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
Suddenly, winter seems to be upon us and harsh winds and pouring rain make it difficult to get outside. But the coming of winter of brings with it a wonderful opportunity for reflection and healing, a chance to slow life down and make sense of the long days of summer.
This year has been such a rollercoaster ride for me – elation, at having finally bought our new home; fear, of having made the wrong decision for our family; anger, at myself for not being better able to juggle being mum, homeschooling, house renovations, basketry, making our garden, blog, Patreon, Instagram etc etc etc; and then full circle, back to joy that we have found this place and are living this funny little life together.
Life has its challenges for sure. So how do we sail through those challenges, and bring a sense of calm to our daily lives?
I used to feel that I wanted to make every day magical for my children, but of course, every day can’t be magical. What I am realising, what our life here and the changes we have made are helping me to realise, is that what is far more important, is a feeling of contentment. Contentment with what we have now, not just finding positivity in our plans for the future, but in the life we are living right now – today.
Blue sky days or moody winter skies? I find beauty in them both.
Life, I am finding, is just the same. I have noticed this change in our children too and remember that, that is a part of why we chose to live in this old house, that needs time and care and sits surrounded by farmland and sea. We wanted to find a different way of living, we wanted them to see it and be able to make an informed choice for themselves, when they go out into the world to live their own lives.
There is a richness and sense of grounding that comes with a life without all the conveniences. Remembering that you don’t need all of the trappings of modern life to find happiness in the everyday.
Our oldest children are adults now, still at home for the moment, but I know it won’t be for long. Already I see them brushing off life’s challenges and starting to carve out a life for themselves. That in itself brings me joy.
And our younger children? Ah well, children are a gift. If ever there was a lesson in how to find joy in the every day, it is by looking through the eyes of a child.
Breathless with the excitement of chasing waves; giddy with the pleasure of cleaning out a mixing bowl, on baking days; so excited to show everyone a sparkly stone or beautiful feather, found on their walk.
Simple pleasures. I have been home educating my children for 16 years, but I think they have been the real teachers. We have so much to learn from our children.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the need to be pushing forward, to improve things, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of appreciating what we have now. It isn’t easy to stay in the moment, there are after all, lots of jobs that need doing, but I want to take the slight pause that winter brings and use it to reset; to remember to make each day count, because this life that I’m living is a good one and I am grateful for it.
I’ve had the chance to work with lots of different plants, at this point in my basket making journey, but my favourite above all others, has to be New Zealand Flax (Phormium Tenax).
I was missing working with these glorious fibres. My own plants are just babies and can’t be harvested yet, so I have relied on old leaves collected from around the base of plants that grow by our nearby beach and gifts, from those that know I use them.
This wasn’t a regular enough source for a plant that I wanted to work with more, so I put up a post in a local Facebook gardening group, to ask if anyone was tidying up their plants.
To my delight, two people got back to me, both in need of someone to help them, with their very large plants.
New Zealand Flax thrives in the Orkney Islands and like any plant that does well here, it has been planted everywhere! People often find themselves with plants that were planted as a windbreak, but are now blocking paths, making it difficult to cut the grass or are making it difficult for other plants to survive.
Properly cared for of course, none of these problems need to be an issue and I was very glad to help out in return for taking home new and old unwanted growth.
I visited the garden of a couple who had obviously put in an enormous amount of work, over the years. It was full of established and healthy plants of all kinds, but failing health was making it difficult to keep up with the work needed, to maintain such a garden.
It was really nice to be able to lend a hand and get one of the vast Phormium Tenax plants there, under control.
Carefully harvesting leaves from the outer sections of the fans, to reduce bulk; removing the old growth that was tangled in the base of the plant, to allow air to circulate and prevent disease. It looked a fine plant indeed, when I had finished and I felt very well paid to be taking home a big pile of leaves.
That was only the beginning of the work of course!
I stored the old growth in one of our outbuildings, to use when I run out of fresh. The fibres from the old brown leaves are just as good, but take a bit more work to process.
So I made a start on the fresh leaves, removing the top parts that are often used for weaving and adding those to my compost. The plants here have quite a short top section (where the leaf isn’t folded over on itself), but that doesn’t worry me, as I use the lower section for stripping fibres.
I begin by splitting the fused section apart and then using a wire brush to reveal the fibres. I am looking out for a better tool for this, as the juicy, pithy parts of the leaf mess up a wire brush quite quickly and then it is harder to use. I’ll let you know when I track down the perfect tool, but for now a wire brush will do.
Because of the time involved in fully processing the fibres, I stored most of the separated fibres for later use and did a second strip on a smaller batch, so that I could get started on some basketry.
I wet down the fibres briefly for the second strip, which involves running each individual fibre between my finger and thumbnail. This cleans away any of the remaining pith and after a quick rinse the fibres are left beautifully clean and ready for use.
