Willow Bark Harvest

Last week while my head was still spinning from the Midwest Weavers Conference, Bill reminded me that I needed to harvest willow bark. Willow is easy to peel when the time is right, and my window of opportunity was closing.

In June 2012, I’m teaching at a brand new willow conference in Decorah, Iowa organized by my friends Jo Campbell-Amsler and Lee Zieke Lee. I have material aplenty on hand for Quixote Coiling, but needed a good supply of willow bark for this class:

Willow Spirit Constructed Vessels
For thousands of years, basketmakers have made vessels by folding, cutting and stitching sheets of bark. In this 2-day class, we replace that bark with a fabric laminate made of contemporary art cloth colored and patterned with willow. You’ll learn a variety of ways to use willow to dye and print fabric. You’ll sample new ways to conceive, model and build hand-stitched sculptural forms, and create two vessels that incorporate willow in the surface design.

So on Wednesday, Bill helped me peel for a little over an hour. The bark slipped off the wood like a pat of butter off a hot ear of sweet corn.

I spent the rest of the afternoon getting the peeled bark ready for drying and, later, storage and easy resoaking.

It’s been drying under the eaves on the porch. Today I’ll move it into my studio to finish drying.

I’ll post details about the Decorah willow conference soon. In the meantime, here’s a short video I took of Bill while we were harvesting.

You’ll see that he uses the wood in his rustic furniture, and I save the leaves for dyeing. Willow is an amazing renewable resource.

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Don’t Eat The Rhubarb

When a friend popped into the studio this week, his first comment was, “Smells good in here!” Our rhubarb is up enough to sacrifice a few leaves for dyeing some silk. Since rhubarb leaves are considered toxic, I should maybe make a skull and crossbones to clip on the dye pot. It did smell tasty.

After simmering the leaves, though, the mushy mess doesn’t look very appetizing. But the oxalic acid in rhubarb leaves produces a nice mordant and colors white silk a lovely light golden yellow. 

After a bath below the simmer level, the silk got wrapped around dried willow bark I had soaked to make it pliable. My tight little bundles went back into the pot.

After the bundles simmered and cooled down, the bark left a lovely pattern on the silk.

 Here’s a scarf I dyed the same way.

The willow bark got re-wrapped into other silk from the rhubarb bath, but those bundles didn’t go back in the pot. I’ll unwrap them today or tomorrow.

With all the hand stitching I’ve been doing, I need something to keep me from sitting in one spot long enough for my joints to rust. Jumping up and down to check the dyepot is a pleasant diversion. But it’s making me really hungry.

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Dovetailed Tasks

Fitting little tasks into big tasks is SOP for most of us. You wash a couple of pans while you wait for a pot to boil. You pull a few weeds while the watering can fills. My mother has always called it “dovetailing.” This week, I was able to dovetail in a few small tasks while I rested my body during a long, hard day of willow harvesting.

I wanted to get the lion’s share of the willow harvest done on Tuesday. It’s a big job, but the weather couldn’t have been much nicer. The willow was threatening to bud out sooner rather than later, but the snow was mostly gone. There was just enough left to give the dog a nice, cool place to watch from while I worked.

Last year when I wrote about the harvest, I mentioned that I generally prefer to cut for a couple of hours max, then sort what I’ve cut. I just don’t have time to sort right now. So I stuffed the willow into buckets and hauled them to the Clink, an unheated part of the shop with a nice, cold concrete floor, for sorting later.

Not sorting right after cutting meant I had to make rest breaks intentional and long enough to make sure I could last the day. So here’s what my routine looked like.

  • Cut a row.
  • Carry the bucket to cold storage.
  • Plug in teapot.
  • Sharpen tools.
  • Brew tea.
  • Do a short task.
  • Sip.
  • Stretch.
  • Repeat.

One of the short tasks I got done was de-waxing some Irish waxed linen I got on sale because it was too, too waxy.

While I was making my tea, I poured the extra boiling water over the spool of waxy thread, then dunked the whole spool in the pool.

The wax rose to the surface, where it congealed as the water cooled.

On my next break, I skimmed off the wax and repeated the process.

The thread is dry again now, and without all that excess wax it will actually get used.

