Using Natural Materials:
Inspired by nature, I use all natural materials including various types of vines, barks, and foliage. I harvest these materials from my garden, areas that are being cleared, or often the land of clients when I am working on commissioned pieces.
Some of My Favorite Materials to Harvest:
When to Harvest:
Vines: best harvested during the wintertime.
Foliage: harvest when green after they have flowered.
Bark: should be harvested in the late Spring to early Summer.
Hey there everybody, it’s Matt Tommey here in Asheville’s River Arts District. I am covered with materials. One of the things people love to see here in the studio is all the materials that I use and collect over the year to do all the things that I do. It’s also a big reason people take classes with me, is to learn how to work with different materials, natural materials. I was thinking as a way to help a lot of you guys who are basket makers out there, to learn what I call speaking the language of natural materials. I wanted to show you the kinds of things I use on a regular basis and give you three main categories so that you could really learn, yourself, to start speaking the language of natural materials. The whole thing started for me with kudzu, which is my favorite material. It really started with some basic things about learning more about basketry and how to prepare certain materials, and then, a whole lot of experimentation after that.
I’ll start out with the first thing, which are vines – my favorite thing. If you are living in areas, this could be anywhere in the country, Northeast, I’m in the Southeast, out West, in the Northwest, whatever, lots of different vines are available. Obviously you want to stay away from Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, things like that. I always say, “If it’s hairy, be wary.” So if it’s like growing on a tree, and it’s got hair coming off of it, just leave it alone. Everything else, I use a ton of different materials. So, this is kudzu. If you have watched any of my kudzu videos or read any of the blogs, taken a class, you will know that we harvest kudzu and split it before letting it dry. That is what this is, split. Also, wisteria, I use wisteria runners which are fabulous if you love, like, round weed and you want to use this. You can use this with the bark on, or boil it and take the bark off of it. Really, really fabulous. Honeysuckle has got a fabulous bark on it. So if you’re a paper maker, or you like to put fiber into your work, or spin it even, then honeysuckle bark is great for that. Honeysuckle is really a wonky, sort of sculptural vine that is really great. Bittersweet, which is a big chunky vine and we have it here all over the east coast, which is great. Also, grapevine is fabulous. Who doesn’t love grapevine with it’s awesome tendrils and that sort of thing?
So any vine, let’s just sort of take vines as a category. Typically, you are going to harvest vines in the winter time because the sap is down. You are going to bring those in and immediately boil them to get any bugs and travelers and that sort of thing off of them. You will store them in a cool, dry place. And then when you’re ready to use them, you will boil them again, and that’s going to help them, especially things like grapevine, kudzu, wisteria, anything, things that are real woody. Even with big, thick kudzu, that’s going to help them soften down. And also, things like kudzu, you do not have to necessarily boil it, you just put it in really hot tap water for about fifteen minutes, or just until it’s really pliable and you can wrap it around your finger, and that sort of thing. So, that’s vines. Harvest in the wintertime, boil or place in hot water, then weave to your heart’s content.
Second thing, foliage, let’s talk about that. I am a big gardener, so I love the ability to take things out of my garden, so I love iris, and day lilies, and red hot poker, and other foliage like that. I grew up in Georgia and we had those long-leaf pine needles, you know, that you can use. Lots of different things to be used. This is Siberian Iris here which I’ve collected the foliage from. You can do other things like this out of your garden. Just cut these right after they bloom, even cattails. You then lay them out in a cool, dry place to dry. You can even leave them out in the sun. A lot of people take a screen and put it out in the sun, and keep them turning to let them dry really good. Once you’ve got them nice and dried out, you can leave them in a cool, dry place to hang, or things like that so you can continue to use them. These are fabulous if you love detail work. Obviously other grasses and sedges, maiden hair fern, and things like that are out there in the foliage kind of area. Again, you want to dry it in the sun really good, and then store it in a cool, dry place. Usually I’ll tie them, or put a needle and thread through these and hang them like that; just like I’m making hula skirts, but not really. So that’s vines and foliage of lots of different kinds.
The last thing, one of my favorites, is bark. Bark you’re going to harvest, not in the Wintertime like the vines, but you’re going to harvest that in the summertime; late Spring, early Summer when the sap is rising in trees. Really, I would experiment in your area. You know, for me, my go-to bark is Poplar bark. It’s just like how people would use cedar bark or hickory, or things like that. I’m going to use the inner bark of poplar, also the outer bark from saplings. With that, you get a really beautiful kind of look for that, for twill weaving, or random weaving. This inner poplar bark is what I use for all of my sculptural baskets. But there’s also things like hickory, or this is black willow outer bark and inner bark. Mimosa bark, from mimosa trees which are invasive, and they are one of my favorite barks. Also other invasives, like Royal Paulownia which has this really beautiful, sort of polka-dotted bark in there. Again, you want to harvest those in the late Spring to early Summer. You just chop down that tree. Usually you’re working with invasive trees or some other tree that is okay to chop down if you’re thinning out a forest or area or whatever. Then you take off the bark off of that, an
Matt Tommey is a sculptural basketry artist working in Asheville, North Carolina's River Arts District.