I have wanted to work exclusively with plants from my garden or plants that I can gather locally, for a long while. I made a good amount of progress towards this goal, early last year, but having to move to several temporary homes, whilst waiting to find our proper one, meant that it was easier to work with raffia through the autumn and winter.
I pushed myself to explore the possibilities of my raffia work and really enjoyed experimenting with natural dyes and pattern work, so it was difficult to leave it behind. I had grown comfortable with it and confident in my skills and it was comforting to have a little list of people waiting to buy my baskets.
It would have been easy to just carry on. Would it have been what I really wanted to do? No. A big part of the fascination of basketry for me, has always been its accessibility and potential for sustainability.
I am certainly never going to be able to grow raffia here, so I had to say goodbye.
Panic started to set in a little, looking at our rather bare garden in winter. I didn’t have any stores of plants and fibres from last year to use. It didn’t seem practical to put it all into storage, so I had left it all behind. However, I am a firm believer that there is always something (wherever you are), that you can use to make a basket.
I began to look more closely and noticed a large clump of last years crocosmia leaves. Unlike some patches, these were in great condition, dried to perfection by the wind and sunshine. Surely I could make a basket with these? I hadn’t used crocosmia before, but have seen many beautiful baskets made with its leaves. Usually they are gathered towards the end of the season, but while they are still green. These were a beautiful auburn colour and very dry.
They reminded me of the wood rush leaves that I had worked with in our last garden, which could be used when brown, if plaited. They proved to be too fragile for cordage or twining. So I decided to use the crocosmia in the same way, carefully plaiting the leaves together, before coiling into a basket.
It turned into a sweet little basket with a twisted handle and I found that by soaking the leaves in water for a couple of days, I could also make them into cordage.
The only fibres that I had brought with me, was a large handful of Phormium Tenax. I absolutely love this plant and its wonderfully versatile, strong fibres, so I couldn’t bare to leave it behind.
It was a very small amount though, so I used it to make a tiny basket, the one that you can see in the main image at the top of this post. I loved making it and knew that I wanted to carry on with my work with this plant, as soon as possible. Phormium Tenax (or New Zealand Flax), is one of the first things that I have planted in our new garden, but I won’t be able to harvest from it this year.
Fortunately, I noticed that there were some plants by our local beach, with a lot of old growth leaves. These dry, partially retted leaves are more time consuming to process, than the fresh green ones, but give just as good fibre once the work is done.
You can find these fabulous plants, growing all over the Orkney Islands, because they can withstand the high winds and are very happy in salty, coastal conditions.
I found my wire brush and got to work, breaking down the leaves. If fresh, a wire brush would be all that is needed. For these older leaves, I find that it is best to separate the fibres as much as I can with the brush and then leave them to soak overnight. The next morning, I continue the process by hand, until I have a beautifully clean batch of fibres, ready for basket making.
I had taken inspiration from a little wrens nest, for my tiny two loop basket and I wanted to continue with nest inspired work. We have such a variety of nests here and each one is precious. So beautifully and skilfully made, with each little bird using the materials around them to create their masterpiece – nature’s sustainable basket makers!
I began by thinking that I would use a variety of plant fibres and found materials, but I started the basket with Phormium Tenax and Sphagnum Moss and I have become fascinated by the relationship between these two, as I have been working.
The Tenax fibres are being used both for cordage and as the stitching fibre. In addition, I am using them in my moss cordage, to give extra strength and structure.
I am learning so much from making this basket, not only about the plants that I am working with, but also about myself.
For me, the connection to my materials – the gathering, the preparing, is just as important to me as making the basket itself. The joy of making, is magnified by the intimacy with plants that I have found or grown and with each new discovery made along the way.
So I look forward to a year of getting to know the plants around me and finding out what baskets we can make together.