In May 2014 Hilary Burns and Geraldine Jones visited Sao Miguel and its nearest neighbour, Santa Maria, two Portuguese islands in the Azores group, to participate in the second Willow Festival held on Sao Miguel.
Organised in association with the Centro Monitorzacao e Investigacao das Furnas, (Furnas Monitoring and Research Centre), a government project restoring the land around a crater lake and working to improve it’s water quality. The geography is volcanic and Furnas has active fumaroles  and hot spa baths.

Furnas lake
Willow has been grown on the Azores since the Jesuits, who established a college church on Sao Miguel in the early 1600’s, brought willow used for tying up grape vines and for basketmaking. The local variety (probably a type of alba x fragilis) dries black and it is generally used stripped of its bark by basketmakers  to make traditional Azorean baskets.  Experimental beds of new varieties of willow from Rothhampstead Research Station, UK have been planted and are growing well. Cuttings of these have recently been taken to Terceira island.

The first thing that strikes a basketmaker is the wealth of materials on offer. An almost overwhelming abundance of vegetable fibres of all descriptions from soft to hard growing all around, means that, unusually, the potential is there to explore all the recognised basketry techniques: coiling, twining, plaiting and stake and strand all within the island group.
The maritime conditions ensure even temperatures and a benevolent equable climate with areas of distinct localised microclimate. Rain falls all year round and there is plenty of sunshine and light.

Photograph taken on Santa Maria island by Pepe Elizabeth. 1950's Copyright Bix Archive. photopepe

Photograph taken on Santa Maria island by Pepe Elizabeth. 1950’s Copyright Bix Archive. photopepe

The Azorean settlers introduced agricultural and fibre crops, and, during the C18th plant lovers introduced many new species. (Jose de Canto introduced tea and pineapples as well as Camellia species and Cryptomeria).  The islands are  flowery botanical gardens although the favourable climate has led to some invasive species such as wild ginger displacing the endemic plants.
Palms may be seen growing next to beech trees and aloes close to eucalyptus in unlikely combinations of species from America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and Europe.

We found bamboo, Mediterranean cane (Arundo donax) wheat and rye straw, hard rush (Juncus effusis), New Zealand flax, Tamarisk, palms and corn husk as well as the local willow.

Azorean flora

Willow growing and processing

The willow that we used for our land art work had been cut in early spring and buried in the ground, with the bark still on, the earth covering keeping it supple and workable until we arrived in May. This is an interesting method which allows the use of willows, that are still pliable but unsoaked, to continue until later in the year than usual.
Another major difference in willow preparation is in the boiling and stripping procedure. Whereas growers in the U.K will boil the willow in tanks for many hours to soften the bark for peeling, on Sao Miguel the practice is to throw  bundles of recently cut willow into the boiling, volcanic waters of the ‘caldeiras’, which flow into shallow pools in some areas of the land around the mouth of the volcano. It is left there for around two hours covered with a sheet of plastic, and then the steaming bundles are hooked out. This takes place during the winter months.
After this the sticks are individually stripped by hand, by workers who sit cross legged on the floor, without the aid of any machines or even the use of a traditional ‘brake’. The willow when stripped is initially white but over time in  light it gradually turns a buff colour.

Azores basketmaking

The basketmakers we met had electric skeining machines that could be adjusted to produce skeins of various thicknesses but not to shave the sides. The machines were around 100 years old and from Portugal originally. We were told that they had been sold off when the co-operatives closed. There had clearly been a larger basket industry on the islands at some point, probably in the early 1900’s.

Basketry Traditions

We met three willow basketmakers on Sao Miguel, Snr Gilberto Roia, Snr Joao Andrade and Snr Bento, and photographed most of the basketry readily available and for sale at this time. The tourist trade dictates much of their market, fortunately the more traditional basket designs are popular locally and still being made, usually as miniature versions of the originals.
On Santa Maria we met Aida Bairos who worked with willow and several other materials. She was very interested in recreating the baskets of the past and in new forms, including furniture.

The Azorean method of basketmaking involves sitting in a yoga position on a plank and using bare feet to grip and manipulate the basket to develop the shape. The techniques too are different, many of the basket bases are constructed using rods that are laid in pairs tip to butt. The tips are subsequently used for the first row of French randing in the side weaving, leaving the butt ends to woven into the border.

