April is coming to a close, but it has been a month of working with daffodils for me.
This time last year, I was at the beginning of my journey of working with plants for basketry and dyes. I did collect some daffodil leaves as they faded, but I was keen to make as much use of these lovely plants as I could, this year.
For me, spring is so full of potential, so full of joy. Here on this small island in the North Sea, you really feel that the world has woken up from a deep sleep and that suddenly everything is bursting into life.
Daffodils are the island’s first big crop of flowering plants and my heart sank when 60mph winds and snow, left many of them flattened and tattered. I quickly gathered the damaged heads and left them to soak in water for a few days. I found that I had to put some large rocks on top, to keep them under the surface.
If you decide to have a go at making daffodil dye yourself, it is important to leave the stems and leaves growing, until they fade. They help to strengthen the bulbs for the following year.
After soaking, I gently simmered the flower heads and water for roughly half an hour and then left them again, overnight. I was very pleased the next day, to find that the resulting dye was a good yellow colour.
I had already prepared some raffia, a cotton bag and some honeysuckle vine, by gently heating and soaking them in an alum mordant. The raffia had also been given a willow bark pre-mordant.
The dye was heated again and I added the things that I was testing. After a little while on the heat, it was all left overnight, then rinsed and dried.
The honeysuckle and cotton were a primrose yellow once dried and the raffia came out a rich gold.
There’s nothing like a new colour for inspiring a bit of basket making, so I got straight to work.
I am keen to keep moving forward with my work, constantly trying and learning new things. I don’t want to fall into the trap of always working within my comfort zone, producing many similar items. To me, it would feel like having the same conversation over and over again.
I often feel like creating something, is having a conversation with the materials that you’re using. I want to keep those conversations fresh and vibrant.
So this time, I decided to combine a coil base with twined sides.
I have tried a little twining, last year, with some common rush from our garden and with some New Zealand flax fibres. It’s a weave that I greatly admire, but up til now I felt that I my attempts had been a bit shabby. My main problems had been with the tightness of the weave and not mastering the use of a mould.
This time around, I decided to try without a mould, but quickly found that I was having the same problems. The tension was all wrong and the shape was decidedly wonky. I love wonky baskets – but only when they’re intentional!
So, I unpicked it back to the base and found a wooden pot that was roughly the right size.
My main difficulty using a mould has always been it slipping. I should probably make some proper moulds instead of using objects from around the house!
I tied this one on as well as I could, with some extra raffia, but still found slipping to be a problem. I was really determined to make this work, so I took my time and held everything in place while I was weaving.
I also wanted to address the tension issue, because as you can see, from the picture above – in places the weave was quite loose, rather than fitting together tightly.
I remedied this, by giving the raffia a couple of extra twists, each time it passed round the back.
Matt said that he didn’t know about the basket, but that I had plenty of tension, as he watched me with lines of concentration on my face, desperately trying to hold everything in place.
The effort was worth it though, as the basket started to take shape and this time I was happy with the weave.
I finished the basket by weaving the undyed raffia cordage, into a simple trac border. It still didn’t feel finished to me, until I added a natural raffia fringe.
I’m really happy with the combination of coil and twining and it’s something that I am keen to do again. I’m definitely going to look into mould making though, as my shoulders really suffered from me being so tense!
The daffodils are quickly fading now, but everyday they are being replaced with other flowers and the arrival of dandelion season, will keep me busy. The daffodils still have another gift to give though. Once their leaves begin to fade, I will be collecting and drying them for weaving.
What a weeks it’s been! While easter brought celebrations of spring, we were plunged back into winter.
It began with 60mph winds and was quickly followed by constant snow showers. It certainly hasn’t done my garden any favours and yet I can’t deny that it has been a beautiful week. In between each little blizzard of snow, the sun came out and the skies turned a most brilliant blue.
The sun kept melting the snow, then the sky turned grey and everything turned to white again!
Amidst this crazy weather, we were trying to get our van back on the road. It’s been out of action for the past month and a half and although we lived without a car for years, when our older children were small, life up here feels much more difficult without transport.
It was the first time, that we have had to figure out the logistics of living on an island with no garage and no recovery vehicles to help, when things go wrong. As we were unable to get it started, we couldn’t get it to the ferry, to get it to a garage on Orkney.
