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.
It’s that time of year when lots of people have been gathering dandelion stems, to use in cordage and basketry. Dandelions are great, I’m a big fan, but they are not the only gift from nature to be gathering right now.
Here, the daffodil leaves are all turning golden. The drying process has started naturally by the sun and the wind. Each variety turns at a different time, depending on when they flowered, which is very convenient for gathering. I always fill any drying space that I have quite easily, so a glut of leaves often means missing out of some of those treasures.
For the moment at least, there is a smooth changeover going on in our porch. Whilst the dandelions are hanging on various hooks and nails in the wall, the daffodils are spread out on my drying racks.
I made these last year, from reclaimed wood and linen scrim and it is lovely to see them full again. Last year they were supported by runners over our stairs, this year, while we wait to begin renovations, they are stacked on the floor, separated by some of my daughter’s building blocks.
The porch has actually proved to be a great place for drying. The door, for now at least, is often open and the breeze blows in, drying everything out evenly and a little bit quicker than last year. This steady breeze and the fact that I am gathering the leaves when they are very nearly dried anyway, has made drying them flat possible. I’m glad about that, because hanging them, spread out evenly to prevent mildew, was very time consuming last year.
Now I am powering through the busy time of gathering quite easily and my biggest problem is where to store all of these lovely fibres, once they are dried to perfection.
I know many people don’t bother to collect daffodil leaves at all. On their own, they are not strong, which makes them a bad choice for twining and they dislike being twisted, so cordage is out of the question.
What to do with them then?
Plaiting is the perfect choice for these beautiful golden leaves. Layered up, a few leaves at a time, they become strong and the plaiting process is gentle enough that you won’t suffer any breakages, along the way.
As they were destined to be plaited anyway, I have decided to do this as each batch dries, as it will make storage much easier.
If you decided to gather some of your own daffodil leaves (and it would be a waste not to!), make sure that they are dried from base to tip before use. How long they will take to dry, varies a great deal between varieties. I have some with very slender leaves, which are ready within the week, whilst the rather fleshy leaved types, take quite a bit longer to dry out, especially near the base.
Once dry, you will need to dampen them before plaiting.
When dampening any plant fibres, you want use as little water as possible, to make them flexible enough to use. Too much water, will cause shrinkage as it dries out again and this will spoil all of your hard work.
Daffodil leaves will need to be wrapped in a wet towel, until they feel soft and not brittle. The time this takes will vary, depending on the humidity when you are working, so it’s a good idea to check them every hour until they’re done. Mine took just under an hour, but the air here always contains a lot of moisture and the constant sea breeze, means that it’s always cool. If you live further south, you may find that it takes another hour or two.
Then all that needs to be done, is the plaiting. Use several leaves in each section of plait, adding in more as each length begins to run short.
I will pop a video of my daffodil plaiting on Patreon, over the weekend and will be posting videos about my gathering and processing of fibres there regularly over the coming months. If you’d like to find out more, just click on the red “become a patron button”.
Happy gathering everyone!
A couple of family days out this month, have led me to some wonderful examples of traditional Orkney baskets.
The first trip was to the Fossil and Heritage centre at Burray. It is a lovely little museum, tiny but packed with interesting collections and well worth a visit if you’re up that way. Whilst downstairs is devoted to fossils and the naval history of Scapa Flow, upstairs houses a collection of old items from Orkney. The things that really caught my attention, were of course, the baskets.
Firstly, there were three cubbies hanging on the wall (pictured above). These simple baskets were traditionally used for bait. They were all made from different fibres, but unfortunately there was no information to accompany them and as the section was roped off to protect the items on display, I could not get a close look. I am pretty sure that the first was made from Heather roots. Heather roots were often used to make rope on the islands, as it was incredibly strong and was usually made for the purpose of roofing.
I am unsure what the middle basket was made from. It almost looks like rush, but this would have been unusual. I know dock was used, but I haven’t seen any examples of it, to know what it looks like. The last cubbie though, was made from straw.
As well as these, the collection also had a small selection of household baskets, for various uses – an old Orkney chair (in need of some attention), and a very nice example of a straw-work moses basket.
The second visit, to Kirbuster Farm Museum, also had some great basketry items on display.
