Today, I thought that I would show you how to make a coil basket from old t-shirts, as part of my Making Hard Times Good Times project.
The cost of living crisis is going to have a huge impact on families like mine, who struggle to get by at the best of times. I think many other families will find themselves struggling for the first time too, as businesses struggle to keep up with the ever rising costs.
I know that our home will be cold and damp this winter and spending will be restricted to the bare essentials. Presents for Christmas and birthdays will have to be made from what we have to hand. This won’t be a first for my family and at times like these, I like to treat it as a game. A challenge for our creativity and resourcefulness.
Some of my fondest memories, are of lean times – foraging for food together, making beautiful and thoughtful gifts to surprise each other, long walks, evening games and a home full of handmade decorations.
Crafts have helped our family through some tough times and my children are experts at making use of all kinds of things, in their arts and crafts.
So I’d like to share some tutorials with you, over the coming weeks, for things that you can make with materials that you might have lying around, in your house. I will offer alternative materials where I can, as I know that all households are different.
They will be things that you can make for your home, your children and as gifts for family and friends. Making something with your hands has a huge power to lift your spirits and make you feel more positively about yourself and your situation.
So, let’s get started!
Coil basketry is a wonderful introduction to making baskets. The only tools that you will need to make a coil basket like this one, are a pair of sharp scissors to cut the jersey fabric into strips and a chunky needle, such as a tapestry needle.
I always have a stack of t-shirts-leggings etc, waiting to be turned into something else. Clothes in our family get handed down, for as long as possible, but once they get too stained or damaged for me to fix, they go to the craft pile.
If you don’t have any unwanted jersey, you can still use this tutorial to make a basket. I am a firm believer, that there is always something around that you can use, to make a basket! So I tried a few experiments with waste from our recycling bins and craft stash.
Below you can see (from left to right) honeycomb paper, wrapped with strips of popcorn bag, used kitchen foil, wrapped with strips of fruit nets, supermarket veg bags, wrapped with yarn scraps and strips of newspaper, wrapped with strips of a pair of kids cotton trousers. I’m sure that you could find all kinds of other combinations in your house, and of course, there are always plants!
For this tutorial, I will be using old baler twine for a core material and a pair of kids leggings and an infant t-shirt to wrap.
We have a mountain of this baler twine in the derelict barns here, which won’t be used for its original purpose. It’s great to put it to good use.
That’s the other good thing about lean times, it makes you so much more aware of waste and of the resources around you, that often get taken for granted.
Begin by cutting your chosen wrapping material into strips. I cut my jersey into roughly 2cm wide strips, but it doesn’t have to be precise and it also depends on how big you want your basket to be. Choose a size that seems to fit nicely to the scale that you’re working to.
Place one end of your wrapping material about 1 1/2 inches from the end of your strips of core (as in the 2nd photo below).
Now wrap around the core, working towards the near end, for about an inch (2.5cm).
Bend the wrapped section around, so that the core ends are now held with the rest of the core material (as in the 2nd photo below).
Continue to wrap around the core material for 1-1 1/2cm.
Now, thread the wrapping fabric, through the centre of the loop that you have made.
Continue to wrap and then pass through the loop every few stitches, until you have gone all the way around the loop.
There is no right or wrong amount of times to wrap between stitches. As a guide, the closer together the stitches are, the firmer (tighter) your basket will be. I often vary the amount of stitches as I work, to keep it pleasing to the eye and you can create some interesting patterns this way, if you choose.
When working with plant fibres, I have only ever needed to use a tapestry needle as I work. I have found that fabrics (such as the t-shirt jersey) work so tightly, that it is easier to create a hole, before passing the needle through.
This is easily done with the unhooked end, of a small gauge crochet hook or paint brush handle (or something similar that you have to hand).
Push it through, where you want the stitch to go, wiggle it around in a circular motion and then take it out, ready for your needle and wrapping fabric to pass through.
I found that this quickly became a part of my working rhythm and didn’t slow me down.
On the second round, your stitches should go through the previous round of coiling and not through the central loop.
