The discovery of an old treasure in one of our outbuildings, prompted me to realise an ambition, a couple of weeks ago. I found an old, wooden shoe last in the threshing barn, amongst a lot of other wooden bit’s and pieces. It was obviously made for a child’s foot, from the size, and I found it very charming.
I have always had a fascination with shoes. When I was a child, my family would have to wait for me to look in every shoe shop window that we passed (half an hour outside of London in those days, so there were a great many!). Twenty-three years ago, when I met my husband, I had a selection of very high heels, which I somehow managed to wear all day at work and then even higher ones in the evening to go out!
These days, I have a pair of wellington boots, garden clogs and a pair of well-worn DM’s. I doubt if I could even walk in heels anymore, but my attention was caught by a beautiful woven shoe, made by Felicity Irons, a couple of years ago. Made from rush, I thought it was wonderful and have seen many woven shoes since, which I have found equally beautiful.
Finding this tiny wooden foot, was all the push that I needed to give it a try myself.
I started by flattening out some dried dandelion stems, slitting them up one side with sharp scissors and then pressing them flat between finger and thumb. I used these to weave the sole of the shoe and the colour variation of the stems, was just what I had hoped for.
I wanted to have a strong contrast for the upper, so I decided to use some grass that I have been drying in batches, from our garden. I have been trying to identify it for weeks and am almost sure that it is Johnson grass, but I could be wrong. I am waiting for it to come properly into seed and hopefully, then I will know for sure.
What I do know for sure, is that its blades are wide and strong and don’t become brittle when dried, which makes it useful for basketry. I thought twining would be the best way to go for the upper, and as I usually work freehand rather than with a mould, I made a very slow and careful start.
I worked the first couple of rounds, to hold the dandelions in place and then tied it to the shoe last.
I learnt a lot about the importance of tension while twining, with this project. A shoe has so many different contours, I was constantly tightening and then relaxing my weaving, to try to keep the shape.
I decided to use a border that I hadn’t worked before, bending the dandelion stems over and capturing them in a couple of rounds of twining, before passing the weaver through the loops and pulling the ends of the dandelion tight, to secure it.
Rather than cutting the ends really short here, I left a little showing as a decorative feature.
The border was made a little tricky, by my lack of planning. In places my dandelion spokes were much too short, but I persevered and just managed it. I lost the tension a little in the effort, which affected the shape, but overall I was very happy with my first attempt at a basketry shoe.
I think this is a project that I will come back to in future years, a nice way to see how my skills progress. For me, basketry is a practice, something that can always be developed and improved upon. There are so many techniques to learn, so many materials to try. Re-visiting the idea of a basketry shoe, but with each one made differently and with more confidence and perhaps more elaborately, seems like a lovely way to mark my achievements.
And the little shoe last?
Well, I have plans to give it the gentlest sanding and then a careful waxing to protect the wood for future years. As we renovate the old farmhouse I will look for a little nook to display it, or perhaps eventually, it will come to live in my basketry workshop – a reminder to keep pushing myself and keep moving forward.