With exception of a small peg basket and fruit basket, all of the baskets at Kirbuster were straw-work. This is not surprising, as straw was readily available across the islands and straw-work is still practised here today. The most famous examples are of course, the Orkney chairs, which are backed with oat straw.
There was one very large circular basket, which I particularly liked – a project for another time!
Again, this museum is well worth a visit, if you are up in Orkney. Not far from the delights of the Birsay coast, the museum is an old farm, which has been uninhabited since the 1960’s. The main room still has the traditional open peat fire in the centre of the room, which is lit when the museum is open, so you will come out smelling of peat smoke. It has a fantastic selection of household items on display, from a variety of decades and farm equipment on display in the outbuildings.
We had great fun, spotting things which we have found in the derelict house, which we are currently renovating.
Seeing these wonderful baskets first-hand, reminded me that I have yet to try my own hand at some of these traditional skills. It has been on my “to do” list since last year, but moving house and life in a derelict house has been a big distraction from some of these personal projects.
As I happened to have lots of plant fibres drying at the moment, it seemed like a good opportunity to make a start, on learning new skills.
As usual, I am learning by trial and error. Finding my own way, based on what I have seen.
I decided to have a go at a cubbie. I knew this was only going to be loosely based on traditional cubbies, as I have never seen the base close to, and so can only guess how it might have been started.
I am quite sure that I did not choose the correct method, but it served a purpose and I was surprised at how simple the process of twining these upright spokes was.
My second surprise, was how strong the finished basket was. I was only making a very small version of the basket, to suit my chosen fibres – dandelion stems. These were what I had ready, and in the true island tradition of using what you have to hand, I decided to try them out.
I cut the stems along one side first, opening them out and pressing them flat, between my fingers.
The structure of this kind of basket, shows off the wonderful variation in stem colour. Have you ever noticed the many colours of dandelion stems? I hadn’t, until I started working with them last year. Even if I just look at the stems collected from our own garden, there are pale green, pink, purple and a deep red! It really is the most wonderful of weeds!
I think that the strength of this basket, is mainly due to the cordage wrapped border. This also plays a big part in giving the basket its shape.
I was pleased with the results. It could definitely do with being neater and that base needs some more thought, or perhaps better examples so that I can really see what’s going on. But the character of the basket is there and I will enjoy working with this style of basket some more.
I hope to do some more of these little learning projects over the coming months. I find them to be so valuable, both in giving me confidence to push myself further and in giving me knew ideas for my own basketry practice.
Well we seem to have arrived at June already, but I couldn’t tell you how. When we bought our house, back in December, I naively thought that we would be making great strides forward in our renovations, by this point in the year.
How wrong I was!
Half way through the year and we haven’t even begun work on the main house, as we realised that we would need full planning permission to reinstate our house as a dwelling. Months later and we are still going through this process. We cannot afford professional help and are learning one mistake at a time. We will get there, but in the meantime, spirits need to be lifted and a derelict house (even when it’s not officially considered to be a house at all), needs to start to feel like a home.
I don’t mind admitting that I have struggled with this over the past few months and the late arrival of warmer spring days, has not helped. Or perhaps spring is no later than usual and it is just my perception of it that is different. Have the stresses and strains of 2022, blinded me to the beautiful awakening of the natural world around me?
I think it’s very likely that they have. So I have been working hard to reset my mind, and rediscover the optimistic me. To find comfort and a feeling of home building through starting work on our garden and opening my eyes once again to the simple pleasures around me.
Our polytunnel, might still be wrapped up in one of the barns (also awaiting planning permission), but there is still plenty that we can do to keep moving forward.
I made a start by making a mini polytunnel, to give some seedlings a place to get started and to house the strawberry plants, gifted to us by a kind friend.
Wren gave me a hand to make a simple wooden base (from some old cladding on site), and hoops for the plastic sheeting from some old water pipe, found in the yard. Some fishing net from the barn, has been a huge help in protecting the scrappy bits of plastic, from the wind.
It was a small start, but a start none the less and gave me the confidence to build two wooden raised beds, for Lark and Wren. They were so looking forward to starting their own gardens this year and I wanted to make that happen for them.
