We’re coming toward the end of a year, the first half of which was staggeringly bad, and the second half of which has been a process of recovery, still not yet complete. My husband and I learned a lot this last year: about ourselves, about each other, and about what we really value in our lives. Anyone observing our behaviour in the months leading up to ‘the darkness’  would assume that for each of us, work was our first (and possibly only) priority. Since starting to come out of the darkness and getting back to work, we have made sure our behaviours match our priorities: us, family, friends, and activities that we enjoy. No more emails before lights-out or when we are on leave, no more having our work phones switched on at weekends. This year, for the first time, we made a conscious effort to use ALL our annual leave allocation, and not carry any over. Last year, I had to get special authorisation to carry over my leave entitlement as it exceeded the limit on what can be flipped to the next year. Looking back, this is madness. What were we thinking?

So, we are taking some of our leave as single odd days here and there, to do special things together that we’ve always wanted to do. And that’s how yesterday, we found ourselves on a one-day willow-weaving workshop at Nymans, a National Trust property in Handcross. It was on our list of ‘We’d love to have a go at that’ activities, and not far to drive. Reasonable rates, too: £50 (we are NT members, not sure if there is a two-tier pricing for non-members) which included as much tea and coffee as you can drink, plenty of cake, and a full-day’s tutorial from Christine Llewellyn (check out her website).

We arrived knowing absolutely nothing about willow-weaving and basket making, and we left with two big baskets that we made ourselves. They are not perfect. They have some quirks. They are unique. and WE made them. It was an utterly fantastic day – we forgot about work, about study, about stresses. The physical process of making the baskets was so absorbing, so therapeutic, and such a delight. We were astonished with what we achieved, and probably you will be too.

So, without further faffing, flannel and ado, here’s what we got up to. The photos were taken with my phone, so the quality is not fabulous.

Step 1: making the frame

The very beginning: two willow hoops form the frame of the basket
Step 1: The very beginning: two willow hoops form the frame of the basket

Christine had already prepared pairs of twisted willow hoops for us (or we would never have finished the baskets in a single day). We started by tucking one inside the other, and rotated each of them to make the shape we wanted for the basket. The handle hoop was positioned so that the butt ends of the willow used to make the hoop were below the bowl hoop – later weaving would hide these nicely.

The general shape and orientation of the basket decided, we used wire to hold the hoops in place (this we removed after the ‘God’s Eyes’ were complete. And then we add a bit of masking tape to the top of the handle. Because, trust me, once you put the thing down, it takes a while to figure out its orientation when you pick it up again!

The rods used for the hoops are ‘buff’ willow – it’s steamed under pressure, then the bark is removed. The orange/gold colour is a result of the tannins from the skin staining the willow during the steaming process.

Step 2: The God’s Eye

Basket in progress, showing the 'God's Eye' and start of the weave.

The square design shown here is a ‘God’s Eye’, and works to hold the hoops together, to strengthen the structure of the basket, and as decoration. You can make these as big as you like, and next time I’d like to make them a good deal bigger. My God’s Eyes were in green willow, which is already drying to a gorgeous olive colour.

When you’re going to use your willow, you put the ‘bolt’, or however much you’ll use, in water, and allow it to soak. This can take anything from a few hours (e.g. with buff willow that has no bark), to a week or so (such as for some willows with bark). It also depends on the age and size of the willow rods – thicker and older willow needs longer.

Once the willow has finished soaking, you get it out of the water, and wrap it in a blanket or sheet to ‘mellow’ (Christine informs us that this is where the phrase originated) for a day or two (mustn’t let it dry out). Soaking causes the rods to draw in water, and to make them as flexible as possible, mellowing allows time for the fibres to relax after soaking.

