Handcrafted Forager’s Basket

Get more self-sufficient this summer by collecting willow shoots and turning them into a beautiful, functional basket.

| June/July 2019

 willow-basket

As a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, I’ve come to enjoy all four seasons. And as a forager, I also find things to harvest in all of those seasons. Collecting willow and making baskets has been a springtime activity of mine for quite a while; I go out when the snow is gone but the buds haven’t broken, usually in March or April. I prefer leafless willow shoots (so I don’t have to strip leaves off later), and I look for places where the plants have been cut back regularly, such as the ditches along roads and waterways. That’s where I find the long, straight shoots I need to make baskets.

Not all willows make good baskets. Many species of Salix, the willow genus, are too brittle for the work. For species that will work well, see “Choosing Willow for Weaving,” below. Other species can be used as accents to add a splash of color. For example, red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a nice addition to a willow basket, as you’ll see in this article.

Some basket-makers plant their own willow patches. If you plan to do this, be sure to fence in your willows to help prevent deer browsing. I’ve been to a few gardens with their own willow patch, and it’s always a thing of beauty, although the willow will need to be coppiced or pollarded to produce shoots suitable for weaving. Coppicing is cutting the plants back, low to the ground, to make dome-shaped stumps. Pollarding is cutting growth back to the main trunk at about chest height; a pollarded tree looks something like a lollipop when it’s trimmed. Either way, willow trees need to be cut annually to maintain shoot production.



cutting-willows

When I make a willow basket, I prefer to use the material fresh. Many basket-makers prefer to dry their material and rehydrate it later to make it flexible again. To do that, you’d need a vessel large enough to completely submerge all the shoots you’re using (which I don’t have). I’ve also heard stories of people who use their bathtubs, only to have the tannins from the willow shoots stain the tub.






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