Willow Workshops Of The Hybrid Sort

In one of the workshops I taught at last week’s Willow Gathering in Decorah, Iowa, students dyed silk fabrics with willow leaves, twigs and bark.

Then they modeled and designed constructed vessels…

…that used those naturally dyed fabrics.

After a busy day of dyeing, we started the second day of the workshop by making simple vessels from the leaves of cupplants growing near the building.

Then my students jumped into modeling for constructed vessels. As usual, I got busy and didn’t manage to take pictures of them with their models and fiber phyllo vessels. 

Willow has a reputation as a plant that crosses easily, which sometimes makes it hard to identify the exact species. I guess that applies to me, too: Many ideas have crossed in my head and hybridized.

You could practically see ideas flitting around the room cross-pollinating each other. I certainly came home with notions to nurture until it’s time to thin them out.

Luckily for the Canadian contingent, it’s easier to carry living ideas across the border than fresh plant materials.

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Willow People

Wonderful, inspiring willow people came together last week in Decorah, Iowa, thanks to the efforts of Jo Campbell-Amsler and Lee Zieke Lee. I don’t think I can sum up how important and fun this Willow Gathering was. I’ll have to break it into several posts while I do laundry and prep class materials for my class at Sievers next week. So stay tuned for more about Decorah (amazing), the coracle launch, the workshops I taught, the other workshops, my new willow brake, and more. In the meantime, I put a photo album on Facebook and others from the conference are posting pictures as well.

International Willow Summit

For now, let me just say the key ingredient in this conference was the people. Generous, knowledgeable people from across the U.S. and Canada came together to learn and share. It was a wonderful mix of old friends, new friends, and people I’ve only known from online.

Lene Rasmussen of Lakeshore Willows
Katherine Lewis at Willowglen
Joanna Schanz, Sandy Whalen and Karen Tembreull in Katherine Lewis’s Scottish Rope Coil class
Pam Talsky and Sandy Whalen
Jo Campbell-Amsler and Lee Zieke Lee

Photo op at Luther College — a cool moth under the eave

As usual, I meant to take more photos then got busy setting up and teaching classes (and eating — great food!). I wish I had better pictures of some of these beautiful people, or that you could see the pictures in my head!

More soon.

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Stitching Bee — Coracle Edition

Remember the books you read as a kid, where the pioneer ladies trekked through woods and snow to get together with friends around a quilting frame? This week’s adventure was a drive to Iowa for a stitching bee with Jo Campbell-Amsler and Joanna Schanz.

For almost 20 years, these two willow basketmakers from Iowa have taught, mentored, inspired and challenged me, and I’m lucky to call them my friends. So this week I jumped at the chance to spend a day with the two of them.

Jo was ready to put the cover on a willow coracle, a job that would be much easier with a couple extra pairs of hands. The coracle project started in 2010. A conversation in one of Jo’s classes inspired a small group of weavers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to build two of the small willow watercraft as a winter project. Jo and her husband went up to the U.P. for the launch party last summer. And after narrowly losing the race series (to a teenager sporting an arm cast), Jo and Karen Tembreull wove a coracle frame for Jo.

The frame is dry, so this week it was time to get the cover on. Jo had the canvas seamed before we got there.

With three pairs of hands, it was quick work to stretch and clamp the fabric over the frame.

Then we stitched the fabric to the willow frame.

Joanna used a broom-making tool I’m calling a “palm thimble” to push the needle through multiple layers of canvas.

We stitched. We talked. We shared ideas. We completed a project. We added another chapter to our shared story.

So many tasks are easier and more fun when shared with friends. But sometimes it’s easier to to help a friend than to ask friends for help. I’m glad Jo asked.

Is there a project or task on your to-do list that could be turned into a bee?

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Life Lessons In Willow Green And Denim Blue

It was already a balmy 33 degrees when I got up this morning, so I don’t expect last night’s three-inch snowfall to last long. A few minutes ago, the sun came out. Before both the sun and the snow are gone, I wanted to capture the brilliant greens against the white snow. Then it got me thinking about another color — denim blue.