Adding in more core material is simple. Stagger the ends of the lengths, so that the core doesn’t all run out at the same time. When one length of core runs out, simply add a new one with the others and wrap around it, to hold it in place.
Adding new wrapping material can be seen in the three photos below.
First place the end of the new piece with the core fibres.
Then, use the strip of jersey that is running out, to wrap around the new piece of jersey. Just once or twice will do.
Lay the end of the old piece with the core fibres and then wrap over the top of the join with the new strip of jersey.
In this way, all of the ends are wrapped inside as you work and you won’t have anything to weave in at the end.
Continue to work in this way, until your base has reached the size that you require.
You will want to start building up the sides, level with the point where you first started coiling around the central loop (as shown in the first photo below).
Push up the area that you are wrapping firmly, with a finger underneath and increase the tension in your stitches, to pull the sides up.
I like a gradual rise, so to achieve a bowl shaped basket like this, only raise each round of coiling by about a 45 degree angle to the previous round.
It’s up to you how high you want the sides to go and might also be dependant on how much scrap material you have.
When you feel that you are ready to finish, you will need to start preparing half a round before your finish point.
The finish point should be level with where you first started to raise the sides, so that your basket is an equal height all the way around.
Prepare by cutting away some of the core material, to stagger your finish. I think this is the trickiest part of a coil basket, so take your time and don’t be afraid to unpick and either remove or add more core, to get a smooth gradual finish.
When you get to the end of the core, stitch three or four times, with no wrap in between.
Use your crochet hook (or similar, if you have needed one while coiling), to open a pathway through the last few stitches.
Pass through with your needle and wrapping fabric and pull nice and tight.
Now you just need to cut the wrapping strip close to the stitches, so that the end cannot be seen.
You have completed your t-shirt yarn basket!
There is so much that you can do using this technique. A different shape at the centre can create oval and rectangular baskets, handles can be added, the rim can be shaped in to create a more rounded basket. You just need to use your creativity and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
As I always tell my children, we wouldn’t learn anything without making mistakes! ou it was simple. I hope that you enjoy making them. I think they make a nice introduction to coil basketry.
There is so much that you can do using this technique. A different shape at the centre can create oval and rectangular baskets, handles can be added, the rim can be shaped in, to create a more rounded basket. You just need to use your creativity and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
As I always tell my children, we wouldn’t learn anything without making mistakes!
The past couple of months have sped by. We finally got the necessary planning permission to reinstate our derelict farmhouse and outbuildings into a home. With autumn and winter fast approaching, we have been trying to fit in as much work on the house and cabin as we can.
It hasn’t been easy though, persistent troubles with keeping both of our run down cars on the road and the constant increase in the cost of living, has made earning money and spending as little as possible a priority too.
We have felt torn between the need to make our home as ready and comfortable for the cold months ahead as we can, and the need to get control of finances quickly, as the country’s energy and food bills go through the roof. I’m sure that so many families across the UK must be facing some tough decisions this year. Our family has been through very hard times before and scaling down outgoings to a minimum is something we are used to.
So, the long awaited permission to start work, wasn’t met with quite the joyous burst of activity that it would otherwise have been. We wanted to get cracking with protecting the very old and neglected, wooden doors and windows, but the cost of the lovely eco-friendly paint that we had listed in our planning application, now seemed an even greater expense, than when we first chose it. So we have bought one tin. Each tin will have to be considered and weighed against the other monthly household costs.
Even with these added pressures, the process of stripping away what was left of the old paint, filling, sanding, adding layers of protection to the windows, shutters and doors, feels good. Really good.
It makes such a difference to how we feel about our home, our situation, ourselves even.
No matter how slow and hard won progress might be, it is progress and those slow but sure footsteps forward are so important to maintaining wellbeing in troubling times.
The history of this place puts things into perspective too. When I think of all the changes that our World War One cabin has seen and survived, and the families that worked so hard to build a life here, it gives me strength.
And after all, we have so much to be grateful for in this beautiful place. The beauty all around us, the peacefulness that is so restorative and our home. It may need a lot of work, but it is our home and as the weeks go by, I feel more and more sheltered and protected by it.
