0LP
Somerset Willow Growers Ltd
Bon Accord, Bussex Farm, Westonzoyland, Nr Bridgewater, Somerset TAQ7 )EU
Higher Barn, Sidmouth Road, Aylesbeare, Exeter Ex5 2JJ
GLOSSARY OF TERMS USED IN WILLOW BASKETMAKING
ANATOMY OF A WILLOW BASKET
USING BRAMBLES FOR BASKETMAKING
TRADITIONAL WILLOW BASKETS IN THE SOUTH WEST
TOOLS USED IN WILLOW BASKETMAKING