First, the greens. Because of unseasonably warm weather this spring, I juggled my to-do list and harvested like a maniac last month before the willow could start to leaf out. But there’s still plenty of willow standing. Some, like the one above, will be cut in June (or May, the way this year is going) and peeled for the bark I use in fabric dyeing.

In our area, trees are starting to leaf out now. That makes them really vulnerable to wet, heavy snow like this. But my willow was shedding snow and springing back upright as I snapped pictures. It’s so resilient.

Willow is often used as a metaphor for resilience. I like to think a little of that characteristic attaches to the fabrics I dye with willow and passes along to the people who wears them.

Our ancient ancestors wore colors and patterns they deemed efficacious to creating desired outcomes, like good hunting, or the display of status. How different are we? In Wisconsin during football season, “Packer Friday” means you’ll see green and gold on your bank teller, supermarket checker, and insurance agent. In politics, in the boardroom, in high school hallways, people use textiles and clothing to communicate who they are (or want to be) and what they think is important.

That’s why I’ll be wearing jeans on April 25. Denim Day is part of a nationwide campaign to prevent sexual violence.

Whether it’s blue, green, pink, red, black, white, or rainbow colors, we all have clothing that makes a statement. Sometimes we wear things that let others know what we believe. Other times, we choose garments that remind us of what we can be.

What do you reach for?

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Tunnel Vision

Maybe if I’d left a post-it on the bathroom mirror I would have remembered that Bill told me to expect company on Friday. Then at least I would have cleaned the bathroom and washed dishes. But last week the only thing going on in my head was Willow Harvest Tunnel Vision. And it was getting the job done: On Friday afternoon I finished sorting and bundling the last of the willow harvest.

There was just enough time left in the day to make a few willow hearts and bend a pile of willow frames. Those frames are now hanging in the window to dry.

It felt pretty good to sweep the floor, turn off the lights, and head inside at the end of the day. Until they pulled in the driveway, I completely forgot that friends were coming over to help cut one of our old willow beds.

In 90 minutes, the eight of us cut the bed Bill and I call The Snowfence. And I didn’t think to take a single picture. Tunnel vision. So you’ll just have to imagine four adults and four kids cutting two pickup truck loads of willow. They’re using it to build a willow fence, a bunch more trellises, and some Christmas gifts.

By next winter, our snow fence will have grown back. But for now, when I look at that bed what I see are the faces of friends who have plenty on their own to-do list but always turn up when a big job needs to be cut down to size.

I just hope they have the kind of tunnel vision that kept them from noticing the dirty bathroom and messy kitchen.

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Willow Harvest

Unseasonably warm temperatures have added a sense of urgency to the spring willow harvest. More needs to be cut, but I’m relieved to have my prime beds finished. Today I felt like I had time to set up the camera and tripod in the willow bed while I cut. Even if it was only pretend, it was nice to have company!

All that willow is piled up in the cool of my studio for now until I can start sorting and bundling. But that’s another day, and maybe another video.

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What’s On Your Job Description?

Do you ever wonder how a high school guidance counselor would describe what you do to a student who wants to follow a similar (ahem) “career path”?

On Saturday, I made willow heart ornaments to include with orders in my Etsy shop between now and Valentine’s Day. That was in the “Marketing” column of my to-do list. Throughout my careers (three, as best I can count), I’ve done a lot of making that went into the marketing column. A few examples come to mind:

  • dyeing Easter eggs (30 dozen at a time)
  • building retail display fixtures
  • painting signs
  • fusing fabric to paper for product hang tags
  • sewing garments

(OK, that last one’s a stretch, but I put wardrobe in the marketing column because it’s part of an artist’s brand. Otherwise, I’d probably wear jeans to everything except weddings and funerals.)

Several of the young people in our life are just starting their first careers. On Saturday while I was making willow hearts, I was pondering what they may end up doing in those careers.

