Willow. In using this tree for making baskets I am following a tradition of thousands of years of human history for creating containers from natural materials. Predating pottery, we have used willow because of its flexibility and strength.
I make most of my baskets with willow planted and harvested by me, on the croft where I live and work. The many varieties of willow bring me a host of different colours to choose from. The textures of the natural bark give the baskets an aliveness lacking in the stripped willow used in commercially produced baskets. This quality of using the wholeness of the material connects us directly to the natural world of which we are a part.
The traditional baskets of the Hebrides form part of my work. One of these is the 'frame' basket. This uses a very different technique to the 'stake and strand' method of most of the other baskets available. Frame baskets are made all over the world from a variety of plant materials including cane, leaves such as palm or flax, willow, hazel etc. During the time of the herring industry here in the Hebrides and around the eastern ports of Scotland and England the 'herring girls' used various frame baskets in their work. With a shape reminiscent of sea shells, I do enjoy to weave these curved baskets.
Another of the Hebridean baskets I make is the creel. A kind of willow rucksack this used to be made all around Scotland and also in a slightly different form in Ireland.
As well as making functional baskets I am also drawn to creating more purely sculptural work. This uses forms inspired by nature and often includes other materials such as heather and birch twigs.
Growing my own willow also connects me to the long tradition of basket making here on the islands. Willow was a very valuable tree to the islanders and was given its own walled in gardens to protect it from predation. Some of these gardens are still around today but with the willows gone wild.
For basketry the willow needs to be cut down every year to produce the fine, long, unbranched stems that are needed. This has to be done while the sap of the tree is down. This happens once the leaves start to fall and until the new buds burst in the spring. The bundles of willow can be left outside for about eight weeks. After that the dry bark becomes permeable to water and the willow will start to rot unless stored out of the weather. Once dry this willow can be stored indefinitely and then soaked to regain its flexibility for basket making.