Our neighbour (who has experience of tinkering with cars) came to the rescue. He and Matt diagnosed the problem, the turbo had blown. They managed to get the old one out and ordered a new part to be delivered.
With no place to work on it indoors, fixing it had to be fitted in around the weather. It wasn’t an easy job, but finally, last week I heard the exciting sound of the engine running once again.
While we have been without transport, I have been travelling by ferry and bus to get to the supermarket and stocking up with as much as my kids and I could manage to carry. It’s been very different to our usual routine of shopping for 3-4 weeks at a time.
So we booked it into a garage as soon as we could, for an oil change and a few other things and hoped that we would finally be able to restock the cupboards and shelves.
Unfortunately it needed an overnight stay, so we made our way home without it once more. At least we had sunshine and some beautiful views for the journey!
I travelled back over on the ferry the next day, to pick it up and shop, shop, shop. I really couldn’t have fitted anymore into the van if I tried, so it’s just as well that it was feeling better.
It was such a good feeling to know that we had everything we needed for the next few weeks, including garden supplies and some equipment that I needed, for dyeing and paper making. I even bought some herbs and a few bare-root trees for the garden.
We had a couple more days of snow and then, at last, spring returned. So of course, we headed straight for the beach and have spent much of the last few days outside, soaking up as much sunshine as possible.
What did we learn from all of this?
Well, we have started to stock up on things, to make maintaining and repairing our van on the island easier. I have learnt that I need to use a lot more garden fleece if I’m planting out before the lambing snow. I need to get better at securing it too, with the strong winds that we get up here! Fortunately, most of our plants were still safe and sound in our little growing room and Matt has made a start on building me some nice big cold frames.
We’ve also learnt that although it’s a lot easier to live up here with our own transport, we can still manage to keep things ticking along without it. Oh and very importantly we have seen how people on the island, help each other out when help is needed. Not only did our neighbour give up a lot of his time to help get things going again, but also I was rescued and given a lift home when the van first broke down, miles from home, and other islanders lent tools to help with the repairs.
So we feel extremely grateful and if anything, more settled in our island life than we were before.
It was one of those four seasons days today. It’s quite a common phenomenon in the Orkney Islands: rain, hail, snow, bright sunshine and blue skies, and high winds all in one day! So, we opted to have an indoorsy kind of day. Matt had managed to get hold of a bag of compost (which has been difficult, with the van out of action), so it seemed the perfect opportunity to catch up with some planting.
Wren helped me to re-pot all of our sea-lavender and tomatoes, which were absolutely desperate for more room. She thoroughly enjoyed being up to her elbows in compost, filling all of the pots for me.
“Look how happy the baby plants are!” she said, with a big grin on her face.
I am so grateful to have our little growing room, so that whatever the weather throws at us, we can carry on with our plans for this years planting.
Not that we haven’t had any set backs. I have pretty much lost all of the broad beans and radishes, that were doing so well. They had been planted out into the garden and I covered them with fleece ready for this week’s cold snap, but it was no match for 60mph winds coupled with heavy snow.
Lesson learned, much more protection needed for early plants!
We’re not put off easily, so my 11, 14 and 16yr olds, helped to start a lot more seeds today. We have a few trays of salad leaves already doing well, but seven people can go through salad pretty quickly, so we started two kinds of Pak Choi and some mixed leaves as well.
Squash and pumpkins are new for us this year. My kids were very keen to grow pumpkins and I love squash, so fingers crossed they will turn out well. I have no idea where they’re actually going to go, once they are big enough to be planted out! One day, I might be a wonderfully organised gardener, but for now, I just get it started and figure it out later on.
We also started a lot of nasturtiums. I have grown nasturtiums in all of our gardens. They’re great plants – you can eat the flowers, leaves and seed pods. They grow anywhere, the slugs and snails leave them alone and you can use them in salads, soup, pesto and lots more. Plus, they add plenty of colour.
This year, we’ve got several varieties and I shall be planting them everywhere that I have a space.