I got no answers, just a pile of willow hearts. I have no idea whatsoever what will happen even in the next chapter of the lives of these young adults. We’re just staying tuned, a loyal audience waiting to see what they make of the world.

How about you? What’s the most unusual thing on your job description?

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Willow Dye The Bundle Way

Earlier this week when I wrote about using willow immersion dye for fabric, it probably made more than a few dyers cringe. For thousands of years, dyers have worked hard at perfecting the even application of color. I admire that, but it’s not what I’m going for.

I’m going for fabric in which the process leaves its mark — irregular, organic marks, as well as color.

Most of my natural dyeing involves putting dyestuff in direct contact with fabric. Sometimes it’s a slow process in which fabric and dyestuff are wrapped together with copper or steel wire, the bundle is tucked into a plastic bag and splashed with vinegar or old wine, then left in the sun for a week or two (longer, if sun isn’t part of the equation).

Lately, I’ve been playing with the balance between heat and time. Much of this exploration was inspired by India Flint. After a comment she made at the Surface Design conference in Minneapolis last summer, it seemed like serendipity that I should find a rice steamer at my local thrift shop. I started playing with it during goldenrod season. And I’m loving it with willow.

What I do is wrap my dyestuff (willow leaves and/or bark, bits of metal, etc.) in fabric moistened with water or willow dye liquid, then wrap the bundle in baking parchment. Some bundles I let sit overnight first, some get steamed right away. A bundle is steamed on a rack over hot water for an hour or so. I have to add water about every 20 minutes. After steaming, I let the bundle cool. I might pull the metal out of the bundle the same day on a silk piece, but I try (try, I say) to let the bundle mellow overnight before unwrapping it.

Steaming isn’t the only way I apply heat. I also simmer bundles in willow dye liquid in a saucepan on a hotplate in my studio. Because the metal in the bundles leaches into the dye liquid, I may only get a couple of bundles simmered before the color starts to get dull. Bundle simmering has been successful enough for me to take a second saucepan (cast aluminum) from kitchen duty and dedicate it to the studio.

The biggest problem I have with simmering bundles is controlling the temperature on the electric hotplate (a garage sale purchase). With too much heat, silk can lose its luster.  With the smaller saucepans, I have better results when I never turn the dial past the halfway point and just let it come up to below-simmer sloooowly.

The second-biggest problem I have with simmering bundles, I’ll save for tomorrow. I’m working on pacing and patience. It’s a challenge!

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Willow Charcoal For Drawing

Earlier this month, we peeled willow bark to dry for dyeing fabric. Willow is a wonderfully renewable resource, and cutting it just encourages new growth. Still, we hate to waste anything. Many of the peeled willow sticks will be used in Bill’s rustic furniture. Most of the rest goes on the brush pile to provide wildlife habitat as it slowly composts. And some becomes willow drawing charcoal that we give to friends.

A few years ago, Bill learned to make willow charcoal from Lee Zieke and Lindsay Lee of Willowglen Nursery in Decorah, Iowa. Here’s what we do.

We have an old oatmeal tin with a tight-fitting lid that we keep for this job. We pack the tin as full as possible with the green, peeled willow.

We’ve poked a couple of holes in the top to let steam escape.

The can then goes into the campfire on a good bed of coals. We scrape up coals around and on top of the can, and feed the fire until we no longer see steam coming out the vents in the lid. Then we just let the fire burn out with the can in place. The closed can restricts airflow to the fresh willow. It’s that slow burn that produces charcoal.

The next morning, we open the can.

I’ve read that blacksmiths and backyard grillers make charcoal using the same process but with larger-diameter willow. For those uses, I can’t imagine it’s necessary to start with peeled willow. Actually, I’ve made charcoal from unpeeled willow, too, but prefer the smoother surface of the peeled willow charcoal.

And since most of our charcoal is given as gifts, we want our friends to think we made every effort to produce premium-grade stuff for their drawing pleasure.

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