In one very productive week and with help from Bill and friends, my willow crop is cut, sorted, and the long rods have been cleaved and coiled for skeining next year.
The time to harvest willow for basketry is generally when the plant is dormant. I like to cut my beds in late November — after the leaves have dropped but before the snow starts to pile up. Last year’s crop I harvested late so I could peel the willow after the buds broke in spring. That worked really well, but other uncertainties make it better for me to harvest in fall. So we’re trying another method generously shared by Dawn Walden.
Over Memorial Day weekend, a small group gathered at my home to wreck some willow. That’s what Dawn Walden calls the process of splitting and resplitting seasoned white (peeled) willow until what remains is a lustrous ribbon of wood and exciting possibilities.
Dawn and I met last summer when we both taught at the biennial NBO conference. We sort of knew each other from Facebook, but had no idea that we live just two hours apart — practically next door. At the conference, we had adjacent rooms and kept having to tear ourselves away from conversations in the hall to go teach our workshops. It was there that she offered to teach me to make willow skeins. She graciously extended the offer to two mutual friends from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and two more friends with special interests in willow skeining. And that’s when it turned into a party!
Finding white willow to cleave for an upcoming project was not as simple as it sounds. So I’ve had plenty of incentive to start peeling my own for future use. Bill shot this short video last week to help remind me of what I learned about peeling willow with a brake. That’s the tool in the video that looks like a giant bobby pin.
My best results came from when I made several passes through the brake of just the butt, then from mid-rod, and finally from the tip of the rod.
In the U.S., it’s not easy to buy white willow (willow that has had the bark peeled off). You just about have to grow it and peel it yourself. This spring I’m doing just that for future needs. But for an upcoming project this spring, it’s been a scramble to find enough white willow. Joanna Schanz gave us some she had ordered from (I think) Belgium. And I was able to purchase some from Dunbar Gardens. After a day of soaking and mellowing overnight wrapped in a damp beach towel, the cleave went through that U.S.-grown willow like a hot knife through butter.
A cleave is that egg-shaped wooden object in the photo. To use it, you make a couple of starter cuts in the butt end of a willow rod, then slip the sharp edges of the cleave into the starter cuts. Then you guide the rod toward the cleave, which acts sort of like a woodsplitting wedge. My cleave splits a rod into three pieces. Continue reading Cleaving White Willow
Having no close neighbors and an indulgent husband, I’m able to keep an old bathtub in the back yard. I don’t use it every year, but for soaking willow or retting bark it’s sure comes in handy. This time, I’m using it to soak some peeled willow I need to get split.
There’s another willow experiment in the works at my place this spring. It’s called pitting, though I suspect most willow producers would call my jerry-rigged system optimistic.
I have freshly cut willow standing in a plastic tub filled with water. To keep it from falling over, I commandeered a heavy belt sander stand that wasn’t being used in Bill’s shop. It worked: We had an extra-blustery March day last week, and the tallest willow shifted but did not tip over.
These will stand in water until the buds break, the rods send out root shoots, and the bark slips very easily. Then I will use a tool called a willow brake to peel the rods. There’s a great post on Lois Walpole’s blog about this process.
I didn’t elaborate on willow as a natural dye material in the handout. People in the class had already seen naturally dyed yarns I had taken for show and tell. And you’ve seen plenty of posts here on that topic.
The instructor for that ethnobotany course, Stephanie Aleman, will teach another continuing ed course in the spring. It’s called Appreciating the Ephemeral Flora of Wisconsin. It’s six sessions in April and early May, and will include field trips. I know where she was planning to take the class and would really, really like to see that wonderful place with her as a guide. But things are still too up in the air for me to put something else on my calendar. Yet.
But if you’re in central Wisconsin, you might check it out. It was well worth the 2-1/2 hour round trip drive every week last fall!
Years ago, I read a rhyme used to help stake-and-strand weavers learn their craft. On a solo drive to a basketry conference in Michigan, I expanded that rhyme into an ode, recitations of which were so hammy that I’m glad there were no cell phone cameras back then. I found that poem again while cleaning last winter. Since April is Poetry Month, I give you An Ode To Willow Weavers. Feel free to post your own hammy YouTube video!
Think of harvest traditions where friends and family would come together to shuck corn, shock wheat, bale hay and visit while getting a job done. That’s what this week was like.
On Sunday, I headed to Washington Island to meet some friends and get the willow bed cut at Sievers.
Being surrounded by the waters of Lake Michigan makes conditions on Washington Island generally milder than where I live (pretty much due west, but an hour inland). So the island’s first hard frost came just before we arrived, and there were still leaves on the willow. Normally, willow growers wait for leaves to fall before harvesting. But everyone knew I would be happy to have the leaves for natural dye.
On Monday we got the patch cut and a good start on stripping leaves (and had a lovely soup supper with the rag rug weaving class). So on Tuesday, we spent a little time enjoying the island as well as processing the willow. We walked at The Ridges before we started working that day.
At lunch we took some time to shop at Sievers. Lee bought a beautiful batik scarf made by my friend Anne Landre.
In the afternoon we quit early to visit Schoolhouse Beach and the Stavkirke.
After burgers at Karly’s and a short stop at Nelsen’s Hall, we headed back to the studio to finish stripping leaves and sorting willow.
On Wednesday, I got home with plenty of material for the cold-brewed willow-leaf natural dye like I made last winter. It’s now in buckets outside my studio. Other leaves are drying inside.
The merino wool-silk yarn in this knitting WIP was dyed with that willow leaf cold brew.
It was a whirlwind trip, but at the end it’s nice to see a job well done and to have had a chance to spend time working with friends at a special place like Sievers.