Welcome to the Blog…
All the way back in February I contacted Michael Sinclair (The Orkney Woodturner), to ask where I might be able to get hold of some wood for whittling. I had a little project in mind, one I still haven’t got around to finishing, but Michael very kindly offered me some of his offcuts.
Michael mentioned that he had been interested in the idea of combining basketry with his work, for some time. Some of the neolithic pottery pieces that were found near to Michael’s home and workshop, had imprints of basketry and these ancient vessels have been an important inspiration and influence on many of his pieces.
We got together for a chat about the possibilities of bringing our crafts together, at Michael’s home, which he and his wife Sara built themselves.
You couldn’t wish to meet a nicer couple and Matt and myself have enjoyed our visits to Howar over the last six months, to discuss the project; life in Orkney; gardening and the challenges of running a small craft business from an island.
As well as the house and workshop, Michael and Sara have also built a gallery, which is part of the island’s craft trail and they offer a warm welcome to visitors who come to see Michael’s work. The buildings sit surrounded by a beautiful garden that they started from scratch, when they built the house and which is home to some wonderful Phormium Tenax (New Zealand Flax).
I am rather envious of these as my own Phormiums are just babies yet and my garden is very much a work in progress! Still, it gives me hope that one day my efforts will result in something that looks more like a garden and less like a field!
So it was decided that the baskets should be made with fibre from Michael’s own plants, a nice link to bring our work together. Connections are very important in my work and also in Michael’s. My own work is linked to my local environment by the plants that I gather and the found objects and materials that I often incorporate into my work. Michael’s work is connected to the rich history of Orcadian craft and the islands that have been home to his family for generations.
It has been my first collaborative project and I was more than a little nervous of taking on the responsibilty for finishing Michael’s wooden vessels, with my baskets. Michael has been a woodturner for the past 28 years and is on the Register of Professional Turners, so I really wanted to do his work justice. Not only that, but this was a collaboration, so it was important to make sure that my work was sympathetic to his – adding a little, but not taking away from the design of the vessels.
Michael was equally sensitive to my work, and created shapes and detailing that would be well suited to being ‘cocooned’ and enhance the texture and colour of the flax.
All of this had to be fitted around our ongoing projects and our busy families, but we finally finished the last piece and were able to see them grouped together for the first time, months after our initial talks.
We’re both really pleased with how they have turned out and I think that they speak well of the people that made them and the islands that inspired us both. For me, there is a strong sense of Orkney in them – strength, but also a delicate and simple beauty.
If you would like one of these three collaborative works, you can find them in Michael’s shop by following this link, https://michael-sinclair-woodturner.co.uk/ and you can also find out more about Michael and Sara and the process of making one of Michael’s pieces.
I had forgotten just how busy summer is, when suddenly everything seems to need doing at once. Although Matt and I might collapse at the end of each day, exhausted, there is no doubt about it – summer is glorious!
It seems an age since I wrote here last, but it’s with good reason. Since the polytunnel went up I have put in a huge amount of work to catch up on our delayed start to the growing season. It’s been hard work that is already paying off and I can’t tell you just how lucky I feel, to have that wonderful space!
The polytunnel has become a real focus of my day to day activities over the past few weeks. Not only have I been busy sowing seeds, potting on and planting out into a brand new, giant hugelkultur bed, but I also dry laundry and strip and dry fibres in there. Lark and Wren have been thoroughly enjoying it too, helping with the planting and sampling anything edible, that is ready to eat.
I used to think that I lacked some sort of special talent, that was required for growing plants. For many years, when my now adult children were small, I tried and failed to get into gardening and growing veggies, but it always ended up with everything eaten by slugs or forgotten, until it was too late.
I think that my focus was simply elsewhere in those early days of parenthood and home education, but it knocked my confidence and so, even though I loved gardens, we stuck to low maintenance outside spaces.
When we moved up to the islands I was determined to try again. By then, I had discovered more about no-dig, permaculture gardens and somehow it all made sense, where nothing had before.
Growing food and flowers from seed has become such a big part of my spring and summer rituals now, that I can’t imagine going back to a life without it. It has been such a calming influence – to transform neglected spaces, to check in with my plants each day, to go out into the garden to pick dinner. I have learned to accept the losses and rejoice in the triumphs and I think that I am a better person for it.
Audrey Hepburn knew what she was talking about when she said “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.
It is a very optimistic thing to do and I find that it helps me to meet life’s challenges with optimism too.
Summer hasn’t only been about growing our garden though. We have had amazing weather here, all through June. I honestly can’t remember the last time that I was so delightfully warm! It’s almost as if we have been magically transported to somewhere further south and we have crammed in as much out and about time, as we can.
I have realised lately, that we actually spend more time on the beaches in winter than we do during the warmer months, just because of the extra work to do in the garden and on our house renovations.
When we can get out, we have been enjoying exploring some new stretches of coast around the islands. One has quickly become a new favourite, the coastal path at Marwick and the cove by the old fishermans huts.