I’m glad that my kids are getting the chance to get involved with growing our food. I wasn’t interested in gardening when I was a child. In fact, I wasn’t outdoorsy at all. Which is funny, given that I now spend every opportunity outdoors, grow our veggies and gather and process plants for my basketry.
So, how did I get here? How did a little girl who didn’t like gardening because of the creepy crawlies and much preferred to be indoors making something or reading a book, grow into a nature loving, plant mad woman?
It occurred to me the other day, that perhaps the answer is in the books that I loved as a child.
I have been reading lots of my favourites, with our two youngest girls. The Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem, The Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker and The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, were all books that I loved and have enjoyed reading to all of my children.
In Brambly Hedge, the mice are always gathering fruits, nuts and plants for the store stump and in the High Hills, the story begins in the weavers workshop, where the shelves are filled with plants for natural dyes.
Wren and I had great fun this week, going through the Flower Fairy Alphabet and seeing how many of the flowers grow in our garden and along our road. We could remember picking nearly all of them, for our posies last year.
I still find the Little House books, just as interesting as I did all those years ago. The descriptions of making everything from straw hats to entire houses, with the materials they had to hand and a few simple tools, are a delight to read.
So perhaps, I haven’t changed so very much, after all. Perhaps, those seeds sown long ago in a little girls mind, just took a little longer to germinate, grow and blossom.
Our children’s bookcases are full of books about plants and the natural world. We spend a lot of time making things together with, whatever we have available. We walk for hours in wide open spaces, looking for creatures and plants, scrambling over rocks and soaking up all of the glorious nature that surrounds us. We plant our food together and watch our flowers grow.
I am so glad to share this with them, to start these little seeds in their minds. I can only think that it will bring them happiness, in the future.
This woven easter placemat tutorial, is a great way to introduce kids to weaving and all that you need to do it, is some coloured paper, scissors, ruler, pencil and glue stick.
If you haven’t got any paper the same size as ours, don’t be put off. The measurements are only a guide. Once you have the pattern figured out, you can really scale it up or down to any size. It would even work well on the front of a greetings card.
You will need: Colour A 1 piece of paper measuring 30cm x 24cm
1 strip of paper measuring 1.5cm x 24cm
Colour B 12 strips of paper measuring 1cm x 26cm
Colour C 12 strips of paper measuring 1cm x 26cm
Scissors, 30cm ruler, glue stick, pencil.
Begin by measuring in 1.5cm, from one of the short sides of your large piece of paper. Draw a line across the paper at that point.
Then mark 1cm intervals across that line and mark 1cm intervals across the opposite side of the paper as well. Line up your ruler with the two marks and draw in your lines (as shown below).
Now, cut along each of those lines, so that you have a long fringe, joined at one end by the 1.5cm edge. Turn the whole thing over, so that you don’t see any pencil marks.
You can then begin weaving with your Colour B strips. I find that it is easier to work from top to bottom when weaving, so turn your sheet of paper around so that the joined edge is along the top.
Row 1 (working form right to left), weave over two – under two across the whole width of the sheet.
Leave 1cm sticking out at either end.
Row 2 weave over one to begin and then continue with, under two – over two across the width (you will finish this row with an over one).
Every time that you work a new row (the weft), take the time to make sure that it is nudged up nice and close, to the previous row. As you get further down, you may also need to straighten out the fringe strips (the warp). I have left them loose at one end for this project, because being able to lift them up as you weave under and over, makes it much easier.
Row 3 weave under two – over two across the width.
Rows 4-6 Repeat the first three rows. Now you will have worked 6 rows in Colour B.
Repeat the same pattern for 6 rows with Colour C.
You will need to repeat the pattern of six rows, once more with each colour.
Now, cover the back of your 1.5 x 24cm strip with glue stick and attach it to the bottom edge of the weaving. Make sure that it is nice and close to the last row.
There will be some extra fringe to trim off along the bottom.
All that you need to do now, is to turn it over and fold the weft strip ends to the back, gluing in place. The first strip in each section of pattern, will already be at the back, so glue to the last warp strip and trim off the excess.
That’s it! Your Easter placemat is finished. You can play around with this pattern, to make lots of different designs.
It’s a great way to start weaving, because it’s so accessible to everyone and it will really brighten up your Easter table. Have fun and have a lovely spring celebration!