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Using Straw For Coil Basketry

Using Straw For Coil Basketry

 I have been meaning to spend some more time working with straw for a while and this month I put some time aside to explore its potential for coil basketry.

Straw is readily available here in the Orkney Islands at the right time of year (usually oat or barley), but thinking ahead of harvest time, I contacted Elaine from somethingcorny.co.uk and she helped me to source some wheat straw.

Having seen examples of fine straw plaiting in a local museum, I felt sure that I would be able to split the straw and use it in a similar way to the Phormium Tenax fibre, that I usually use for my work.

 

 I started by preparing the straws and splitting them down into thin strips with a needle. This is something that I have done before with Reed Canary grass, which grows on our land.  It takes some patience to split anything equally this way and although I have seen footage of traditional basket makers working very efficiently with a needle, I haven’t had enough practice to go at more than a snails pace.

I managed to get enough ready to begin a sample of coil work, so I softened the strips by running them between my thumb nail and forefinger, to stop them from cracking, and put them to soak in water.

For my first sample, I used straw for the core fibre as well as for the wrapping. It took a little while to find my confidence as straw has a very definite front and back side, whereas Phormium fibres do not. This meant an adjustment in my working method. Instead of using a needle to feed the wrapping length between the previous rows, I had to make a hole first, with a thick yarn needle and then just push the straw through. .

At the scale in which I usually work, straw is not quite flexible enough for the core. It felt a bit bulky and difficult to shape nicely around tight curves. I don’t think that this would be an issue on a larger basket, but I decided to use Phormium Tenax fibres for the core, next time round.

My instincts were right with the change of core and thanks to Elaine providing me with a straw splitter, everything started to feel more comfortable and I got into a good working flow.

A straw splitter is such a simple tool, but so effective! I used a six strand splitter, which was the perfect width for my tiny basket.

I also found that it was a great task for children. Wren, my six year old found it very satisfying to split the straws.

The final tiny basket has a lovely quality to it, thanks to the soft, golden colour of the straw. It is very strong, despite its small stature and was, I think, a great success.

I will definitely look to incorporate straw into my work again, in the future. I love that it is easily accessible to so many and is easy to prepare with the help of the splitter. The colour and slight gloss of the straw, creates stunning coil work and it would be fun to try to blend some traditional straw plaiting elements into my pieces.

New Works Going South

New Works Going South

 Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of creating a small collection of works for The New Craftsman Gallery in St Ives.

It is serendipitous that my first experience of selling my work through a gallery should be in Cornwall, my county home for two decades. It was in Cornwall that I my love for the sea and its treasures began, on family holidays as a child. Later, I moved there permanently and met Matt and we raised our family there until our move to the Orkney Islands in 2019.

So when Ylenia Haase first contacted me a few months ago I was delighted. 

I showed my first piece (Winter – shown below) there, at the beginning of this year, which went really well, so I started making plans for several new pieces to send southward.

 

Putting my little sets of sea treasures together is a sort of puzzle and one that I very much enjoy. A shell or piece of pottery might sit on my worktable for weeks or even months, before I find just the right pieces to go with it. Other times, I might find a whole set in one day.

I am often out walking with my family, or at least some of them and they will ask me what I’m looking for. My answer is usually, “I don’t know, but I’ll know when I see it.”

It might be the colour, texture or shape of a piece, that draws me to it. Quite often, I will spot it from a distance. It might be half buried, amongst seaweed or being pushed back and forth by the waves, but something about it will catch my eye.

I decided to make three sets that were very different from each other. The first, Sea Foam, brings together an oyster shell, a limpet (that is sea-worn and covered in tiny spirals, left behind by tube worms), and an unusual piece of sea pottery.

It is rare for me to find anything green that is a suitable size, so it was a treat to find both the beautiful oyster and the grey-green limpet in the same week. I considered various finds for the third, but none seemed quite right until I rediscovered a pottery piece, in the bowl of finds that I keep on my worktable.