I dovetailed in some other tasks, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about sweeping up dead Asian lady beetles. I should have left the bodies where they were and used that time to change into a shirt long enough to prevent the waistline sunburn I got. Yup, I burned the muffins. So today I smelled like vinegar (old family recipe for treating sunburn) and wore cotton knit pants inside out (seams = ouch).

I miss the smell of fresh willow in the studio, but I’m making good progress on other work in the studio this week. And it feels really good to have the harvest 90 percent done. I’ll think about sorting it all later.

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Nip Tuck Looping

My clothes only seem to shrink, but my favorite freeform looping travel mug sheath has stretched out. Go figure. Recently, I gave the looping a nip and tuck. That quick bit of stitching surgery took all the sag out of a favorite piece and made it perky again.

Looping sheath before nip/tuck

The sheath is made from the same 7-ply Irish waxed linen used in the purse I carry most of the time. In the photo above, you can see how it fit on my travel mug originally.

After several years of use, it had stretched to the point where it was riding up into the sip zone.

Like many of my looping projects, I painted this linen before stitching it. Luckily, I found the leftovers in my stash.  So the next step was to select a spot for the alteration and cut the sheath.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds. Looping is such a stable textile construction that it can’t unravel. People have used this technique for thousands of years partly, I think, because even if you manage to rip it, it will hold together long enough for you to make a repair.

After picking out the cut stitches, I was ready to rejoin the cut ends, taking out the slack.

It was just a matter of picking up existing stitches on both sides of the cut to draw the edges back together.

Looping sheath after nip/tuck

The alteration sacrificed a vertical design element I really liked. But that was the easiest placement, and I’m a big fan of easy. It’s good to remember that, after spending a whole weekend making something else much harder than it needed to be. 

The weekend also included a little rain and enough sunshine and warmth to melt most of the snow in three of my willow beds. Starting today, I plan to channel my Edward Scissorhands and cut as fast as I can. I suspect it won’t be long before buds start to shoot out.

The harvest will give me some quiet time to reflect on work I’m doing for an upcoming show and clarify my intentions. I have a feeling I need a few metaphoric nips and tucks to make everything fit together the way I want.

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Matters of Perspective

Branching Below by Donna Kallner

Another Black Hole piece finished. This one started as a challenge to use up fabric from a bag of strippy silk scraps.You might notice, though, that the piece is oriented differently now.

Work in progress — original orientation

 Originally, I intended to add leaves dangling from the branches. But when I rotated the piece, the branches became the roots that support the tree. This is the second small “use up stuff” piece I’ve made where the focus has shifted to what’s happening underground. I’m listening.

In another matter of perspective, we’re seeing the willow harvest in a new light. A friend’s daughter is getting married in May, and they plan to do the arrangements for the tables at the reception. Yesterday, they came with another friend and the four of us made quick work of cutting two rows of willow.

Wedding Willow Harvesters

I can’t wait to see the arrangements they come up with — something involving large vases, Granny Smith apples and willow.

It was a beautiful day to be outside making a joyful memory. Instead of being made into a basket or trellis, this willow will be woven into their story. What a great symbol it is for the start of a marriage, where strength is best tempered with flexibility.

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Willow Harvest — The Prequel

Since the spring willow harvest began in March, I’ve posted about preparing, cutting, sorting and even using the harvest. The story just doesn’t seem complete without telling you a little about how to plant a willow crop.

Where To Plant. You don’t need a country estate to grow enough willow to make a few trellises each year. Even in a small yard, if you have a sunny spot you can grow a few shrubs. Willow does not require a wet spot – just sun. A caveat: One reason willow is used to stabilize stream banks is the healthy root system the plants quickly develop. For this reason, don’t plant willow too near septic or water lines.

What To Plant. European basketmakers brought many varieties of willow with them when they emigrated to the United States, and many types are now cultivated here. The first willow bed I planted in (I think) 1995 was a jumble of cuttings I got from friends, stuff I cut from other patches, and things I picked out of the wastebucket at a workshop. The last beds I planted (and probably the last beds I’ll have to plant) went in in 2002, and the only varieties I put in were Green Dicks and Dickey Meadows. I learned over the years that the rabbits and deer here leave the Green Dicks alone. They might munch on the Dickey Meadows, though, so I generally harvest it in the fall. For advice on what varieties might work best for you, find local willow growers who are familiar with your climate and probable soil conditions. They may also be willing to share cuttings, which we’ll talk about shortly.