I like to think that the house and cabin are feeling the benefit of the care they are receiving. Sometimes, as I am working to safeguard what is there, I can almost feel the buildings sigh with relief.
I recently saw pictures of an identical wartime cabin that was just down the road from ours. What remained of it finally gave up and collapsed last year. How nice then, to stand back and see ours living on, with new larch cladding and freshly painted original windows and shutters. We are so lucky too, that the original wood interior (remarkably) needs little work, with only slight damage here and there, where water had got in.
The house and cabin aren’t the only things that are slowly coming back to life. I have been working in the garden as often as I can, with help from my two keen helpers, Lark and Wren. What a pleasure for us to work together this year, to carve out a little productive space, now crammed with food and flowers.
The raised beds that we made earlier in the year, from some of the old cladding and rope found in the barns, are overflowing with plants, all grown from seed.
To think that I was concerned at the beginning of spring, that we wouldn’t be able to grow anything without a warm, bright space to start our seeds.
We might have had to be patient and some crops, like tomatoes , just didn’t make it, but we have eaten dinner from the garden several times a week for the past couple of months.
In times like these, it is wonderful to know that there is food for my family, growing just outside our door and it still amazes me, that thanks to the no-dig method of layering up, we have been able to grow so much, with just a very thin layer of compost.
I think that our ducks have been a great help there too, providing us with plenty of duck manure.
Just as important, in my opinion, are the flowers, which as well as attracting hundreds of pollinators have brought us so much joy this summer.
Both of my girls have grown a big variety of flowers in their own little gardens, which bring so much colour and life to this long forgotten space between the house and barns.
They have delighted in picking jugs and vases full of their own flowers, making mixtures and potions with the petals and giving me many gifts of little posies. With all of this life and goodness just outside it has given us all a boost and a glimpse of things to come.
Although it has had to sit untouched for all of these months, I am glad that we bought our polytunnel when we purchased the house. I think it would be very hard to make the leap and spend that money now, with everything so uncertain. I look forward to putting it up now that permissions are in place and seeing so much more food start to grow here.
It is our best chance of the simple life that we dream of, that sometimes seems to get further and further away, but that my heart won’t give up on.
Rhubarb grows very well in the Orkney Islands and as you drive around the islands in late spring and summer, you will see it growing in gardens, on the roadside and even on the cliff edge.
In the little courtyard between our house and its collection of outbuildings, is a simply enormous rhubarb patch. Planted and tended by generations of one Orcadian family and forgotten for the last two decades, as the house sat empty and neglected.
We were delighted when we found it and have eaten our fill of it. The Wrens and wagtails have hopped amongst its huge spreading leaves, finding plenty of insects to feed to their broods. I had great results making dye, from the roots of it. A yellow/orange on its own and a pink when used with an alkaline modifier.
That would already be enough to earn its place in my garden, but this summer, I have discovered that it is also wonderful for natural cordage and basketry.
By peeling the rhubarb when it is freshly cut, you can get lovely long lengths of it. If you have any difficulty peeling the outer layer away from the main stem, use a flat bladed knife to peel down the length of the stem.
You may find that some of the juicy fleshy parts of the stem come away too. It’s important to remove these for the best drying results, so carefully scrape down the peelings between a blunt knife and your thumb.
Spread out the peelings and leave them to dry. They will dry in a day if left out in the sunshine, but if the weather is damp or windy, they will only take 2-3 days in a well ventilated area.
I have made simple drying racks, by stretching linen scrim over old wooden frames and these work perfectly for rhubarb peelings.
Once dry, the rhubarb can be made into cordage or used for coil and twined baskets. I found that it was very similar to raffia palm and although it’s almost transparent, it is very strong.
Be sure to take some deep breaths of that wonderful rhubarb scent as you are working with it!
Using some dried grass core material, I used my rhubarb peelings to create this coil basket. It was a joy to work with and collecting and preparing rhubarb in this way, will become a part of my seasonal rhythm for years to come.
Rhubarb isn’t the only thing that’s been growing in abundance in our garden. We have had masses of white clover, growing in swathes amongst the other wild flowers and grasses.