Matt and I went there for our anniversary and I knew at once that Lark and Wren would love it. So at the next opportunity, we drove across four islands taking a very generous picnic with us. We had intended to paint and draw while we were there, but in the end we had so much fun climbing, exploring and investigating the pools, that our sketchbooks never made it out of our bag.
All in all, this summer has felt very different to last year. Now I feel rooted in this place. The anxieties of those first few months have long since passed. The stripping away of conveniences that are so often taken for granted, no longer feel alien.
I do still fantasise on a daily basis, about having an actual bed, as Matt and I are still sharing a corner sofa and rest is so precious and important. But I often find myself at different points in the day, pausing for a minute or two and realising that I feel content. A deep and wholesome contentedness.
This change has largely been due to a shift towards the lifestyle that we hoped for, moving here. Thanks to so many of you for supporting my work, either by taking the time to read my words or by giving homes to my baskets, Matt has been able to leave the shift work that we were relying on. Instead, he is now self-employed, fitting work around the renovations, which has seen such a change in our living environment. Everyday, some job gets done that has an impact on our lives and well being. Living and working are falling into a sustainable balance, where the little moments don’t get lost, but are enjoyed and treasured.
I am so grateful for this life that we have and these glorious days of summer!
It’s finally happened, Spring has sprung!
Oh I daresay, we’re still in for some chilly days, high winds and maybe even some late snow, but there is no doubt about it – Spring has arrived!
Winter was a little bit easier this year, with a woodburner to warm up in front of and the windows that were fixed last summer to let in more light, but even so, it’s so good to have made it to the other side. That wonderful feeling of warm sunshine on your face, barefeet on the sand, a posy of wildflowers in your hand and thousands of bird voices singing out through the skies – it’s so uplifting.
March might have officially brought the beginning of spring, but with plenty of snow it still felt very much like winter, to us. Nature won’t be dictated to by our calendars, the seasons change when they’re ready to and sometimes you just have to be patient and wait until that magical day, when you know it’s arrived.
This week, there was no doubt. The sun has been there to greet us each morning, coats and hats have been left at home and we’ve spent so many hours outside that we feel full to bursting, with spring goodness.
The birds have returned to nest in our garden and outbuildings. A little early for swallows yet, but the starlings, wrens, blackbirds, wagtails and dunnocks are all busy collecting nesting materials. The starlings appear to be nesting in the eaves of the cabin, so it won’t be long before alarm clocks aren’t needed and we are woken each morning to the sound of baby birds being fed.
The local short eared owl has also been seen several times, flying around our garden in the evening light. There really is something quite magical about seeing an owl and no matter how many times we see one, there will always be an excited squeal of ‘Oh it’s the owl!’ whenever one is spotted.
It’s not just the birds that are returning to the garden – new flowers are spotted each day. Daffodils, which are so popular in Orkney, are not only blooming in our garden, but all over the islands, adding to the sunshine in a dazzling display of yellows and oranges.
The tiny patch of purple Honesty, which I found last year, has spread considerably and I keep finding more and more of it. A lovely addition to the early spring colours. Something that I didn’t see last year (I presume that it got trampled on, while we worked on the cabin), is Scurvy Grass. I always enjoy seeing it down amongst the rocks on the beach, in springtime, but now it is appearing in thick pillows of green and white, all around the cabin.
So what have we been doing with this wonderful week? There have been plenty of walks by the sea, but also work has begun on this years list of jobs to be done.
With help from Lark and Wren, I turned a neglected corner of the garden by the farmhouse, into a handy area for putting out the seedlings in trays. I intend to build up a collection of container plants for this area and maybe put in some kind of seating, later on.
As usual there is no budget for the garden, but we had some gravel left over from a drainage job last year and there are always plenty of rocks around, from walls and buildings that have collapsed here over the years. As well as being a handy, usuable space, it has also solved the problem of the Monkshood, that grew in this area last year. Not something that I wanted growing in a garden with a young child playing there.
There was still plenty of gravel left, to finally put the paths in between the raised beds that we made last spring. I’ve got lots of work still to do in the courtyard garden, but I can already see that it’s starting to look lovely and like a place where it’s nice to spend time.
Also,we finally found a home for the old car, that had sat unused for a couple of decades at least.
As soon as it was collected by its new owner, Matt got to work, taking down the old broken double doors and replacing them with a new front. Now it’s an extra workspace, which is so helpful, with a long list of repair work to get through this year.
But more exciting than any of that, is the sight of our polytunnel frame, nearly complete.
We have some extra bracing to put on (it’s got to be strong to stand up to Orkney weather!) and the door panels need to be added, but I can see just how big it is and in my mind I am already planning out where the beds will go, what to hang from the crop rails and where to put a couple of chairs for those that want to sit and enjoy the plants growing.
We have dreamt of a polytunnel since we started planning our move to the islands, nearly four years ago and now it’s here and I can’t wait to start filling it up!
First things first though, we must get up the wind protective fencing, to ensure it has a long and productive life.