There is little contemporary experimentation in the basketry/craft field but willow is used in inventive ways – large balls and trays – for decorating the church and the ox carts during the Sancto Christo festival.

Azores Sancto Christo decorations willow and flowers

Jeorges Soares (contact through the Handicraft Association) told us about the event several years before, when several artists made structures using willow in Ponta Delgada, one of them a ‘comb’ soundpiece.

Visiting ethnographic and other out of the way museums we found examples of the old basket forms that we had been told about and were able to photograph and measure them.

We gained a sense of how they had been used in the day to day, mainly rural agricultural or fishing life of the people. The original Portugeuse occupants were often very poor. The earliest houses were made from wooden A frames thatched with wheat straw – until the 1970’s, when they were demolished, examples still existed at Maia and Ribera Grande.

Azorean traditional house at Ribera Grande Sao Miguel

The history of the islands is one of monoculture . Over the years the following crops, grown for export, have all waxed and waned,  indigo (made using woad, from the 1600’s sent to Flanders and England), oranges (until diseases hit), tea (still grown without pesticides on two remaining plantations), tobacco, and from the 1930’s cows  (the source of land and lake degradation because they are put to pasture on flattened upland meadows leading to erosion and excess nitrates leaching into the water). Government grants have led to large plantations of Cryptomeria Japonica producing low grade timber being cultivated. Crops were often grown in small enclosures protected by rock walls.  Flax (linho) was grown and linen thread hand spun on drop spindles for making clothes, vines grown for wine and corn and yam (taro) for food.

A feature of life there is a story of emigration. Azoreans from the States and Canada often return to live on the islands in their retirement.

 Historically important basketry pieces are

The woven retaining wall ‘sebe’ (fence) that sits on the iconic wooden ox cart with it’s wooden wheels. This was first documented by Gaspar Frutuoso in ‘Saudades da Terra’ (literally, Longing for the Land) written c1565, but unpublished until 1873.   It holds a central place in the traditions of the islands. Old carts are owned by local families who store them until they are needed. These days this is mainly in the Sancto Christo processions that take place in May and June, and through the summer in the religious spiritual events in rural areas.


Azores tradtions ox cart and straw roofed houses
The basket used to take food to workers in the field. This oval basket was generally quite large with a low handle and it was quite common for the dog to carry it to the field (this info given by the owner of the museum at Capelas). Lunch would be bread, meat, cheese, peppers. These days they are used as picnic baskets and children use small versions to take lunch to school. The oval shaped one for boys and a round one for girls.

Azores basketry

The basket for fish
Both for carrying fish for sale and for carrying the lines and hooks for fishing. The baskets for selling fish were used in pairs, one each end of a stick that was balanced over the shoulder. Each holding 20 – 25 k of fish, the one at the back took the heavier load.  The border and handles are roped.

Azores traditional fish seller with baskets

These baskets were made using unstripped willow. Now seen in displays of fruit and vegetables painted bright colours.

fruit shop baskets

Baskets for agricultural work/carrying produce/ tea picking/harvesting potatoes/basket for picking grapes (vindima)
These are mainly round and made in willow on the same principle with doubled sticks in the base, measured so that the thick ends of the willow rods eventually form a strong simple border and the thinner tips become part of the side weaving. The sides flare out and  the handles are formed from multiple rods that make a rope.
The donkey pannier basket  the ‘ceirao’
Seen in old photographs but no longer made. (the last known maker in Furnas had recently died)

Ribera Grande Sao Miguel donkey pannier baskets

Two large round baskets joined by a woven bridge across the backs of farm animals and used to transport agricultural produce
Other traditional woven articles: 

The decorative round basket, made in several sizes used for bread that is distributed during the religious festivals.

azores basketmaking Snr Juan AndradeThe ‘joeira’ a sieve for separating the wheat from the husks  is made using several different materials: rye straw(palha conetio)for the coils, skeined willow (vime liaca) to stitch the coils, hard rush (junco) for the struts of the sieve. These are fitched tightly together with corded  hemp string  (linen before) and the cordage tie underneath is of Phormium (espadama corda).
The large twill plaited rush floor mat

plaited rush floor mat Azores traditional

The ‘baleio’, a coiled basket made with rye straw stitched with skeined willow. A measure for corn and wheat made in four sizes to hold 1/8  1/4  1/2 and 1kilo.
Covers for glass bottles
Smaller floor mats (plaited Phormioum stitched into coils and spirals)
Floor/door mats (corn husk/dyed )
Straw plait for hats/bags, also rush (juncus) that is first flattened in a mangle before being plaited into strips that are then woven together into bags and mats