In one sheltered spot, it has grown really tall and I could’t resist trying out those long stems for basketry.
I began by gathering the longest stems and splitting them down the length with my thumb nail. Opening out the stem, I then used my nail again to scrap away the pith, which is easily done.
Finally, I split each stem into three or four lengths and popped them on a rack to dry.
Once dry, I used the clover in a small coil experiment. It is not as strong as some other materials and I did experience some snapping, but I managed to work it up into a nice coil. I found that it was particularly good for making cordage.
A word of warning here though, for those of you admiring these beautiful green images. although the clover stems dry out enough to use quite quickly, they only retain their colour for a few weeks. At this point they fade to white.
It’s not a colour that I often find, so I think I will gather more next year, but our house renovations are taking priority as we quickly approach autumn and winter, so my gatherings have had to be scaled down.
I have a feeling that the dried clover stems would take dye well, so that is another thing to try out at a later date.
Nature provides us with so many materials, we just need to take the time to try, and learn about all that the plants around us have to offer.
The discovery of an old treasure in one of our outbuildings, prompted me to realise an ambition, a couple of weeks ago. I found an old, wooden shoe last in the threshing barn, amongst a lot of other wooden bit’s and pieces. It was obviously made for a child’s foot, from the size, and I found it very charming.
I have always had a fascination with shoes. When I was a child, my family would have to wait for me to look in every shoe shop window that we passed (half an hour outside of London in those days, so there were a great many!). Twenty-three years ago, when I met my husband, I had a selection of very high heels, which I somehow managed to wear all day at work and then even higher ones in the evening to go out!
These days, I have a pair of wellington boots, garden clogs and a pair of well-worn DM’s. I doubt if I could even walk in heels anymore, but my attention was caught by a beautiful woven shoe, made by Felicity Irons, a couple of years ago. Made from rush, I thought it was wonderful and have seen many woven shoes since, which I have found equally beautiful.
Finding this tiny wooden foot, was all the push that I needed to give it a try myself.
I started by flattening out some dried dandelion stems, slitting them up one side with sharp scissors and then pressing them flat between finger and thumb. I used these to weave the sole of the shoe and the colour variation of the stems, was just what I had hoped for.
I wanted to have a strong contrast for the upper, so I decided to use some grass that I have been drying in batches, from our garden. I have been trying to identify it for weeks and am almost sure that it is Johnson grass, but I could be wrong. I am waiting for it to come properly into seed and hopefully, then I will know for sure.
What I do know for sure, is that its blades are wide and strong and don’t become brittle when dried, which makes it useful for basketry. I thought twining would be the best way to go for the upper, and as I usually work freehand rather than with a mould, I made a very slow and careful start.
I worked the first couple of rounds, to hold the dandelions in place and then tied it to the shoe last.
I learnt a lot about the importance of tension while twining, with this project. A shoe has so many different contours, I was constantly tightening and then relaxing my weaving, to try to keep the shape.
I decided to use a border that I hadn’t worked before, bending the dandelion stems over and capturing them in a couple of rounds of twining, before passing the weaver through the loops and pulling the ends of the dandelion tight, to secure it.
Rather than cutting the ends really short here, I left a little showing as a decorative feature.
The border was made a little tricky, by my lack of planning. In places my dandelion spokes were much too short, but I persevered and just managed it. I lost the tension a little in the effort, which affected the shape, but overall I was very happy with my first attempt at a basketry shoe.
I think this is a project that I will come back to in future years, a nice way to see how my skills progress. For me, basketry is a practice, something that can always be developed and improved upon. There are so many techniques to learn, so many materials to try. Re-visiting the idea of a basketry shoe, but with each one made differently and with more confidence and perhaps more elaborately, seems like a lovely way to mark my achievements.
And the little shoe last?
Well, I have plans to give it the gentlest sanding and then a careful waxing to protect the wood for future years. As we renovate the old farmhouse I will look for a little nook to display it, or perhaps eventually, it will come to live in my basketry workshop – a reminder to keep pushing myself and keep moving forward.