It still amazes me how something so fine can be so strong and this is what makes these fibres so versatile. The colour is also part of what I love about it, ranging from a deep honey to pale auburn, it makes an eye-catching basket.
The individual fibres can be used for very fine coil work, because of their strength and are equally good for making cordage, twining and looping.
I think looping definitely deserves some more investigation, as I have only started playing around with it over the past couple of weeks and would like to find a way to give it more structure.
The loops appeal to me, perhaps because my eye is always drawn to lines from nature – the curve of the waves, the tendrils of vines. Not only that, but although it is not the same technique , I find looping reminiscent of coastal life, with the ever present nets and piles of creels, dotted around the shoreline.
For now though, I am busy working on a piece which is inspired by the humble limpet. But that’s another post!
So, I will be seizing every opportunity to gather more of this wonderful plant. There is so much that I want to try out with it, so much satisfaction to be found in the slow process of uncovering those fibres and using them to create something which is beautiful in its simplicity.
I will continue to work with a variety of plant fibres and yarns, but I think that I will always return to New Zealand Flax. It has become a trusted friend.
The changing of seasons is always a special time. Each season brings with it memories from childhood, traditions, celebrations, things that you look forward to and sometimes things that you don’t. Whatever the seasons mean to you, they are such an important part of life’s rhythm.
Here, autumn has arrived. The days are quickly shortening, and once again we are treated to a wonderful display of the stars and sometimes the aurora borealis, before we go to bed.
Daytime routines have to change, to fit important jobs into the hours of daylight. It seems like a bit of a juggling act at first, until you manage to find your autumn/winter pace.
I usually find pleasure in all of the seasons, but this year, I have spent most of spring and summer dreading the approach of colder weather. Memories of our first month here, when we were so very cold, have plagued my thoughts. A feeling of desperate urgency, to get as much done to the house and cabin as possible, before autumn, has clouded my mind.
But this much dreaded season, has actually brought me gift. It’s the gift of resetting my mind, of letting go of all of those negative thoughts and seeing the world and its possibilities afresh.
“A change is as good as a rest”, is one of my favourite sayings. After all, a mum with a big home educated family, in a busy modern world, has little chance for rest! But four times a year, we are given the chance to turn the page, put tensions behind us and move forward with a lighter heart.
All of a sudden I find myself realising that I have settled into our new home. All the more so, for diving into a spot of autumn cleaning. There’s nothing like the first chilly days of September, to get me in the mood for a good clear out. Re-organising and deep cleaning, ready for the days when you just want to be cosy indoors, while the storms rage outside.
Although we still have many jobs that need to be done in preparation for winter (which in Orkney starts in mid-autumn and carries on until mid-spring), my thoughts have shifted to making the most of good weather days with my children. So my routines are getting a good autumn clean too – take everything out, reorganise and then put it all back!
Sure, there are outdoor jobs that will be difficult to get done in the high winds of winter, but even winter has calm days, so work on the house and cabin will still carry on, just at a slower pace until spring.
And what of those first weeks of living here? They were so hard! I thought for a while, that we’d made a dreadful mistake.
Well, although it sometimes feels like we haven’t achieved much this year, in reality, there are huge differences to those early days. We now laugh about the unusual living arrangements, split between the house and cabin, the lack of a working sink anywhere, the lack of running hot water, a toilet that flushes, heating (more on that in a moment!) and strip washing with a bucket.
All of these things, that seemed so extreme back in February, coming from our temporary holiday accommodation, with life’s creature comforts and all mod cons, are now just a normal part of everyday life to us. They can still be challenging at times and I will still look forward to progressing with the renovations and having a little more convenience, but as summer changes to autumn, I realise that the dread is gone.
So I can enjoy baking comfort foods for chilly days and I can take pleasure in the last of this years flowers, before they fade. I can allow myself an extra hour in bed occasionally or a quiet hour doing some crochet. I can remember to take pleasure in all of the little moments, that make life special – stopping to watch a snail with my children, snuggling under covers to look through recipe books together, leaving an ‘oh so important job” until tomorrow, so that we can finish a book that we’re enjoying reading together!
I find that I am looking forward to all of winters celebrations. Seeing the house and cabin all decorated for Christmas and the winter birthdays. It will be the first time in over two decades that this house has enjoyed a decorated tree and a wreath on the door. That’s going to feel good!
I am sure that we will still be cold this winter, I mean there’s an energy crisis right?! But we are actually having some heating installed in a couple of months! Even if we can only afford to run it some of the time, it will take the edge off those bitingly cold months. And that coupled with all of the work that we’ve been doing on the windows and doors, will make such a big difference.
So, “Hello Autumn, you’re very welcome!” and thank you for the gift that you have given me.
Are you finding joy in the change of seasons? I hope that you are, and remember to find the sunshine in everyday.