Ten years ago I went to a basket making retreat in Oregon because I wanted to try working with willow. The woman, Jo Campbell-Ansler, who taught the three-day class is from Iowa where she grows and harvests the materials she uses. Not all willows are good for basket making. Several days before the workshop, she arrives with long willow rods from her farm so she can soak them.
I had heard that working with willow is hard on the hands, and I was somewhat concerned about whether I could do it because I’ve never had strong hands.
The first thing we did was work each damp rod back and forth around our knee to gently loosen up the branch so it would be more flexible. One end was as big around as my little finger and the other end was the size of a bamboo skewer.
Our teacher took us step by step to construct the basket.
The willow we used came in a variety of colors from yellow-green, to a brownish-green, and red. The finished basket is very colorful. It is called a gathering pouch.
I found that I was able to work with this material; I just had to take my time and not get frustrated if the spokes didn’t stay where I put them on the first try.
After that first class, I decided to try growing some willow. There is a company that sells shrubs and trees, and they grow a number of varieties of willow, indicating which ones are good for basket making. I confidently ordered four starts and planted them in several places in my yard.
They seemed to grow that first summer, but didn’t do well the next year. Willows like water. Lots of it. That is why I saw them growing along side streams in Oregon years ago. Sprinklers two or three days a week for twenty minutes in California’s hot central valley doesn’t provide enough water. Even my well established pussy willow died in the drought.
About three years later I took another class with this teacher and made a different style of basket. The second class was a one day class and I didn’t finish the basket in the class, but completed it at home.
I really liked the feel of working with willow and how the rods pack together and sort of accommodate each other, unlike reed which is a uniform size and wants its own space.
I’m glad I did those classes when I did because I don’t think I could work with willow now due to having pain and difficulty with my hands every day.