- Willow ready for harvest in March. Isle of Great Bernera
Coppicing is the practice of cutting the tree down to a specific height. With willow for basketry this is usually done once each year and cut right down to a stool at ground level. Sometimes the stool height is higher, such as done in the Western Isles.
This harvesting is done during the phase when the sap is down. Once the sap goes down the leaves fall off and it is then that the wood is at its most flexible. The coppicer has until the leaf buds burst again in spring to get her willow cut. This practice results in long whips of willow, usually without side shoots.
Our native willows are mostly robust with thick rods. Over the years people bred the thinner willows to give new varieties which gave a bigger percentage of the thinner rods wanted. Willow grows easily from cuttings and is planted close together, these days it is often planted into black plastic or weed suppressant membrane.
Baskets can be made from freshly cut willow but as the willow dries and shrinks the basket will become wobbly and weak.
A willow stool freshly harvested, March.
So people left the willow to half shrink for about 6-8 weeks after cutting. This left the willow still flexible enough to weave but staying stable after further drying. Also many baskets being made this way were kept in byres and used in wet or damp situations, not in the centrally heated houses of today where even half green work can get wobbly. However travellers used willow freshly cut from willow during the summer. The bark would be stripped off to make ‘white’ willow and baskets were made with it immediately.(Information on travellers from Kath Potter-Irwin.)
The advantage of using the half green or ‘clung’ willow was that the maker did not need to soak the material to use it. Once the willow is dry it has to be soaked to revive its flexibility, and with thick rods that can mean soaking for a week or more depending on the variety. Once soaked the willow needs to mellow for the best flexibility. The willow is taken out of the water and wrapped in an old blanket or something similar for about a day before being used in the basket.
Willow can be boiled and then stripped to produce ‘buff’willow. The tannins from the bark are then transferred to the wood itself which makes the basket harder wearing.
By Dawn Susan