Making a Willow Basket

I first met Rosemary Kavanagh at our Irish immersion course last summer in Ballyferriter. We enjoyed a long chat on one of our outings and she told me she was a basket weaver. Her knowledge of the natural world around us was impressive and I responded to her ready laugh and her gentle, slightly ethereal presence.

We had lots of colours to choose from and soon found out that some were bendier than others

More recently I was invited by my oldest friend in the world to take part with her and two of her daughters in a basket workshop, and I realised that Rosemary was the teacher. I signed up, and last Sunday spent the day in Clonakilty making (well, almost making) my first willow basket. It wasn’t my first try at using willow – years ago in Northern Canada I had made a bockety chair under the guidance of my talented friend Sandy. It lasted for years in my garden, slowly disintegrating in the harsh winters and eventually returning gracefully to the soil from whence it came. But those were tough cut-from-the-woods willows, suitable for furniture.

Rosemary is a gifted natural teacher. I know what I am talking about – I spent several years training teachers in pedagogical techniques and I recognise good teaching when I see it. And good instruction is essential for something like this, as you guide novices through an intricate process, building their skill and their confidence bit by bit.

How to sit, how to hold the willow as you worked it, safely using a sharp knife (above), knowing when to discard something that wasn’t working – we were led through it all. As the right brain (creativity) took over from the left brain (process, logic) we descended into near-silence, each of us deeply concentrating on the shape that was emerging under our hands.

Although there were chairs for everyone it wasn’t long before many of us gravitated to the floor to work

Choosing what willow to work with was part of the process and I was humbled by Rosemary’s knowledge of her materials. She grows her own willow, coppicing and cutting it herself. I never knew there were so many kinds – four native species and several non-native that adapt well to Irish habitats. She knows intimately the characteristics of each kind – colour, strength, straightness – and therefore its suitability for different tasks.

Once harvested, Rosemary allows the willow to dry completely and then re-hydrates it to retain a fraction of its original moisture. This is what gives it its pliability for weaving. But it’s still strong: to see Rosemary flicking a weaver through the frame – in-out, in-out effortlessly – is a wondrous thing and an insight into what years of practice and trained hands can accomplish. Alas, for us neophytes it’s an altogether sweatier business of poking and pushing and hoping to God that the weaver doesn’t develop a kink and have to be discarded AFTER ALL THAT EFFORT.

Anne – my friend from the cradle. Doing something like this with old friends makes it extra-special

But some of got there and even finished our hen baskets, to the cheers of all. Others nearly finished and took away some willows to do it at home. 

Jill finished hers the next day – looks great! You can see the ‘bum’ shape that gives this basket its alternate name of a Bum Basket

Me? I almost finished, and decided to leave it as is, as a reminder of what I had learned and a memento of an amazingly enjoyable day. I have, however, positioned it on a high shelf so that anyone looking at it would think it was indeed finished. Cheating? Never!  Er, tromp l’oeil?

Rosemary teaches courses across Ireland and in North America too. If you’d like to make your own basket, get in touch with her at her gmail.com address that starts belongingtothewillows. You can also follow her Instagram page, full of lovely basket images.

Well done Kiara!

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