It feels good to be weaving again, even if only to mend the border of an old log basket. New green willow cut from the edge of a Scottish stream gives a rough and ready handmade look to a shop-bought basket so evenly woven it could have been made by machine. But hands-on, head-down weaving brings another benefit to a weary online worker.
I spend far too long in a small, yet limitless, world framed by a small screen, fragmented to infinity by an endless stream of disconnected information. The tyranny of Twitter, the lure of Facebook, provides a constant distraction from the job I could or should be doing. I begin to wonder if I am losing the ability to string together a coherent train of thought. Concentration: what is that?
It was Bobby who set me thinking. “When was the last time you made a basket?” He was asking by way of suggesting I might make him a lamp out of willow for Christmas. I liked the idea but it was so long since I had made anything at all I realised I would have to practice. Hence the log basket, and an afternoon of complete concentration on tasks with a single purpose: picking the willow, sorting the best pieces, rediscovering the rhythm of turning a three rod border.
Bend down the stakes using a knife or thumb…now bring a stake down behind the next on the right
The phone is switched off, Twitter and Facebook no longer exist. There is only the discipline of getting the stakes in the right order, remembering where you began and how to finish, concentrating on this and nothing else.
Take the left-hand rod and pass in front of one upright stake, behind one and back to the front, moving it to the right all the time…
So long since I last did this, I had to go back to the beginning, rubbing the rust off tools and opening a well worn book, Willow Work by Mary Butcher.
How long? I’m amazed to realise it must be almost 20 years since I started to dabble with basket making. When we first began our woodland adventure at Pond Cottage I nurtured a fantasy that I might begin a new career, breaking away from journalism to explore an ancient craft. I quite quickly discovered several essential truths. First, the goat willow thriving in our wetland is not the stuff of fine baskets so I would have to grow (or buy) the right material. Second, even the finest basket I could make would be competing with imported, and often beautifully crafted, baskets selling at such a low price it made freelance writing seem highly paid by comparison. Third, a revival of traditional crafts was producing some extraordinary new work by Scottish weavers, well beyond my grasp.
Even so, I loved my weekly weaving classes at Poldrate Arts and Crafts Centre (in the old mill at Haddington) taught by Liz Balfour, one of the founders of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle. Like all the best teachers she combines creative talent with an infectious enthusiasm for her subject – Liz introduced us to ancient traditions and skills (stripping the willow, making frames) and more recent innovations of hedgerow baskets, kitchen ware and garden structures.
I learned to experiment with different pliable materials (beech, birch, bramble, briar rose) and, though it seems hard to believe it now, I had surprising beginner’s luck with my first few creations – winning the Poldrate Rose Bowl for a hedgerow laundry basket (now about to be filled with grandchildren’s toys) and a Highly Commended at the Royal Highland Show for a slightly eccentric umbrella stand which I titled Walk in the Woods (old journalist habits die hard).
It is genuinely hard to believe my work won awards as I have since met Lizzie Farey, one of the supremely talented (and modest) Scottish artists whose work takes the craft of weaving to a different level. But perhaps I appreciate such wizardry all the more having learned enough to see where the true skill lies.
Sometimes, getting to grips with a new basket, I make a link between weaving and writing – they both require selecting the right material, creating a framework, adding colour and detail, hoping for an end product that holds together and looks good. But there is an extra dimension to making something by hand. At the end of a day’s work you can see a tangible result, however imperfect, for your labours. And without a moment of digital distraction.
Having said that, I might just post a few pictures of my basket online. If I can remember where I put my phone. (PS: I made the lamp for Bobby, by the way.)