Step 3: Putting in the ribs

View of the basket interior, showing the ribs now fixed in place
Step 3: View of the basket interior, showing the ribs now fixed in place

I was so busy getting on with my basket that I took the photo above after I had inserted the ribs and started the weave.  Once the God’s Eyes are finished, we cut lengths of thick buff willow, ensuring that we’d cut the ends so that each rib would bend with the ‘curve’ of the rods, rather than against. The ends we made into chisel-shapes, which is called ‘slyping’. Loving all this new language 🙂

Two ribs were put into each side of the basket – gently forced into gaps between weave made by the God’s Eye, making a total of seven ribs around which to weave.

It must be an odd number of ribs in total, else the weave pattern would be the same with each weave-through in both directions, and the basket would fall apart. 

Weaving then starts – with mine I carried on with the green willow for two rods on each side, then went with the black willow. As you weave, you need to keep making adjustments to the ribs to make sure they are as equidistant as possible. And the more you weave, the more solid the structure becomes. It’s important to check that your ribs allow your basket to sit squarely before you go any further. Mine was rocking a little at this stage, and I had to make some adjustments to ensure the three centre ribs were all in contact with the table.

Step 4: Weave away

Step 4: Filling in: birds-eye view of the basket in progress
Step 4: Filling in: birds-eye view of the basket in progress

This is the bit where I made up on lost time with the rib-faffing malarkey. Working on each side of the basket in turn towards the centre, with some vague notion that it would look symmetrical once finished, I used (from outside to inside): green willow, black willow, orange willow, reed, orange willow.

If you have sharp eyes you will have noticed that there are now eleven ribs in the basket – I had to add another two to each side after about 4 inches of weaving. The gaps between ribs should be no greater than 2 inches (around 5 cm), and as you weave towards the centre of the basket, the gaps do get bigger, and more ribs need to be added.

The second thing you might notice is the ‘filling-in’. Because you’re weaving a three-dimensional convex/concave shape, once you’ve worked a few inches along the rim, the gap between the weaving on each side becomes uneven: narrower at the bottom of the basket, and wider on the rim. Filling in means weaving back and forth between the outer ribs, with the goal of making the central gap have straight sides to finish up with. So, for example, with the ribs numbered 1 (rim) to 6 (central, bottom), each weave ran:  4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 2, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and onwards. In this way, more willow is added to the upper edges and less to the bottom, evening up the gap (a bit).

Step 5: finishing up

Hubby working on his basket
Hubby working on his basket

In this image you can see that DH is nearly there – and on the left hand side of the basket, he has worked to push the willow hard towards the outer edges. You can see that he hasn’t yet done that with the right-had side, and the weave is a little looser.

The basket will shrink a bit once dried out (takes around a week or so), so compressing now avoids having to weave in extra material to fill gaps at a later date.

Filling in the central gap became increasingly difficult as it got progressively narrower. I confess I resorted to swearing (silently) in the last throes of weaving. The thicker ends of the rods were becoming harder to bend through the contortions necessary to get between the ribs, and at one point I had to secateur-out a whole rod that had started to zig-zag away from the ribs in quite an unruly fashion.

Step 6: Ta-daa!

Hubby's completed basket, which sits at a jaunty angle.
Hubby’s completed basket, which sits at a jaunty angle. He’s touting it as a wine basket.
My completed basket, with an unintentional 'spout', perhaps it'll be a garden trug?
My completed basket, with an unintentional ‘spout’. Perhaps it’ll be a garden trug?

The ‘nobble’ on top of the handle takes only a couple of minutes to do, and is a nice addition.

And here’s the final results! to give a sense of scale, the diameter of DH’s basket is about 14 inches. Mine varies from 12 to 15, depending on which direction you measure the diameter. It’s a feature, not a fault 😉

Perfect day? As close as I know. We were so absorbed and engaged in the process, I think possibly in a state of ‘flow’. The time flew. And we’re amazed at the results, and have two beautiful ‘1st time’ baskets, and we are now armed with all the info we need to make more 🙂

If you need to make some space in your life to get back to yourself, this is an ideal workshop: you start with no knowledge, leave with a finished product you made yourself, and the process itself is therapeutic.