Willow Notes from Summer 2017

It’s been a while since I took time to write, so to catch up a bit I’ll focus on topics — starting with willow. I’ll write on indigo and other natural dye materials soon.

Willow bark natural dye on wool.

This season has been a good one for peeling willow bark. I was able to peel before and after going to the Willow Gathering at Luther College in June. With some of the early harvest it was easy to separate outer and inner bark, so in addition to natural dye material I got a basket full of inner bark dried for cordage.

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Willow Identification

Years ago at a workshop, I picked up another basketmaker’s trimmings to make cuttings for my own willow patch. Over the years, that variety’s leaves and bark have become among my favorite for natural dye. But I never knew what variety it was.

This video shows key features for identifying willow species in the United States. I believe the willow I’ve been trying to identify is peachleaf willow, salix amygdaloides.

Before I started growing named cultivars bred for basketry, I harvested and wove a lot of the willow that grows wild here in rural northern Wisconsin. I wish this video had been around then!

Willow Harvest

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. 

Donna Kallner with some of the 2016 willow harvest.

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.

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Wrecking Willow

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.

Skeins made from the outer layer of seasoned peeled willow.

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!

The willow wrecking crew -- Beth Hester, Dawn Walden, Karen Tembreull, Poppy Hatinger, Jo Campbell-Amsler and Donna Kallner.

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Peeling For White Willow

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.

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Cleaving White Willow

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.

white willow split with a cleave.

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.
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An Old Tub For Soaking 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.


I use weights from an old barbell set to keep the willow submerged. Otherwise, the willow floats. Continue reading An Old Tub For Soaking Willow

Pitting Willow To Peel

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.

imageI 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.

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The Willow Handout

Among the things that fell off my radar in the past few months is sharing this handout about willow that I made for the final project in the ethnobotany class I took last fall.

Willow for natural color grown in Wisconsin by Donna Kallner.

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!