Beech interrupted

This tree basket will have to wait till November for its sides. The beech twigs I collected in April have lain too long and even soaking won’t make them supple again. Rather than fight with brittle twigs, I’m happy to wait for winter and this year’s new growth.

The little unfinished beech coil was my demonstration piece over the Open Studios weekend. It helped explain basket construction to many people and its slow growth shows how busy we were! Thanks to everyone who came along and to the Centre for Stewardship for hosting us. We had some great conversations and Tess and I can see our work more clearly in the light of your feedback. I’ll be offering at least two workshops this summer and autumn in response to the interest shown, dates and venues will be posted here once arranged.

www.centreforstewardship.org.uk

Sugi

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There is a huge tree in the Falkland Estate Arboretum, not far from the Monkey Puzzle tree near the Maspie Burn. I thought it was a Giant Redwood, one of those soft-barked punchable mega-trees from California. After the strong winds that brought down all the Monkey Puzzle leaves earlier this year, I found some green branches under the big tree, just enough to use for my tree project.

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Today I decided to check which Redwood the branches came from, knowing there’s more than one species. It turns out to be something else altogether, probably a Japanese Red Cedar, Cryptomeria japonica. It is related to the Giant Redwood Sequoiadendron giganteum but comes from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, yes, from Japan. There it is called Sugi and is highly-prized for its timber and precious ancient specimens. It can grow up to 70 metres (230 feet) tall and to a trunk diameter of 4 metres (13ft).

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I laid the twigs and leaves out to dry in the studio after collecting them. From the left: Hemlock(?), Lime, Monkey Puzzle leaves, Sugi, and one little twig from a neighbouring tree, possibly a Redwood. The Hemlock twigs (if that’s what they were) went brittle very quicky and ended up in the compost bin. The Sugi branches stayed flexible with a bit of soaking and made a very fragrant pair of baskets.

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See these and the other Tree Project baskets and pods at Open Studios North Fife from 29th April to 1st May at Centre for Stewardship Falkland

Basket dialogue

One of the things I like best about teaching creative workshops is the diversity of the end results. We start off with the same basic processes, a limited selection of tools and materials and finish with a set of unique hand-made objects. 

On Sunday six people came to my ‘Summer Baskets’ workshop at the Centre for Stewardship, my last workshop for the Living Lomonds Crafts of the Hills project. Over the last three years we have explored local heritage crafts in workshops and drop-ins, finding out a lot about local materials on the way. For ‘Summer Baskets’ I provided reedmace leaves, soft rushes and grasses, with some scented herbs for extra interest. 

We started by splitting some of the reedmace leaves into strands to let them dry out a little and, after a bit of discussion, we decided to use a ‘fast start’ coiling technique. I’ve been using two starting methods for coiled baskets, the ‘button’ and the one I’m now calling the ‘sausage’!  The group spent an hour or so on the first stage of the process, stitching the basket base.

At these workshops everyone decides for themselves what size of basket they want to make. When they feel the base is big enough they can start to build the sides, straight up or in a curve, controlled by placement of the coils of plant material. I encourage people to try introducing other stuff into the structure at this point and let their imaginations take off. I love to see people experimenting with the materials, making decisions about shape and colour, deciding whether to go plain or add decoration. Sometimes the baskets seem to make their own decisions. People say later “It just came out neat” or “It just ended up that shape!”

This question of control is interesting. I ask myself – how much do I or should I control the making process in a workshop? How much do the basket-makers control their materials? There is a fine balance between too much control and too little. I want to teach craft skills and encourage creative freedom, how do you do both? In workshops I have learned the value of dialogue, amongst ourselves as a group and between us and our materials. We observe and listen with respect, nothing is forced, not an opinion or a stitch. That’s my aim anyway. I try to notice when people are having difficulty with a process and encourage them to notice when their materials are struggling. “If they won’t bend into the shape you want, then consider another shape…”

On Sunday, one person found that rolling the reedmace strands while stitching helped keep them together and the stitched coils also looked good. Others in the group tried it out and liked the result. Dialogue in action.