Nicky Sherwood visited The Old Kennels in Devon to learn to make handmade Christmas decorations using a variety of natural materials. Working with basketmaker Hilary Burns, we learnt how to weave traditional decorations from English willow
The Old Kennels is a wonderfully relaxing location in which to learn a new skill or further develop an existing one. Owner Tracey Bell offers courses in a variety of traditional arts and crafts, as well as keeping a herd of alpaca for their fibre, and running self-catering accommodation which has been awarded ‘Gold’ in the Green Tourism Business Scheme.
The course took place in the studio and we were taught by basket maker Hilary Burns, who began by showing us how to make simple star decorations using white willow, a premium grade of willow which has had the bark stripped off. First we took a long willow rod and made five soft bends in it, taking care not to snap it.
We folded it into a ‘4’ shape then tucked the last point back inside the triangle to form a five point star. I folded the end to create a hanger for the Christmas tree, but you could also leave the end long like a wand and display a group of them in a vase, or even join several together to create a starry willow garland.
Before we moved on to weaving little Christmas trees, we made larger sized stars from equally sized brown willow simply jointed at each point of the star.
Next Hilary showed us how to weave little Christmas trees using natural dark brown willow. We made a V shaped frame and weaved the willow around it in a figure of eight pattern to form the tree shape. When the willow runs out you simply start weaving with a new rod, leaving a short length sticking out the side, which can be snipped off later.
Two sticks of willow were inserted to form the trunk, then we continued weaving in and out of the 4 uprights. Once the tree was the right height, we snipped off the two outer sticks and continued weaving the trunk until the willow was finished and the end could be tucked back inside. Finish it with a pretty raffia bow around the trunk or add a ribbon at the top to hang it from your Christmas tree.
Our third project was to create a hanging spiral decoration, using a wooden block with five holes drilled into it. We inserted five long willow rods into the holes and bent and folded them into a ’corn dolly’ spiral, before tying off the top like a wigwam and snipping off the excess willow. These decorations can also be used as a hanging bird feeders by placing an apple inside and securing it with a length of willow through the base.
Following a delicious home-cooked lunch and steaming mugs of mulled wine, we were ready to start on the major project of the day – a willow wreath. For this we took a long, straight willow rod and gently bent it into a large circle, taking care not to snap it (or poke our neighbour in the eye!). We did the same with the second rod, wrapping it around the first one it so that the thickest end of the willow overlapped the thinnest part of the first rod to create a good, even base.
We added four willow rods in total, wrapping them all in a clockwise direction. Then we added another four rods, wrapping them in the opposite direction, to add bulk and strength. Gradually our wreaths began to take shape and soon we were ready to start adding the decoration…
Amongst Hilary’s selection of materials I found some fresh fig tree branches with a few green figs still attached, which I wired onto my willow base. With the addition of a few pine cones, my wreath was looking suitably natural and rustic, and I nipped outside to photograph it in the fresh Devon air, overlooking Tracey’s organic vegetable garden.
Then it was time to step back, admire our work, and realise just how much we’d achieved in a single day. Relaxing in the pretty guest accommodation that evening, I decided that I really liked working with willow. There’s something very satisfying about working with such a raw and natural material, and knowing that people have been weaving long straight willow rods into sensuous, undulating shapes by hand for centuries.
For a one day beginner’s course, you do learn a huge amount and are very productive, with lots of lovely willow decorations to take home and keep for many Christmasses to come. Why not have a go yourself and do send in photos of your creations – we’d love to see them! x
Find out about upcoming art and craft courses at The Old Kennels at www.theoldkennels.co.uk.
Visit the website of basketmaker Hilary Burns at www.hilaryburns.com.
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