Weed Barrier. Willow doesn’t compete well with weeds and grasses, so a weed barrier is a really good investment. Like most of what I know about growing willow, I learned from Jo Campbell-Amsler to use the kind of woven landscape fabric nurseries use on the ground in greenhouses. I spread the fabric on tilled soil and pinned it in place with anchor pins.

Mulch. Mulch helps conserve moisture, which is really important for the first year of a new willow bed. We got a pile of free wood chips from a crew trimming trees near power lines. I spread the chips on the landscape fabric before planting, because it’s easier to shove and walk around before cuttings go in. Then I used a hoe to pull back the chips where I wanted to plant a row.

Poking Holes. My neighbor welded a fabulous tool for me, but you can use a large spike nail instead. You want to poke a hole for the willow cutting that goes through the landscape fabric and down into the soil. By making this hole at a bit of an angle, gravity works in your favor to make sure the soil settles down into contact with the cutting.

Plant The Cuttings. Poke the cutting into the prepared ground at a slight angle, making sure the buds are pointed up. Space the cuttings 8-12 inches apart and rows 24-36 inches apart, depending on the variety. Crowding the willow slightly yields straighter rods. Again, talk to growers familiar with your climate and conditions.

Water. Keep your cuttings watered well the first growing season to help them get their roots established. After that, they should be fine on their own.

Wait. The first year’s growth is liable to be sparse, branchy and pretty unruly looking. Not to worry. Harvest it anyway when the plant is dormant (fall or early spring). The next year’s growth will multiply, and by year three you’ll have a producer.

Maintenance. As the leaves drop each fall and the mulch breaks down, those materials provide a place for weeds to grow. Bill and I have found that we have fewer weeds if we remove the mulch after the bed is well established.

Pass-Along Plants. Once you have a bed established, you may want to take cuttings to use for planting more willow beds, or to share with other growers. To take willow cuttings, save from the base of a fresh withy that is unblemished, straight, and about the diameter of a pencil or larger. Lay the cuttings all going the same direction, wrap in several layers of damp newspaper, slip into a large zippered plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator. I’ve had cuttings in my fridge for the whole winter and planted them successfully. Plant when the soil can be worked in the spring.

Most of the pictures here are taken from slides of that 2002 planting. Sorry for the poor image quality, but I hope you get the idea.

In a few weeks, I’ll harvest some willow bark from plants I left in the patch. When I do, I’ll share with you some information about using willow bark to color fabric, and how to make willow charcoal for drawing.

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Willow Trellises — Functional And Fun

Despite the snow cover that greeted us yesterday morning, spring has come to northern Wisconsin. And while I still have some willow that needs to be cut, I’ve finished the harvest of my best stuff and done all the sorting I plan to do. It’s time for the payoff — weaving a few willow trellises for my gardens.

My gardens are not showplaces, so I make whimsical trellises to distract from the general weediness and chaos in summer and bleakness in winter. Trellises also provide structure and support for plants. And because the rabbits and deer are bold as brass, I use willow trellises to make it harder for them to nibble.

Here’s a peek at the process I use to make things like this Scarlett O’Trellis, photographed back when the roses were in bloom.

The Pizza Box Jig. Jigs are simple tools that make a task easier. For weaving these 3D trellises, I use a jig made from a five gallon bucket and a pizza box set on top. I’ve made these trellises by sticking the willow right into the dirt, but you have to keep moving around and around as you weave. With the jig, you just rotate the bucket. Before I begin, I poke holes that go through both the top and bottom layers of the pizza box for four stakes that will be poked into the ground when I put the trellis in the garden. I poke the rest of the holes through just the top of the box.

Raise The Stakes. Insert heavy willow rods into the holes in the pizza box and tie them loosely near the tips to keep them from flopping around until you get some weaving in place. 