Sometimes on a very big project like this, it seems like slow progress, because it’s not a project really, it’s your life and there are lots of things that need your attention. But there are moments, when you can stand back and see what you have achieved and the good things that are to come, when it all feels so worthwhile and the hard work is visible in the changing scene around you.
Spring is a great time for that. Renewed energy, renewed enthusiasm come with the arrival of blossoming flowers and new life all around us. So, “Hello Spring, it’s good to see you!”.
I have had so many people asking me how to prepare the beautiful Phormium Tenax fibres, that I use, so here is my step-by-step guide!
I must start by saying that, this is just the way that I have developed the processing of these fibres. As far as I am aware, it is not the same as the traditional method for stripping the fibres in New Zealand. I haven’t studied Harakeke basketry, but have been told that I use a different part of the leaf blade. I came across Phormium Tenax (New Zealand Flax) quite by chance, a couple of years ago, when a kind neighbour brought me some leaves to play with, from his garden.
My approach to stripping the fibres has changed since those early days and I am going to share with you, the way to process fresh leaves (the ones that are still green). It is possible to work with the old brown leaves, but they take a lot more work and I find that some of the fibres are brittle. This was all that I had to work with in the early days though and I still got enough good fibre to produce some lovely baskets, although much darker than the almost golden work that I produce today.
If you want to know how to harvest the leaves, I recommend that you watch a short video produced by the National Collection of Harakeke in New Zealand https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkLmr9GEzQk but ignore the bit when they tell you to get rid of the bottom half, because that’s the bit that we’re going to use!
When you have harvested some leaves, you will need to remove the top part of the leaf blade. We only want the part that is folded over and partially fused together. You can use a sharp pair of garden scissors for this. The first photo shows the discarded tops (I add mine to my compost, but you could try out some harakeke weaving), the second photo shows the bottom half, which we’ll strip.
Now you will need to use a sharp garden knife to split the remaining leaf blade, down the middle, where it’s fused. Please, please be careful of your fingers! I find that if I start it with a knife, I can then pull the length apart. You will find that it’s sticky inside and a most amazing colour!
From here on, it’s going to get messy! I am warning you now, that stripping these fibres will stain your hands and no amount of scrubbing will get it off. I have tried wearing gloves, which is fine for these early stages, but won’t work later on and I have tried washing my hands with soaps for mechanics and printers. Still, I spend a lot of time with orangey-brown hands. I just have to wait for it to wear off. If you find a solution do let me know, I would love to have nice hands again! That said, I still think that these fibres are worth the sacrifice.
For the next part you will need a comb. I just use an old plastic comb that I found on the beach, a regular fine hair comb.
Comb firmly along the length of the split leaf blade several times, until the fibres are well exposed.
Complete this process with all of your split leaf blades and then leave the fibres to dry out. You could spread them out in the sun, or hang them in front of the fire. Either way, it shouldn’t take more than a day. I find that the next stage is easier if the fibres have had this time to dry first. The remaining part of the leaf blade can be added to your compost heap, or used in a permaculture lasagne bed or hugelkultur bed.
You can store the fibres like this until you’re ready to do the next stage. I will often do the first stage of processing and then box up the dry fibres and do the second stage in small batches, as required. It is a time consuming business, but I have got into a nice rhythm with it in this way, so that it doesn’t feel like a gargantuan task.
You could also use it at this stage, for a much more rustic look – although it should be noted that if it gets wet, without being thoroughly cleaned, it will release a lot of colour.
If like me, you want those golden or sometimes palest auburn fibres, you are going to have to clean each fibre individually. Start by soaking the pre-dried fibres in a bowl of water for half an hour.
Then, drain off the water – but leave the fibres wet.
You can see in the photos below – the fibres straight after stripping, then after their first drying and having their first soak.
Now you can begin to clean them.
Place one end of an individual fibre, between your forefinger and thumb nail. Use you other hand to pull the fibre (firmly) all the way through to the other end. You will see the wet pithy bits coming away from the fibre.
You may need to repeat this, to get off all of the pithy stuff. Then you just need to do the same with all of the other fibres!
You could listen to an audio book or some music, watch your kids playing, or as I often strip mine when everyone else is asleep – listen to the sound of the sea or the birds singing. You’re going to be at it for a bit, so get in the zone and make it a relaxing medititive task.
Again, add the pith to your compost. I keep meaning to try using it for paper making, if I do, I will let you know.😉
Pictured below – cleaning the fibre, the pithy remains, the fibre after cleaning.
The only thing left to do now, is to give all of fibres a really good rinse, under the tap or in a bowl of water. Squeeze out as much water as you can and then you can either use it straight away, or you can dry it out and store it.
If you dry it, you will need to soak the fibres for a few minutes before you use them. I generally just soak a few fibres at a time, leaving a small bowl of water on my workbench, while I work.
I find that at this stage the fibres don’t like to be soaked and dried out anymore, so only soak what you can use straight away because Phormium Tenax does dry out very quickly.
I hope that you find this guide helpful, as I say this is just my way of doing it, you might improve the method, or find a better way for you. As I often tell my children “There is almost always another way of doing something”.