Oyster shells are always challenging because of their very irregular shape. Although the interior of the shell is delightfully smooth, the outer surface is often full of bumps and crevices. I like to follow the shape as closely as I can, not only to create a tight fit but also to keep the personality of the object.

However, it is also important that the finished piece should feel nice in your hand, so a certain amount of compromise is needed when following the exterior of an oyster. 

In the second piece, Glimps Holm, I selected a larger fragment of ceramic, that had been smoothed by the motion of the waves and retained a small glaze detail (a singular stripe). I grouped this with a piece of copper pipe, a painted topshell in rusty-brown tones and a brown limpet shell.

So many of the colours that are seen along the coastline are cool, so my eye is often drawn to warmer toned objects along the shoreline.

All of the coastal treasures used in this piece were found on the small island of Glimps Holm, which can be reached from our island home (South Ronaldsay), by crossing two causeways.

It is a favourite for walking with our family, because of the enormous variety of shells that wash up on the shores there. There is always something new to discover!

The third and final piece of this spring collection is Cresting Waves. The starting point for this set was a small triangular fragment of blue and white pottery. 

I was able to match the colours of the pottery shard, with a beautiful mussel shell and two white shells. The limpet had such an interesting interior, that I left it exposed, in the same way as the mussel, creating a basketry border around the edge of each shell.

I completed the piece with a smooth, bean shaped nugget of terracotta. Terracotta always creates such a striking contrast to crisp blues and whites, so it just lifts the whole piece.

The colours are so evocative of the cresting waves on a bright spring or summers day, which we are just starting to feel the promise of, here in Orkney. After a very hard winter, the long, bright days are eagerly anticipated and I took great pleasure in capturing a little bit of summer’s magic in my work.

One of the lovely things about making this little collection has been having so many of my cocoon baskets with me at one time. I usually pop them in my shop as soon as they are finished and they’re gone before I start the next one.

I have always thought of my pieces as being interchangeable, where pieces could be swapped in and out and moved around, just as the tide moves everything around on the shoreline. So having three sets together, has been a treat for me and I was sure to get some shots of them all together before sending them off.

All three pieces are now headed south and will be in The New Craftsman Gallery very soon.

I am sure that I will be creating more pieces for the gallery later in the year, but for now, it’s time to make some pieces to pop in my little shop and also squeeze in some creative playtime.

 

How to make a Coil Basketry Heart

How to make a Coil Basketry Heart

Last year was enormously busy and my poor blog has been rather neglected. One of my goals for 2024 is to give it some care and another is to start sharing my passion for making again. With that in mind I am going to show you how to use a coil framework to make a hanging heart decoration.

If you haven’t tried coil basketry before, this is a great, quick introduction to the basics; starting a coil; adding new wrapping fibre/yarn; shaping and finishing.

If you have made coil baskets before, it is a good opportunity to consider the use of coil frameworks for decorative elements or even sculptural pieces.

All that you need is some yarn (something that’s not too springy is best), thread cutters and a needle. Tapestry needles work well, but if you’re using very fine thread an embroidery needle would be better. 

Begin by cutting several lengths of yarn, twine or plant fibre, to make the core. How much you will need depends on the thickness of the core material. There are no rules, but in this tutorial I am using three lengths at approx. 40-50cm long and an additional length, to use as the wrapping thread.

It is a good idea to stagger the lengths, so that they don’t all run out at the same time. That way, as one length runs out, you can simply add another to the remaining core.

Take the top end of your core and place the wrapping thread with it, as shown in the second photo below.

materials needed to make the heart
beginning the coil

Holding both the core and the short end of the wrapping thread tightly with one hand, begin to wrap the wrapping thread around the core. Start approx. 4-5cm from one end of the core and wrap towards the short end. Begin in front of the core and wrap up and around to the back of the core. Then follow back around to the front.