Azorean crafts rushwork

Willow furniture; chairs and shelves. This was very popular from the1800’s until the 1930’s

30s furniture

Places to visit:

Officina-Museo, An encounter with the origins. Rua do Lourai 56 – 137, Capelas, S. Miguel

Privately run ethnographic museum belonging to an elderly couple. A fascinating display of scenic rooms about Azorean life, two painted oxcarts, wooden donkey with baskets in a cart, covered bottles and minatures, artificial flowers in duck feather, fish scale, onion and garlic skin. Everything from weaving to whaling.

Monday – Saturday 09.00 – 12.00  13.00 – 18.00

Centro Social e Paroquial da Ribeira Cha.

Several museums in Ribiera Cha near Lagoa, and the village itself, offer visitors an image of what (traditional) life in the Azores is. As well as the Church and Museum of Sacred Art you will find (ask at the main museum to get them to open for you):

Monday to Friday     09.00 – 12.00 and 14.00 – 17.00

Museu Agricola e Quintal Etnografico. (Museum of Agriculture and Ethnographic Gardens)

All the traditional crafts are represented in several buildings, corn leaf dolls, winning entries in the nativity set annual competition made from various materials including pine cones, corn husk, bricks, dragiero leaves.  Bamboo bird cages, indigo (called ‘pastel’) processing items, the only double pannier donkey basket we found, brooms from sorghum. The garden has dye plants.

Azores traditional pannier basket

Casa Museu do Maria dos Anjos Melo (Museum House of Maria dos Anjos Melo)

An example of a typical rural life house  with it’s traditional kitchen and bedroom. Sieves, mats, paper cut lampshade, plaited corn husk doormat.

Azores basketry - seives

Casa do Arcano. (The Mystical Arcanum). Rua Joao d’Horta, Ribeira Grande

In a large glass three tiered regional treasure, in many vignettes depicting Azorean life, are hundreds of tiny figures, some no more than 2cm high. They were made in the early 1800’s by a Clarisse nun from rice flour dough, gum arabic, ground glass etc (blue paint is indigo) for teaching children bible stories.

Gorreana Cha. Gorreana Tea Factory. Maia. S. Miguel

Tea has been produced here since 1883. Machinery from that period is still used and you can see the tea going through the various processes. It is free from fungicides, pesticides and herbicides due to the lack of pests and diseases in the region.

tea pickers

Tecelagem o Linho, Estrada regional 17, Lombinha da Maia

A weaver’s workshop open to the public. Lourdes Lindo grows flax and hand spins and weaves linen  alongside her more commercial work. Ask to see her photographs of commissions, mainly for returning emmigrants.

On Santa Maria island, the Ethnographic Museum at Santo Espirito

Very old wooden icons, traditional items and photographs
We were helped in our research by many people on the Azores. We were able to extend our stay, and research the basket history with the help of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers.

Special thanks go to.

CMIF Centro Monitorzacao e Investigacao das Furnas and all the staff who helped us there.

Gosia Pietrzak and Miguel Ferreia, from the Departamento de Planos Especiais do Ordenamento do Território, then organisers of the Azores Willow Festival, for all the help, advice and support given throughout our stay.

Sophia Medeiros of the Centro Regional de Apoio ao Artesano: Azores Centre of Regional Handicrafts, (CRAA) for providing an interpreter Luis Barbosa, making contacts at Museums on Sao Miguel and Santa Maria, inviting us to meet and talk with contemporary artists and craftspeople with an interest in hearing how the craft of basketry is being kept alive in the U.K. The CRAA encourages the preservation of traditional skills and helps makers to develop them towards a more contemporary market. We were presented with an impressive book detailing the various crafts in full colour ‘ Artesanato Azores’

Silvia Fonseca at the Carlos Machads Museum, for meeting to discuss the traditional basketry of the Azores

Senor Gilberto for teaching us some unfamiliar basketmaking techniques and Susanah Caetano de Melo for translating during our lessons.

Isabel Soares de Albegaria, for directing our searches at the University library.

Rui Faria of the Museu das Emmigrantes, Ribera Grande,  for help with archive photographs

Nancy and Brenda Paiva, for ensuring that we saw as much of Santa Maria island and the culture there as possible during our stay.