Welcome to the Blog…
Hello Spring, it’s Good to See You!
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!”.
How to Strip Phormium Tenax Fibres
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”.
Celebrating Nature’s Gifts
I have been so thankful for the huge amount of interest and support for my work over the past couple of months. There isn’t much opportunity to see people’s reactions to my baskets, living and working on a small island. So your kind words, likes, shares and follows over on instagram and here on my blog, have be very much appreciated.
Matt (my lovely husband), has been working hard to give my website a fresh new look and we’ve been going through it together to update things and hopefully make the whole thing easier and more enjoyable to use.
Now it’s up to me to get back in the rhythm of regular posting and to make some new tutorials to introduce you to the world of basketry.
While I might have been absent here, I have been very busy making baskets since Christmas. Following on from Tideline Treasures, I have continued to explore the possibilities of cocooning found objects, with fine coilwork baskets.
January began with a set of four treasures, that seemed so perfect for each other.
A limpet, a small rayed artemis shell, a piece of terracotta and a piece of earthenware worn smooth by the sea.
The earthenware piece had an area of glaze on the back, that I didn’t want to cover up with my basketry. So I decided to frame the glaze, creating a peephole, so that all the details were visible.
It was a fascinating process. Losing the base of the basket in this way, led me to new ideas about the sculptural possibilities of coil work. There is plenty for me to explore with this, as the year progresses and it would be easy to get distracted by all of the ideas buzzing around in my head. But I am trying to be very focused this year, concentrating on each project and putting seperate time aside for development work.
I echoed the peephole in the terracotta piece, because it brought them together as a harmonious set of four.
Even though we spend a lot of time walking on beaches and looking to see what the tide has washed up, finding pieces that work really well together, takes time. I love how the colours in the shells, are reflected in the colours of the pottery pieces, in this set of four.
These little treasures are meant to be picked up, held, put down again, moved around……..the textures of the objects and baskets enjoyed as much as the colours and forms.
If I had time to make them for myself, I would want a large collection of them, to interchange, rearrange and consider. Constantly changing like the coastal landscape, as the tide moves everything around each day.
Perhaps I will make one for myself every now and then. My collection can grow over time.
This piece led to a very interesting commission of three cocooned treasures, collected over twenty years of travels.
A piece of coral, a piece of sandblasted agate and a limpet shell. All had special memories attached to them and I felt very privileged to be entrusted with them.
I gave the agate an open-backed basket, so that it could still be raised to the light. It would have been a shame to lose the beautiful colours and patterns in it, that can only be seen as the light shines through.
The coral, had a particular set of challenges, due to its irregular shape. Lots of care was taken, not to cover up too much of the beautiful surface textures and patterns, whilst still enclosing it in the basket. Careful observation, of the contours of the underside was needed, to achieve the close fit that brings these baskets together.
Guy had clearly put a lot of thought into which of his treasures would work well together as a trio. They were a delight to work with and I was so pleased that he was thrilled with the results.
I have really been enjoying these pieces and the variety of form and consideration that needs to be given to each individual piece, has provide me with a wonderful opportunity to learn and develop my baketry.
I began February with a trio of tiny treasures. I have a real soft spot for ceramics and these little fragments caught my eye, while I was out beachcombing with Lark and Wren. Although not natural treasures, it is the motion of the sea, wearing them smooth and changing their patterns and textures, that makes them so special.
The first, had an interesting arrow pattern, while the second was a brilliant turquoise and delightfully crackled. A limpet shell made up the trio. The enormous variety of colour and pattern in limpet shells, means that you can find one to compliment most combinations – if you’re happy to spend the time looking for the perfect one!
Winter has given me the chance to get into a really good creative flow. Ideas for new projects are effortless and the time that I have spent focusing on Phormium Tenax, has given me a much deeper understanding of these wonderful fibres.
I hope that as winter gives way to spring and the need to push on with house renovations and the busy growing season returns, I can keep my focus and bring all of those ideas to life.
We are fast approaching the end of 2022 and what a year it has been, here in our little house in South Ronaldsay.
In amongst all of the renovations, getting our vegetable garden started and learning together, I have somehow managed to make lots of baskets over the past twelve months. I have learned a lot, both by constantly striving to improve my techniques and also in discovering more about myself as a maker.
For me, I think 2022 is best summed up by the piece that I entered for the Annual Open Exhibition, at The Pier Arts Centre, in Stromness. “Tideline Treasures” was the progression of my tiny Phormium Tenax baskets made back in the spring and my experiments with cocooning limpet shells in little baskets.
Protecting the discarded homes of coastal creatures and the broken pieces of pottery and glass found on our daily walks in this way, seems to echo the work that we are trying to do here – by bringing our old farmhouse back to life. In fact, I find that spending time in these old walls has had an enormous influence on my work, this year.
This wonderful collection of old buildings have so much history, so much character, that it becomes increasingly important to us, to make a respectful renovation. Restoring wherever we can, replacing only when absolutely necessary. Celebrating the strength of stone and wood that has stood up to the Orkney weather for so many years. Finding peace and beauty in the simple spaces and materials.
I want to honour these found treasures in the same way – adding a little of my own work, to strengthen and protect, but not taking anything away from the simple beauty that is already there.
I love the sustainability of these pieces too. Making use of what is already there and combining it with locally gathered plants, prepared in small batches, without waste. It’s important to me that my work reflects the simple life that we are striving for.
Looking forward to 2023, I am excited about the possibilities and the work that is to come. Even though the short, cold days of winter are generally a time of low energy for me, I feel raring to go and my mind is full of thoughts and ideas for my basketry over the coming months.
I learnt a lot this year about the limitations of my current working space. Spending a huge amount of time and energy trying to gather large quantities of plant materials through spring and summer, just doesn’t work for me. Instead I will continue to gather small quantities of what is available seasonally. Not only does it work well for the limited space that we have during renovations, but I also enjoy the gentle, seasonal rhythm that working in this way brings.
Working with these materials and found things has helped me to feel rooted in our new home. I feel like my work is a collaboration, or perhaps a conversation, with my environment. Would I produce the same work if I were living somewhere other than these beautiful islands? No, I don’t think so. For me, my latest work says so much about my experiences of living here.
Enjoy your winter celebrations and my best wishes to you and your families for the new year. xx