Wrap a small section. Again, how long the section should be depends on the thickness of your yarn/fibre. In the first photo below, you can see that I have wrapped approx. 2cm of core. If you are using a very fine yarn, 1cm or less will be sufficient. It needs to be long enough, so that you can bend it around to make a loop (as is shown in the 2nd photo below).

Then continue by joining both sections of core together and wrapping around it all. This time, you will be working down and around to the back (as shown in the 2nd and 3rd photos).

wrapping the core
making the loop
continuing to wrap the core

When you only have a 4-6cm of wrapping thread left, you will need to add a new one.

Lay a 2-3cm of the new thread in with the core, with the rest of the length going in the direction of the work that you have already wrapped (see the first photo below).

Wrap the old thread/fibre twice around the new one, securing it in place. (2nd photo below)

Then continue to wrap in the same way with the new thread/fibre (third photo). The first couple of wraps will be on top of the securing wraps. Pull extra tight to avoid a bulge.

A quick word about wrapping here. When I am wrapping, I pull tight. You want to compress the core as much as possible to create neat, strong work.

adding a new wrapping thread
adding a new wrapping thread
adding a new wrapping thread

Continue wrapping tightly, leaving no spaces in between. We don’t want to see any core between the wraps.

How long the first section of wrapping will be, depends on how big you would like your heart to be. You could make any size, so try bend the wrapped section around into a circle. Is it big enough for you yet?

Remember, this will be the inside edge of the heart, so the completed heart will be a little bigger.

When you’re happy with the size, you need to secure the working end to the original loop that you made, using a joining stitch. There are lots of different techniques for making a coil basket. This one is my favourite and is just a series of wrapped sections and joining stitches.

So thread your needle onto your wrapping thread and as you bring down the thread in front of the core (as you would normally while wrapping), put the needle through the loop and pull tight, securing the two together (see 2nd photo below).

Make two more wraps around the core and then make a second joining stitch.

Depending on the size of your work, you may need to make more joining stitches into the loop. Two fit comfortably into mine.

forming a hoop
joining the ends

Wrap twice more, but this time make your joining stitch go right around the original wrapped section that you made. Then wrap twice more.

You will continue working like this until you get half way around the circle that you have made.

A note about the distance between joining stitches – There are no hard and fast rules here. You will want to keep your joining stitches at regular intervals between wrapped sections, so that your work looks neat and tidy. However, depending on the round that you are on or the shape that you are making, it might make sense to add an extra wrap here or one less there.

The things that you need to consider are:

– how it looks. The distance between joining stitches really affects how your work looks. You might want to experiment and see what you prefer.

-strength. As a general rule, the closer the joining stitches are, the stronger your work will be. If you leave long stretches of wrapped coil in between joining stitches, there will be some movement in your work. If they are close together, it will be as tight as a drum.

When you have worked about half way around your circle, you will need to start shaping your heart.

I have a set of crochet hooks that I always keep handy when I am working. The rounded handles are great for shaping nice curves in frameworks like these. On this occasion, I used a bamboo chopstick, bending the circle against it, to make the top of the heart. Once you have started the shape, you can pinch the two curves together, to make a more defined shape (see 2nd photo below).

You can simply pinch where the little starting loop is, to make the pointy bottom of the heart.

forming the heart shape
forming the heart shape

Now continue wrapping and joining until you get all the way around to the starting loop.

You can see in the 1st photo below, that once you reach your first joining stitch, you will need to make all of the joining stitches that follow go in between the previous two rounds of wrapped core. Just use your needle to draw the thread between those two rounds and keep wrapping and joining as before.

We are only going to work two complete rounds of joining stitches in this tutorial, so you’re almost there.

When you reach the top of the heart on this round, be careful to leave a gap between the joining stitches right in the middle (as shown in the 2nd photo below). This is because we will be attaching a thread here, so that the heart can be hung up.

starting the second round
leaving a gap for a hanging thread

As you are working the second round of joining stitches, keep taking the time to improve the shaping of your heart.

Define those curves at the top, pinch the point at the bottom and press the heart down flat against a hard surface.

