First Basket: Red Osier, Lilac, Virginia Creeper, Basswood, Wool

On a sunny and well-frozen day in early February, we learn to harvest red osier dogwood. Its color is stunning against the snow, and makes for a beautiful basket. Ray leads us to promising harvest spots, talking about the dogwood’s preferred habitat (open and sunny and wet). We fan out in search of long, straight, slender whips; a single year’s growth. If you don’t cut the red osier, it branches and becomes thick and woody. If you cultivate a relationship with the red osier and harvest it for baskets, it will respond by offering you more, longer, straighter whips for baskets. This class is a collaboration between Ray and Northwood Natural Learning and each of the leaders bring a different perspective to practicing gratitude while harvesting. From a simple “thank you” when waking up each morning, to asking permission before cutting, to combining our voices in a post-harvest song of thanks.

Back at the teaching lodge, Ray covers the basics of making a simple basket starting with two hoops. Ray makes beautiful, painstakingly crafted baskets, but he doesn’t overwhelm us with details. We are free to make our own discoveries, or to ask for assistance if we so choose. I make two hoops, and join them at 90° angles with god’s eyes. This is going well.

I cut some ribs to length and tuck them snugly behind the god’s eyes. Hmm. The ribs are pushing my basket into a football shape that I don’t find very pleasing. I realize that I could remedy this by making the hoops sturdier (which would require undoing my god’s eyes), or by selecting slimmer ribs that wouldn’t deform the hoops. Feeling a little demoralized and pressed for time, I choose neither course of action, and decide to proceed with weaving my basket, chalking this up to a learning experience.

Intimidated by the prospect of weaving with the beautiful but quite resilient red osier, I choose to use basswood fiber for weaving between the ribs. Basswood fiber is an amazing material. This is my first experience with it. While basswood does grow on my land, it’s not plentiful, and the process for harvesting the fiber involves cutting down a tree and soaking it in a stream for about a month. I would like to try this someday, but for now I’m content with experiencing basswood fiber that has been harvested by others. I was very pleased with the basswood cordage that I made and used for the center of my god’s eyes. But as a weaving material… it is certainly easy to use, but it completely obscures the structure of the basket.

With the clock running down, I feel I have no choice but to continue down this path, but when the class ends, I decline the offer to take home enough materials to finish my basket. I didn’t even feel like taking photos of my basket; though it makes an appearance in our final group photo. I’ve turned it towards the camera at the angle I found least objectionable.

My unloved basket sits on the cabinet in my entryway for about a week before I find the courage to mostly disassemble it. I had realized that this style of basket that starts with two hoops actually encompasses a wide range of possible basket shapes, depending on the relative size and roundness of the hoops and the length of the ribs. There was a little basket that always sat on top of the piano when I was growing up. My mom called it a buttocks basket, which accurately describes its shape (in the days before Google, I was never completely sure whether my mom had invented the name herself, but “butt” was a forbidden word in our house so I eventually concluded that buttocks baskets must be a real thing because my mom would probably have named them bottom baskets).

This requires new, longer ribs. The red osier is still hiding in plain sight in the woods, not ready to call attention to itself, so I look around for other likely materials. The lilac bush has a lot of long straight suckers, and it is close at hand, so I give it a chance. I find it to be not terribly flexible, but workable for my rib needs. Given the small size of my basket, and my concern about making tight curves with my weaving material, my buttocks end up being sort of wide and flat instead of round and cloven, but having named this basket after a body part, I’m inclined to be more forgiving of its lumps and oddities.

I’ve always given Virginia creeper the side eye when I encounter it, in part because its growth habit reminds me of that of poison ivy. It seems to be a colonizer of disturbed ground, field edges, and roadside ditches (like poison ivy), so maybe my reaction is one of guilt for my part in creating those disturbed areas. It creeps through my aging compost piles, and invites itself into the [once] tidy piles of stone, gravel, and bucked up logs that dot my dooryard—it is a privilege of rural living to maintain sprawling collections of materials that will surely be useful someday. Its name also suggested to me that this plant was not native to Maine (untrue, I have learned), which made it easier to disdain.

When searching online for confirmation that I could, in fact, use Virginia creeper in a basket, I came across a blog post written by a woman who had accidentally harvested and used poison ivy instead of Virginia creeper in a basket, not realizing her mistake until after the basket was finished and her hands had doubled in size. Both poison ivy and Virginia creeper grow on my land, but I have no desire to make a poison ivy basket. Lucky for me, although poison ivy can climb, I’ve never seen it with this growth habit on my land.

On the day that I headed outside to collect creeper vines twisted through the sheep fencing, I had been sick for over a week. Complete exhaustion due to difficulty breathing had kept me close to home, but snow-shoeing around the perimeter of the field in the crisp air preceding February’s blizzard reminded my sluggish body that it had something to live for.

I’d like to think that even if Virginia creeper grew side by side along the fencing with poison ivy, I would be able to distinguish between the leafless vines. Virginia creeper has a curly tendril at each node, paired with a branch. I trim each vine to a single strand and soak them in hot water to make them pliable for weaving. My unconfident hands fumble with awkwardly threading long, lumpy, and opinionated vines through narrow gaps between the ribs. There are lessons to learn here. In some places where a vine makes a turn around a rib, the thin outer bark splits to reveal the pale greenish cambium underneath. I didn’t think try removing the bark before I started weaving, but it seems like something worth exploring in the future. In other cases, whether due to insufficient soaking, impatient hands or the particular character of the vine, a weaver would crack when wrapping around a rib. With the blizzard fully arrived and actively burying the Virginia creeper that remained on the fence, I choose to forgive flaws that I might otherwise have remedied by replacing a length of vine.

The relatively closely spaced nodes mean that my basket has lots of lumps; it’s not a refined look. The nodes also pose challenges for weaving. I learn quickly that I cannot ask the vine to make a 180° turn over the rim unless the section of vine in question is between nodes. Nodes are points of weakness.

I finish the center of the basket with a band woven with blue yarn and a stripe of basswood cordage.

And out of the woods, and field edges, a basket is born.

Why have I never woven a basket before? I love handcrafts—how did this one elude me for so long? I could be making beautiful, useful containers all the time, armed with nothing but a pair of bypass pruners.

Note: This blog post is one in a series about the baskets that I’m making for my final project as an apprentice in the Wildwood Path.

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