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Jonathan Manning learns the ancient craft of willow weaving in the heart of Suffolk
More years ago than I care to remember, when my elder son was in the Reception class at primary school, I spent an entire morning with him decorating a paper plate with a Nativity scene. We used cotton wool to create sheep, a silver milk bottle top for the moon, and scraps of old tea-towel for shepherds. At the school’s Christmas fair that afternoon, my son won the prize for the best decorated plate because, in the words of the judges, his was the only entry that showed no sign of adult involvement.
Art has never been a strength of mine, whether drawing, painting or making. It’s not the vision that’s the problem – I have a clear idea of what I am trying to achieve. It’s the execution where I fall down. Any creative talent stalled at about the age of five.
For a few years, however, I have wondered about willow sculptures. Would their apparent ‘bird nest’ untidiness be more forgiving of my artistic shortcomings? Trying to model clay or chip away at marble would be a daft idea, but weaving withies, rods or whips of willow into a messy yet recognisable outline might be achievable.
So, with optimism outstripping realism, I find myself in a small workshop on an industrial estate in Brandon, Suffolk, just eight miles from the Club’s Thetford Forest site. Toni Cross runs The Licky Cow Gallery, which sells her eye-catching wildlife photography and houses a busy studio for teaching willow crafts.
“There’s no obvious form to willow shapes,” she says, “which is why we tend to make creatures with very obvious features, such as hares with long ears, dragonflies with huge wings, and reindeer with big antlers.”
This close to the festive period, Santa’s sleigh-pullers are the obvious pick, the antlers hopefully providing enough form that I won’t need to identify the bundle of twigs in the garden for anyone. There’s even a Blue Peter-style ‘here’s one I made earlier’ model to copy, skilfully fashioned by Toni, although it’s intimidating in its neatness, accurate proportions and sturdy build quality.
“The willow we’re using has been cut, dried and then soaked again,” she says. “It’s very flexible, but it has a mind of its own. It likes to bend in one way, because of the prevailing wind or reaching towards the light where it was grown.”
The rods have come from Somerset, cut at super-thin three-foot and slightly sturdier four-foot lengths. Willow can apparently grow up to nine feet in a year.
There are six of us in the one-day class, and to give us a head start Toni has made each of us four circles of willow, between six and 10 inches in diameter. These will provide the foundations for the skull and torso; the rest will be up to us. Professional willow sculptures sold in galleries and garden centres often have steel frames, but ours will be 100% willow.
We begin by weaving rods around the pre-made hoops, filling them out and getting a feel for how amazingly bendy willow is as a material. The end of the rods is no thicker than string and just as pliable – initially I expect it to snap, but after a few weaves it’s clear that it can withstand whatever pressure my clumsy fingers apply.
The wood is surprisingly tactile, too, although a couple of people find that its voracious thirst for water dries their fingers and proves itchy. As with so many crafts, working with head and hands proves to be utterly absorbing, and while there’s a gentle hum of background conversation, most of us are fixated on the steady evolution of the models in front of us.
Working with willow is one of the oldest crafts known to humankind, with evidence of basket weaving remains dating back to 8,000BC.
Although I imagine that it’s only in the last few decades that the likes of Christmas reindeer have occupied willow craftsmen and women.
The first suggestion our reindeer are starting to take shape comes when we thread and twist three hoops onto a bunch of 10 rods to create a body that looks a little like a lobster pot.
“I think my reindeer will be looking backwards not forwards,” jokes a class member as she gazes at her hollow, curved sausage of rods. As if reading our minds, Toni offers reassurance over cake and a mug of tea. “Don’t worry – you’ll have added the legs and head before lunch and then it will all come together.”
Deer or lobster pot?
With an abundance of willow rods, there’s plenty of scope for trial and error. The first legs I make are so long I’m in danger of building a giraffe, so I simply start again. But with four legs splayed, my reindeer still looks as if it has been sharing Santa’s fireplace sherries – it’s closer to Bambi on ice than dynamic sleigh-puller.
Toni seems unfazed. Throughout the day she moves from one model to the next, advising on where to add more rods to strengthen or tighten the structure, demonstrating with a perfect example then encouraging us to finish the task.
Amazingly, given that we’ve all seen the original model, used the same materials and had the same teacher, our reindeer take very different forms. One has legs as short as a Dachshund, another stands tall with magnificent antlers, and a third has dropped its head as if preparing to charge.
I rush to make two ears and a tail, each of which looks like a rudimentary snow shoe, before tying them on with thin willow strips, and then set about filling out my reindeer’s head and torso, weaving rods every which way to create a spaghetti effect. My neighbour has sacrificed speed for precision, her painstaking approach creating willow lines as neat as pinstripes.
“The models should keep for years, but don’t leave them outside for long in winter,” says Toni. “If they get wet, freeze and defrost, they’ll start to crack and splinter.”
Leaving the workshop, I wonder whether my reindeer might become a touring companion. It’s exceptionally light for such a large structure so it won’t impact my towing weight, and it would be an attractive ornament on a pitch. But then one of its ears wobbles and an antler catches on the caravan door, and I realise it’s just not going to survive a life on the road. It can stay home and graze the lawn while I’m away instead.
Antlers on, no ears
Course leader Toni Cross
Jonathan fashions his deer
Three more willow workshops around the country
Willow Basket Making Malvern, Worcestershire
Learn how to weave a handsome, practical, multi-coloured round basket on a one-day willow weaving course (£95).
Info: basketmakingmalvern.weebly.com, 01886 833238
Willow and Crafts, Hampshire
Create a sitting or moon-gazing hare on this one-day course (£75) – ideal decoration for your camping pitch or garden.
The willow Barn, County Durham
Pick up the basic techniques and skills to weave and create a wonderful willow chicken or duck on this one-day course (£69).
Info: thewillowbarn.co.uk, 07903 714066