Wale On It. The willow used for weaving (or waling, in this case) needs to be smaller in diameter than the willow used in the stakes. For trellises, I use a slapdash version of 3 rod wale, a very strong triple-twining technique. And I break all kinds of rules that make darn good sense when you’re making baskets. It’s going into the garden. I probably won’t take it up for winter. It’s going to end up in the compost pile in a few years. And in the meantime, birds are going to decorate it with you-know-what. If it holds together well enough to suit me, it’s fine.

Anyway, I weave several rows of 3 rod wale at the bottom. I add rods as needed, and (basketmakers are fainting here) don’t up at the end of the row or do anything to make sure the weave is level. The birds won’t care.

Up, Up And Away. When I have enough waling at the bottom that the rods stay where I want them, I start spiraling up. Since I’ve broken so many rules already, I stay with the program on the spiral. Where I add weavers, if it looks like a butt wants to stick out unattractively, I use a willow binder to make it behave.

Finish. Sometimes I put on a trac border, like in this compost catcher — a bottomless basket that moves around the garden as needed so I can toss in stuff as I weed. Other times I just trim the stakes above the weaving and call it good. And sometimes I add elements to create figurative trellises.

Woven Components. To make woven components, I use some of the dry frames I made last year (read the Doodling With Willow post for more on those). I’ll use the butt end of a piece of fresh willow as the center rib, then use the other end to lash it to the frame and start weaving. On the other end, I repeat the process, sticking the cut end of the butt into the weave on the opposite side. Here’s the story in pictures.

Notice the long willow sticking out from that central rib? That’s what I use to help lash the component into place. If I’m doing a figurative trellis, for example, that’s the neck. If the component is really large, I might add some ribs. But since this isn’t going to bear any weight, I’m pretty cavalier about the technique.

This is one of my Scarlett O’Trellises on a day last winter when it seemed that spring would never come. You can’t really see all the construction details, so let me just simplify the idea with a couple of words: Whatever works.
Use the skills you have or whatever you can find in a book, and make up the rest. It doesn’t have to be perfect, so don’t worry about whether it’s “right.” On my first figurative trellis, I wasn’t quite sure how to make the arms. So I made up something. Over time, the fresh willow dried and shrunk. That trellis was right outside the dining room window, and I loved watching those arms wobble in the wind and every time a bird perched there.

That trellis finally went on the compost pile last year. Those arms came off and she was neither a Scarlett O’Trellis nor a Venus d’Trellis. Now she’s just a memory. And she still makes me smile.

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Doodling With Willow

TGIF. Picture me patting myself on the back (we’ll call that stretching), and knocking back a couple of aspirin. This week my to-do list got shorter and the pile of harvested and sorted willow got deeper. The reward for all this industry is giving myself some time to doodle with willow just for fun.

The material I use for doodling comes from the pile of branchy and really curvy stuff I keep off to the side as I sort the harvest. When I need a break from other tasks, I grab pieces from that pile and start bending simple frames that I secure with electrical cable ties and hang in the window to dry. With a dry frame, it’s easier to hold a shape and avoid kinks. This trick, along with most of what I know about willow, I learned from Jo Campbell-Amsler, who taught the first class I ever took at Sievers back in, I think, 1994. 

I’ll talk more about how I use the dry frames in my willow trellises in my next post. Today is about doodling.

In willow doodling, I’m not trying to make anything specific. I just pick up a branchy piece of willow and start going over/under/over/under. I may bind pieces together or spread things apart and add ribs to support more weaving. If things kink, no big deal: I’m using willow from the junk pile.

Sure, this looks like a leaf to you. But the way it landed when I tossed it on the table looked like a shapely leg. I’ll make another one later and play around with some ideas for the rest of the parts for a two-dimensional zaftig lady trellis. Think of this as Frankentrellising. It’s how I come up with things like the willow witch and her withie familiar who haunt my studio at Halloween.

Really, the process is no different that what an embroiderer does with a doodle cloth, or what a surface designer does with a scrap of fabric used for cleaning brushes, or what a quilter does with scraps cut off while squaring up… Shall I go on?

Willow isn’t my primary material. Hasn’t been for a long time. But I have enough fluency with the material and techniques that I can doodle without overthinking. There isn’t a “value” associated with what I make with willow. My trellises go outside. Birds sit on them, and what happens next is as good a cure for perfectionism as anything. What also happens is I start to see connections between my willow doodles and my other work. Really, couldn’t I translate that leaf/leg into needleweaving?