Taking time and care over your work makes a big difference. Don’t hurry through, but enjoy the process.

taking the time to shape it
taking the time to shape it
taking the time to shape it

As you come to the final stretch (see 1st photo below), you will need to thin out your core, ready for finishing your work.

Cut all of the core threads/fibres so that they just reach your finishing point (the bottom of the heart).

Now cut each thread to a slightly different length, leaving just one or two that reach the finishing point.

This will give you a nice graduated finish.

Now keep wrapping and joining until there is just 1-2cm of core thread left unwrapped (see 3rd photo below).

thinning the core
thinning the core
preparing to finish

For this last section, you will only make joining stitches. There are no wrapped sections in between.

Make joining stitches until you have covered all of the core thread/fibre.

finishing the coil
finishing the coil

Carefully push your needle under the last stitches, slightly towards the back of your work and pull the thread through to secure it (1st photo below).

I find that a needle grabber is useful for this job, as the thread can sometimes be stubborn and you don’t want to mess up your beautiful work, trying to pull it through.

Most sewing supply shops will have needle grabbers. They are just a little circle of rubbery material, that helps you to get a good grip on your needle. They are inexpensive and it is definitely a good idea to get one, if you are going to be doing a lot of coilwork.

Now, cut the thread really close to the work, so that you can’t see the end (2nd photo). You will have to excuse the state of my thread snips. I have had them about 15 years and they are looking a little tatty. This is the second bit of equipment that I would recommend buying. A good pair of thread snips will make a really neat finish and if you are using plant fibres, they are great for carefully snipping away stray fibre.

Your heart is complete, just take the time to make any final adjustments to the shaping and then we will attach the hanging thread. 

passing through the thread
cutting the thread

To make your heart into a hanging decoration, take a short length of the thread that you have been using and thread on your needle.

Insert the needle through that gap that you left between joining stitches, at the top of the heart.

Push the needle back through the same gap, but don’t draw the thread all the way through. This will make a little loop at the front.

Adjust the thread so that you have two even ends at the back and then put those ends through the loop (1st photo below).

Pull it tight.

To finish, knot the two ends of thread together.

I really hope that you enjoy making these. You could make a whole bunch and decorate some bare branches in a vase, or maybe use them to make a garland. If you celebrate Valentine’s Day, you could pop one inside your card.

Wren has already asked if she can have mine, I think she wants to hang them along our dresser. She just loves to decorate and always feels that the house is a bit bare after Christmas and her birthday are over.

If you do enjoy this tutorial, you can find others by looking through the tutorial section of my blog and I will be adding more to these through the year.

making it hang

Six Months of Polytunnel Joy!

Six Months of Polytunnel Joy!

Six months ago we put up our polytunnel and its arrival transformed my summer into a whirlwind of activity. Even Wren (5 years) regularly says, “Is it the weekend again already?”.

We have only made it to the beach occasionally, as there has been so much to keep us busy at home. There’s been no need for a work out – carrying about 40 cans of water from the tap in the house, out to the tunnel once or twice a day has given me plenty of exercise!

To me, the tunnel has been a beacon of positivity through the last six months and a reminder of what I can accomplish when I put my mind to it. To Wren, my little shadow, it has been a place of wonder. So crammed with life – plants, birds and an enormous variety of pollinators, she has been fascinated by the whole process of growing from seed. In the tunnel, that process is so concentrated that it is almost magical and coupled with the protection that it gives from the weather, it is like stepping into another world, when you step through the door. To everyone else, it has been fresh food to eat everyday and a little peaceful haven to escape to.

polytunnel-tomatoes-in-orkney
growing-veggies-with-my-kids
golden-hubbard-in-polytunnel

It’s been a huge learning curve for me and some things have been fabulous successes, while others have not worked out and notes have been made for next year.

I have a tendency to try to cram too much in. I see a tray of hopeful seedlings and want them all to have their chance, but this has sometimes led to overcrowding and I have had to ruthlessly strip plants out, later on.

