Editors Laura and Nicky headed to the tranquil county of Staffordshire to learn the art of willow weaving with basketmaker Eddie Glew of Blithfield Willowcrafts.
Arriving at the venue, a beautiful old timbered building dating from the 1600s called Church House in the village of Abbots Bromley, I was greeted by basketmaker Eddie Glew and my fellow student weavers who would be joining me on this one day introduction to willow weaving course.
After hot cups of tea all round and ‘posh biscuits’ (Eddie’s words, not mine) we were offered the choice of making a traditional round willow basket or a willow piglet. I decide to go for the latter, having seen the fabulous willow sheep standing in the entrance of the building.
Made by Eddie, the light coloured stripped willow had been skilfully manipulated to resemble a sheep’s curly fleece, while the darker untreated willow was used to define the face and legs. Would I really be able to create a three dimensional organic sculpture from those long, straight lengths of willow? Time would tell…
First of all, Eddie explained to us how the ‘green’ willow is grown locally and then soaked in water for several days to soften up. Then he demonstrated how to work with the long willow rods, bending each length over your thigh to create a soft undulating curve. The blunt end is called the ‘butt end’ while the finer end of the rod is called the’ tip end’. Technical terms apart, this is a very hands-on process with minimal tools required – you’re mostly relying on your own two hands and a bit of ingenuity.
The starting point for my piglet was to weave two small willow wreaths to create the head. This was a good way to get used to working with the material. Bending and tucking in the lengths of willow, a small circlet started to form.
Two larger oval shaped wreaths were then made and held together temporarily using string to form the main egg-shaped of the body of the piglet.
I gradually built up the body density by bending and wrapping the long willow rods around the egg-shaped frame until it started to take on a more solid appearance.
Next the head and body were tied together and I started to create the pointy snout shape of the piglet’s face.
The snout itself required some basketweaving techniques to create the rounded end of his nose. I really enjoyed using the direction of the swathes of willow to give a feel for the muscle structure in the animal’s face.
Then the head was joined to the body and I started on the legs. According to Eddie, it’s all in the expression so things like lop-sided legs and ears are all well and good – thank goodness for that.
Last job of all was to weave his little floppy ears, again using a close-knit basketweaving technique that Eddie had demonstrated, before making a curly tail by winding a willow rod tightly around a bodkin – one of the few times I used a piece of equipment other than my hands, all day.
With the addition of his basketweave ears and curly tail, my little piglet friend was complete. I like his cheeky inquisitive expression – he looks like he’s up for a bit of mischief!
Back home, I asked my 6 year old son Sam what my piglet should be called and he decided on ‘Salty Pig’. Slightly bemused, it took a moment to realise that this was a reference to Peppa Pig (practically a deity in our household) so Salty Pig he is and will remain, snuffling on the lawn to his little piggy heart’s content. A lasting reminder of a very enjoyable day spent manipulating six foot willow rods into a quirky, three dimensional and strangely lifelike form.
For anyone who is interested in trying their hand at willow weaving, I would highly recommend this one day course as a starting point. It’s great fun and you really get a feel for the willow, learning at your own pace, with input from Eddie who is clearly passionate about his craft, having learnt it from his late father.
One of the things I loved about this day was that the material is just so raw and natural and can be transformed so completely just with your own two hands. Anyone who loves the idea of using a time-honoured and traditional material in a new and exciting way will enjoy the creative possibilities that this one day willow weaving and basketmaking course offers.
To find out about upcoming willow weaving and basketmaking courses with Eddie Glew, visit www.blithfieldwillowcrafts.co.uk.
To buy beautiful English willow products including sculptures, dog baskets and garden obelisks handcrafted in Staffordshire by Eddie Glew, visit the Blithfield Willowcrafts Shop.
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