Creativity researchers call this divergent thinking. Having a label for it doesn’t make willow doodling any less fun.

So what’s your go-to fiber for doodling?

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Sorting The Willow Harvest

On Saturday, I caught up with sorting the willow I’ve harvested so far while listening to a pirate adventure audio book. It’s handy to have a big pile of willow handy when your imagination carries you into a tale that includes sword fights. And the fragrance of fresh willow has completely masked the stink of Asian lady beetles in my studio.

For most willow basketry, you want the straight, slender, branchless growth from one year. I sort the willow into three buckets: Tall stuff goes in one tall five-gallon bucket. The shorter willow (18-24 inches) I save for coiling goes in the shorter bucket. The third bucket is for dead and branchy junk and other stuff that will go on the brush pile out back.

When a sorting bucket is full, I grade the willow by size. To grade, you grab the tips of the tallest willow in the bucket and pull straight up, leaving the shorter willow behind in the bucket. Willows of similar length tend to also be similar in diameter. For the tallest willow, it helps to stand on a stool for grading, or stand on a raised deck with the bucket on the ground.

I bundle the graded willow by tying it with recycled fabric selvedges and strips.

My three newest beds (planted in 2003) are clean, productive, and easy to cut and sort — as long as the willow is harvested every year. Last year I ran out of time and left two rows uncut. That willow is branchy, and it really shows the stress of our continued drought. For now, I’ve bundled that willow to use in some trellises. I’ll wrap it in an old blanket and throw it on the cold concrete floor in an unheated part of Bill’s shop to keep it fresh and pliable until I can get around to using it.

Most of the willow I plan to dry for future use. When it’s all been sorted and bundled, I’ll stand it upright in boxes and enforce a no-boy-dogs-in-the-studio policy. As the willow dries, it will shrink in diameter and the ties will loosen. Before storing or transporting the willow, I’ll need to retie it. I’ll have to rebundle any I plan to sell anyway when I weigh it.

In my next post, I’ll tell you how I use some of the branchy stuff to prepare elements for figurative trellises and other garden art.

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Willow Harvest

I’m a wimp. Yesterday was one of the most pleasant days I’ve ever had for the spring willow harvest. Today, the wind was raw. I could have cut, and would have if I’d been planning to leave again soon for a teaching gig. Since I’m home for a while, I decided to play the odds that we’ll have enough nicer days to get the crop in before it starts to leaf out. There are pussies on some of the willow now, but I think it will be OK. So today I had a lovely time in the studio, although I spent a good part of the morning wondering why I hadn’t been doing hamstring stretches to get ready for harvest.

Everybody has their own way of working the harvest. Mine is to work backward along a row, straddling the willow and using my bum to hold the withies out of the way so they aren’t poking me in the eyes as I cut (most of the time). I have a bad knee, so this works better for me than squatting or kneeling.

I hold the willow to apply some tension with my left hand and “pick” with the knife in my right hand. As long as the knife is sharp, the knife does most of the work. I make a very slight “forward” motion with the knife, followed by the cutting motion.

When my left hand is full of willow, I walk to the end of the row to drop the handful onto the pile and to stretch my legs and lower back. By the time I reach the far end of a row, I need the longer walk to the pile.

At the end of each row, I generally stop to sharpen my knife and carry the pile into the studio for sorting, if there’s still room for it. If not, I pile it on top of the picnic table. I’ve learned not to leave piles of willow on the ground. Let’s just say I prefer the fragrance of fresh-cut willow to the, um, aroma of rabbit droppings.

As you might have guessed from the piles, yesterday it felt so good being out in the warm sunshine and fresh air that I ignored years of experience: I just kept cutting until I had enough willow piled up to be worth taking a picture. If I had taken more frequent breaks, I’m sure I would have bounded out of bed this morning with fewer creaks and groans.

The forecast for tomorrow through the weekend looks ideal for harvest. After the day warms up, I should be able to cut for two to three hours, which long enough to clear one of my beds and about as long as I want to be bent over. Then I’ll spend a few more hours sorting willow, which I’ll tell you about next time.

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