My squashes suffered from my enthusiasm, although the ten good ones that we have had, have been greatly enjoyed so far. I realise now that I should have resisted the temptation to plant up all of the successful seedlings, when I clearly didn’t have enough space. I planted the majority into large tubs, filled with lasagne layers to cut down on compost. 

I think this would have worked out fine, if I had only planted one in each tub, but I put four to each tub and the result was lots of tiny squash that didn’t achieve their potential. It was great fun watching them grow everywhere though.

My most successful squash was a Golden Hubbard, which was late to germinate and so it didn’t get a space in the tubs. Instead I just stuck it in the main hugelkultur bed amongst the chard and asian greens and it went from being a rather sad specimen, to a huge healthy plant, which is still going strong in October, while the others were stripped out a couple of weeks ago.

Growing them vertically was a great success and I would definitely do that again next year, but I think the tubs will be used for something else and a new squash bed will be made along one side, with just a few healthy, productive plants.

If you haven’t tried Golden Hubbard before, I would urge you to try it, it grows so quickly and tastes divine roasted and mashed, with a little salt and pepper. I spread it thickly on toast with a bit of hummus and could have lived on that quite happily for weeks, if we’d only had more!

growing-squash-vertically-in-a-polytunnel
golden-hubbard-pie
golden-hubbard-on-toast

Cucumbers seem like a distant memory now that we’re in October, but were another example of me growing too much! Unlike the squash though, this didn’t hold back the plants at all. They were in the main bed and did really well, a little too well perhaps!

Growing cucumbers was a first for me and I had no idea how many one plant would produce. We had two varieties a miniature white for salads and a Parisian Pickling variety. Both produced so many fruits that I couldn’t keep up with them and we have eaten an enormous amount of dill pickles this summer and still have lots of jars left.

Wren was often found munching the little white ones, which provided a constant snacking supply while we were working in the tunnel.

So, just a couple of plants next year, rather than a whole row!

At least our lettuces were also a huge success, so that we had something to go with the cucumbers. We have had a constant supply of lettuce since May and eating a lettuce that was only picked minutes before, is a wonderful thing!

polytunnel-cucumbers
pickling-cucumbers

My tomatoes have had their ups and downs. I didn’t have anywhere to geminate them until the polytunnel went up, so they had a rather late start. Even once they were up, they seemed to grow so slowly and I felt sure that we wouldn’t get any tomatoes again this year.

I kept feeding them seaweed and nettle tea and as soon as the weather warmed up they started to make up for lost time.

Just when I was sure that the yellow and red cherry tomatoes would soon be ripening, disaster struck! I noticed what seemed to be blight on the lower leaves. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I pulled the whole lot out that day, keeping the tomatoes in trays but with little hope of them ripening.

To my great surprise, every one of those cherry tomatoes ripened indoors, over the coming weeks and we always had a bowl of tomatoes in the fridge, ready to use.

I am currently hoping that my Grushovka tomatoes will do the same, as they have been stubbornly refusing to ripen, but ever so slowly one or two are starting to turn.

There have been so many others – courgettes, kohl rabi, peas, beans, strawberries, spring onions, carrots, a variety of green leafy veg and so many flowers! It really has been a great start. 

It will be interesting to see how the colder months go, when we don’t usually have anything growing.

As each summer veg has been pulled out, something new has been planted in its place for autumn/winter. So far from being empty, there is till a lot going on in there at the moment.

Beetroot, another round of asian greens, spring cabbages, spring onions, turnips, fennel, asparagus kale and leeks are all busy growing. There are some leftovers from summer too – nasturtiums, ground cherries and herbs, which are all keeping the tunnel like a little oasis in Orkney autumn.

So fingers crossed, we will continue to munch our way through fresh veggies all winter and next spring I have lots of plans for expansion. New outdoor beds will be going in, a soft fruit garden and if the budget will stretch to it, the beginning of a little orchard.

So much to look forward to and so much to be grateful for!