Handcrafted Forager’s Basket

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

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by "Little" John Holzwart

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.

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.

The main concern with fresh material is that it will shrink when it dries. While it does shrink for me, I’ve found that my baskets aren’t affected by any shrinkage if I weave them as tightly as possible.

With these things in mind, let’s go harvest some willow!

As I work through my wild willow patch, I not only collect shoots that are long and straight; I also look to make sure there’s no branching. This makes the shoots easier to weave with. Occasionally, I find a red twig dogwood that fits the bill, and I snip that too. Bring some twine with you when you forage to tie bundles of shoots, so you can pile a few bundles of material off to the side as you work.

When I get home, I put the bases of those bundles in water to keep them fresh, as I often make baskets over the course of several days. Even arranged in simple bundles, the beauty of this natural weaving material is already apparent.

Weaving Your Willow Basket

Tools and Materials

  • Willow shoots
  • Hand-held pruners
  • Sturdy scissors
  • Knife

This basket is called a “stake-and-strand” style. Start by selecting six thick pieces of willow that are 12 to 15 inches long. They’ll become the basket base, just like spokes in a wheel, so make sure they’re of roughly equal diameter (about the size of a pencil) to prevent the finished basket from wobbling.

Find the center of the three thickest spokes you have, and split them with your knife.

Next, push the three thinner spokes through the split stems to make an “X” shape. Alternate the butts and tips of the spokes so the base won’t be lopsided.

Take two of your longest and thinnest willow shoots, and thread the fine tips 1 to 2 inches through the slots. The new shoots are called “weavers,” and they’ll be secured as the basket progresses.

Now, the weaving begins. Bring the two weavers around the first three spokes, one on top and one below, and then twist them and do it again on the next three spokes. Pay attention to this twisting and twining as you get into the rhythm of basket-making; the weavers are always changing positions from top to bottom and back, as if they’re dancing around the piece.

Once you’ve gone around twice, instead of weaving around three spokes at once, begin weaving around them individually. As the weavers get thicker, you might need to pre-bend them a little or rub them vigorously to encourage good bending. Remember to weave tightly so the basket will hold its shape as it dries. Push the weavers down together as much as possible.

As the base of the basket grows larger, the weavers will get shorter, and you’ll need to splice in new weavers. Simply add a new weaver alongside the old one — meet butt ends with butt ends, and tips with tips — and continue weaving. After splicing in one weaver, stagger the next splice by weaving ahead a few spokes before adding the other. You can trim the protruding ends after completing the base.

You can continue to make this base as big as you’d like, but you’re making a forager’s basket, not a laundry basket! Once the base is at the diameter you want (for me, that’s about 9 inches), prepare the side spokes — or “stakes,” in this stake-and-strand-style basket. You’ll need 24 rods of roughly the same size. Sort these, and then sharpen the ends.

Next, push these stakes into your basket base on both sides of each spoke. You’ll need space to spread out at this stage, as it takes up a lot of room. For one short moment, your unfinished basket will look like a rustic tribute to the sun.

As you can see, next comes a step called “pricking up.” Take a sharp knife, and with the blade of that knife oriented away from the basket base, stick the point into one of the new stakes just where it meets the base, and gently twist. At the same time, lift the stake you’re working on so it stands upright. Continue to work your way around the piece by pricking and bending up all the stakes, skipping the ends of the spokes left over from weaving the base. You can tie the stakes with twine at the tips to help hold them in place until you’ve woven enough of the basket sides to anchor them. At this point, it’ll look like you have something suitable for transporting a chicken to a medieval market, but it’s going to be a beautiful basket — trust me.

Now it’s time to start weaving the sides. Remember making the base? It’s a similar concept here; you’ll work with two weavers again, and you’ll twine them tightly around each stake. Try to evenly space out the stakes as you weave between them.

Once you’ve woven around the basket a few times — each round is called a “course” — trim off the ends of your base spokes. This will make handling the unfinished basket easier.

After a few more courses, you might choose to weave in a band of red twig dogwood for contrast. I like to then add more willow to frame in the new color.

Once the walls are as high as you want them, finish the rim of the basket. Take the ends of the stakes and carefully bend each one over and around the next. When you reach the last one, tuck it beneath the first one that was bent over to make a continuous rim. Then, trim the ends of the stakes a little, to make them easier to work with.

To finish the rim, weave those trimmed stakes inward. (I like to skip two and then go in.) Pull each stake tight before cutting it off, and be careful not to cut it too short, or it will work its way out.

There you have it, a finished willow basket! It’s simple, but what did you expect for your first basket? After you make this style a few times, you can experiment with adding a handle, or a foot on the bottom. I hope this introduction will inspire you to make basket-weaving an annual part of your life, as I’ve made it part of mine.

Choosing Willow for Weaving

These species of Salix are best for weaving baskets:

  • S. alba var. sericea is a small tree with green and flexible shoots.
  • S. alba var. vitellina is a large cultivated species with strong, flexible rods and egg-yolk-yellow winter stems.
  • S. fragilis ‘Belgium Red’ is a large tree with a deep-red stem in winter.
  • S. interior is a small shrub with slender new shoots that are red-brown in color.
  • S. koriyanagi ‘Rubikins’ is perfect for fine basketry, with long, slender, flexible rods.
  • S. miyabeana is a large shrub with shoots that are pale brown when young and gray when they mature.
  • S. pentandra has glossy, red-brown growth each year.
  • S. petiolaris is a large shrub with lovely shoots in shades of purple.
  • S. purpurea comes in a variety of useful subspecies in colors ranging from green and brown to purplish.
  • S. rigida ‘American McKay’ grows new shoots that are a deep red-brown color.
  • S. x rubens ‘Hutchinsons Yellow’ is a large shrub whose fine new shoots display a rich yellow.
  • S. x smithiana is a vigorous shrub with annual brown shoots.
  • S. triandra ‘Black Maul’ is a widely used willow for basket-making, and has rich, dark growth in shades ranging from maroon to black.
  • S. triandra ‘Noir de Villane’ is another popular willow cultivar, with dark, almost black growth.
  • S. viminalis might have new shoots that display colors from deep yellow to reddish brown.

“Little” John Holzwart is a crafter, forager, and modern-day Renaissance man. Find him at Plant Based Services.