Lark and Wren both helped to make their gardens – cutting the scrap wood for the frame, hammering in the corner posts and putting down the various layers for their no-dig beds.
Several weeks on and aided by a few sunny days, their gardens are full of little seedlings and the mini polytunnel is in constant use.
The girls are so excited about the thought of their own little spaces filled with flowers and good things to eat. It won’t stop there, plans are already being made to make some garden ornaments out of things we find lying around.
With their spaces sorted out, my thoughts went to growing spaces for my own plants. Due to the difficulties of this year and the lack of funds for any kind of wind break on our very exposed site, I have decided to focus mainly on the little courtyard garden behind the house.
Grander plans and garden adventures can wait until next year.
I have created two no-dig beds. One, from large rocks, found on site (presumably from an old wall or even building), the other from scraps of wood and pipe and some long lengths of rope.
The only money that we have had to spend on the garden so far, has been for compost. I did try to make a hot compost heap, to get a large quantity quickly, but it was not successful. It has made a good start to a cold compost heap though, and should be ready to use next spring.
A little garden seat has been made too, with a few old blocks and a piece of flagstone. It has been used by all of us as a quiet place to sit with a hot drink, watching the many birds and wild rabbits that live in our garden.
Using these things, that have been found in the garden and outbuildings, also means that they blend in perfectly with the old buildings surrounding the courtyard.
Many plants that have been quietly taking care of themselves for the past couple of decades, have also shown themselves this spring. A variety of daffodils and bluebells, an absolutely enormous rhubarb patch and long drifts of crocosmia, have all survived in this area.
I have a few containers that I have found around our property, which will add to the growing space, one of which is a very large belfast sink. I have left space for little paths between the raised beds, which we will probably fill in with stones.
The further areas of our garden are mostly tall grasses and a wide variety of wild plants. Our ducks have been very pleased about the large amounts of dandelion. They can’t get enough of the leaves!
For myself, I am glad of the easy access to the stems for basketry.
Ribbed plantain is also prolific here, which has many uses, including cordage making with the leaves and natural dyes that can be made from the stems. There are several mystery plants, which we are watching to see how they look when flowers and seeds appear and some old favourites which are just starting to come through – purple vetch, flag irises, cow parsley, scurvy grass, buttercups and huge banks of clover, to name but a few.
The real treat for a wildflower lover though, is the coastal path, which is just a short walk away from our home.
Up on the cliffs, looking out to mainland Scotland and the island of Stroma, there is plenty of natural beauty to be found. Looking down, the treasures are even more abundant with swathes of wildflowers now coming into bloom.
Thrift, one of my particular favourites, clusters all along the edges of the cliffs, and the variety of pinks can clearly be seen. Some, almost white, others baby pink and all the way through to a vivid lilac.
Spring Squill, a new delight for me, grows here in its hundreds. So tiny but creating a haze of blue through the shorter grasses.
Birds foot trefoil and Tormentil bring in the yellows, while masses of red campion add to the pinks.
I shall look forward to seeing what else might come through, during the summer months and then the pleasure of collecting crowberries in autumn, which are growing here in abundance and make a wonderful dye.
,As we come into summer, I am reminded of just how important it is, to take the time to appreciate these simple pleasures. They bring balance to an often stressful and busy modern life. They put things into perspective and lighten the heart, giving you the strength to deal with life’s challenges.
My daughter, Lark (12 years), summed it up perfectly. A few months ago, she found walking on the coastal path difficult. The power and huge depths of the sea are so apparent on this wild and rugged coastline, that she felt worried to be up there. Now though, she rushes along happily, from one patch of wildflowers to the next, gazing out here to look at a sea bird and looking down there, to admire the sparkling rocks below.
I asked her about the change and she said,
“Oh no, I don’t feel worried at all now! I can’t feel worried, when I am so happy and it makes me happy being out in the sunshine and seeing all of these flowers and creatures. It’s wonderful isn’t it?!”
Children know what they’re talking about, children always notice the wonders of our world. We, as adults have much to learn from them, and watching my children immersed in these simple joys, chases my worries away too.
I hope that you all find time to treat yourselves to some quiet time in nature, over the coming summer months. No matter how many pressing things may need our attention, we will be making it a priority and slowly but surely this old house, will start to become our home.