Today I took over the Craft Hub at the Centre for Stewardship for a ‘mini-residency’, a whole day to make whatever I wanted while chatting to visitors. I decided what I was going to make on my way in from the car park. The lime trees were covered in blossom and buzzing with bees. They reminded me of an experiment I’d been wanting to do for a while – to make a bee skep, an old-fashioned beehive.
Cultures all over the world have designed homes and shelters for honeybees for thousands of years. The little domed hives made from straw have become familiar as a symbol for honey and hard work, appearing on stamps, labels and logos.
In the mid-1990’s I worked as a ceramic painter for the Griselda Hill Pottery in Ceres and was trained to paint many traditional Wemyssware designs. I loved the beehive design. At its centre is a straw skep on its table, surrounded by long grass and birch trees. A random number of bees are painted flying round the hive. We would draw them lightly in pencil on the plate or pot then follow a set procedure for painting the bees – body, head, wings, legs, antennae, stripes. I had a special brush I kept for bee wings, it was old and worn and allowed me to paint each wing in one stroke of dilute brown. When done well, the wings looked smoky and transparent and the bees looked alive. More like bumblebees than honeybees, but definitely bees.
The hard-workers in the Falkland limes today were bumblebees. While trying to get a photograph of one bee I was immersed in a wonderful sweet scent. I looked for more information about lime trees when I got home and found out that the blossoms can be used to make a calming and reviving tea. I found this and much more fascinating lime tree information on a good blog post: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/the-intoxicating-scent-of-lime-trees/
There is a little bee skep in the Fife Folk Museum in Ceres, on a high shelf on the way to the toilets. It is made of straw and cane, and decorated with hand-made bees! The label says “Handmade by Police Sergeant Harry Strathie of Dairsie on his retiral in 1980s. Donor: Miss Provan, Dura Den”. I’d love to know more.
There were plenty of reedmace leaves and soft rushes left from last week’s Summer Baskets workshop, a suitable substitute for straw for my mini-skep prototype. Linen thread, beeswax and blunt needle for stitching as usual. My aim was to reproduce the skep shape using the stitching method I’ve been teaching in workshops, to see if it would work and look at all skep-like.
Marek came in to see me at this point and stayed for a while to talk about all things basket. He took part in one of my workshops last year and since then has taken his researches much further than me. He showed me photos on his phone of woven baskets he has made recently using spruce roots. They are very beautiful, I hope he chooses to exhibit them at the Centre in future.
We also talked about trees, lime in particular. Marek told me that in Poland this month is named after the lime tree. ‘July’ is ‘Lipiec’, named for the month when the lime trees blossom.
Back to work on the mini-skep. At this point it was difficult to stop the coils from turning in, making the base narrower than the sides. I wanted a more conical shape, like the Fife Folk Museum skep. I unpicked three or four coils here and re-stitched them but I couldn’t persuade the materials to open out any further, so went with vertical sides.
It is difficult to see in the old illustrations how the bee hole is made. This method might be a bit coarse but I think it would work well enough at a larger scale too. When I looked up skeps on the internet this evening, I was amazed at how many shapes and sizes have been used in the past. Cones, cylinders, bells, balls, holes at the base or half way up, made of straw, grass, willow, stitched with cane or split brambles, some even coated with mud. Room for further experiment and on a larger scale…
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.
The body of this wee basket is stitched with blaeberry & strawberry-dyed thread (the berries that were on their way to the compost bin a few weeks ago):
I finished off the top with raspberry. We’ll see if it keeps its colour. Here you can see the difference in colour between the ‘strawblaeberry’ thread in the base of the basket and the raspberry thread on the right:
The basket smells great – imagine ripe soft fruits, warm summer meadows and a hint of honey!
On Monday this week, eight members of the Forth team from Scottish Natural Heritage joined me at The Steeple for a creative away-day. They swapped keyboards and screens for plants and beeswax, linen thread and needles and each went home with a unique stitched basket.
My heap of basket-making materials was supplemented by armfuls of useful bendy plants, harvested specially by SNH staff at Tentsmuir. I explained how these could be used, demonstrated the first stage of fiddly needle and thread work and the group got started. They picked up the process quickly, and we could see early on that there were going to be eight very different baskets.
I was very impressed with everyone’s willingness to experiment and improvise. By the afternoon there was a fine mess on the tables too, always a good sign. Here are the lovely finished baskets and their makers…
Here’s a list of the materials we used, collected with minimum (and some positive) impact on the environment:
Reedmace leaves, marram grass, lyme grass, soft rush, jointed rush, birch twigs, sycamore leaf-stalks, rhododendron twigs and leaves, blackthorn twigs (thorns removed!), beach-combed ships’ ropes, linen thread, bakers’ twine, beeswax.