I started making baskets when I was in college at the University of Georgia back in the early 1990’s. While working at the bookstore on campus I found a book on Willow Basketry, took it home and began to experiment with the materials outside my apartment building – kudzu. I had never seen or heard of a kudzu basket at that time. Before long, the baskets started actually looking like something and I sold a few to friends. My journey had begun. I later began dating my now wife, Tanya while in school at UGA and she was the first girl that would ever go pick kudzu with me. I guess it was meant to be! We’ve been married a lot of years now – now she does deposits.
About a year later I had taken a position as a youth pastor at a local church in Athens and was helping out at a senior adult luncheon our church was hosting. Of all people, the program that day was a lady Regina Hines who was the foremost authority on kudzu basket weaving in the country. I was blown away that someone actually did what I was doing with kudzu. It was during her 45-minute program that I saw her split kudzu for the first time. Afterwards we met and the rest is history. We’ve stayed in touch now for almost 20 years. While our styles are very different, I credit Miss Regina with having a major influence on my early work. Most recently, I have been influenced by the work of MIchael Davis, Dorothy Gill Barnes, Ane Lyngsgaard, Lissa Hunter, Jennifer Heller Zurick, Joe Hogan, Polly Adams Sutton and the work of early Japanese Ikebana basket makers as I continue to develop me own unique creative voice.
Traditional Baskets, Nontraditional Materials Since I started making baskets, I’ve always been attracted to the traditional Appalachian forms like the Egg Basket, Hen Basket, Oriole and Potato Baskets. The problem was that most of these baskets were made from very predictable, uniform material – white oak or black ask splints. Since I’ve always used primarily kudzu and other vines like honeysuckle, grape, bittersweet and wisteria vines for my work, I had to develop my own process of preparation and weaving in order to get my nontraditional materials to respond in traditional baskets.
Harvesting Natural Materials The best time to harvest the natural materials I’m describing here is in the winter. I generally say after the leaves fall until the leaves are out in the Spring is when I harvest. You can harvest materials all year around, but the winter is best for a number of reasons:
• No critters are out and about • The sap is way down which means the bark on your vines will stay in tact as you’re pulling it. It also helps the vines dry and shrink quicker. • Vines ‘release’ easier when you pull them in the winter because all the small tendrils and leaves are dead. • Most natural materials are easier to get to in the winter as you can see them easily in the trees, on the ground, etc.
Generally the only material I harvest in the spring and summer is tree bark (poplar, pine, birch and cedar) for making bark baskets and stakes for twined baskets. When I harvest vines or any materials, I clean and coil them in the woods. It saves a lot of time and hassle when I get back to the studio.
Kudzu When I first started out, I did what everyone else said to do with kudzu:
Harvest the vines that grow up the trees
Let the kudzu dry for up to a week in a cool, dry place
Weave it while it’s still green
Be ok with the ‘organic’ look and feel of your warped basket upon drying.
That didn’t work for the style, tightness of weave and quality I wanted to produce. Through a lot of experimentation and trial and error, I came up with my own technique. Although larger pieces of kudzu can be used for frame work (knarled handles, frames, ribs, etc) I find smaller pieces of kudzu are best suited as weaver material. Here’s the process I use to prepare kudzu weavers:
Harvesting Kudzu for Baskets: Harvest the runners that grow along the ground (only ones that have mature bark – the grayish brown color – not the green, fuzzy vines). The large pith and flexible fiber in the runners flatten out nicely and are very uniform – growing 40-50 ft sometimes. You can still harvest stuff that grows in the trees, but I try to stay with vines that are no larger than about a 1⁄2”. The large kudzu is very, very fibrous, has little pith and is very ‘hairy’ when split.
Split & Coil: Immediately split and coil the kudzu within a day or two, allowing it to dry completely in a cool, dry place. Separate by size. When you split a piece coil it together. That way when you’re ready to use it, you’ll have matching pieces for your basket. NOTE: the bark will come off of kudzu easily, leaving a beautiful white/green vine underneath. I use this and the ‘bark-on’ look in almost all my work. Be sure to keep the long pieces of bark, as they make incredible cordage and lace for projects like potato and folded bark baskets.
Soak: Once you’re ready to weave fill your sink or a plastic tub with warm/hot water. NOT BOILING – just however hot your sink water gets. Put the vines in with a brick or other weight on top of them and let them soak until they will wrap around your finger without breaking. This should be about 5-10 minutes
Flatten: Lastly, before I weave take the prepared kudzu and flatten it by pulling it (bark side down) over the bull-nosed edge of my kitchen counter. You need to practice this in order to put just the right amount of tension on the vine without breaking or splitting the vine further. Once you’re done, you’ve got beautiful, flat, moist kudzu to work with. NOTE: only soak enough kudzu to weave in one sitting.
Other Vines, Branches & Bark I tend to lump all the additional vines I use into an ‘Other’ category, because I find their attributes and preparation to be very similar. Most other vines that I use I my work include:
Honeysuckle (Both large pieces and small runners. The bark is great for cordage. The larger vines are great for handles and are usually very funky shapes. Be careful – honeysuckle is very, very brittle – even when it’s green.) Click here to read my blog on How to Weave a Basket with Honeysuckle Vines.
Wisteria (Mostly small runners. When you boil wisteria, the bark will want to come off… you can weave with it on, but just be careful. However, if it does come off the undervine is a beautiful white/cream color and the bark is great for cordage.) Click here to read my blog on How to Weave a Basket with Wisteria.
Grapevine (Both large vines and the small runners – especially the decorative tendrils. I usually take the bark off revealing the purple or green underbark. It’s much cleaner looking unless you’re going for a more natural decorative effect.)
Bittersweet (Mostly large vines but some of the small runners are nice as well. It can be very brittle and if you bend it too sharply even when green the bark will crack.)
Forsythia & Eleagnus (The long 1 year shoots that sometimes grow on the bush up to 6’-8’ in length).
Willow (You can harvest wild osier willows by creeks, rivers or other boggy areas during the winter. The long shoots and shorter branches are great for weaving. You can let them dry or use them 'green'. A variety of beautiful and functional cultivated willow is available on the market as well that is much less branchy - growing 5-8' in one year with very few to no branches. The color variety is incredible.
For more information on using willow in your work, check out my friends Katherine and Steve at Dunbar Gardens in Washington State USA. They also sell cuttings that you can root and plant for your own basketry garden.
Poplar Bark (I use the bark from saplings or poplar trees who's bark is still smooth. Usually I prefer to work with trees whose trunk is between 2" and 8" wide and no branches from the base to upwards of 6'-8' up. All bark must be harvested in the spring and summer months when the sap is up. To harvest the bark, fell the tree and then take a razor blade and cut all the way through the bark to the wood. Then cut a circle around the tree at the top and bottom of your cut line. That will allow you to work a large knife under the bark and begin gently but firmly separating the bark from the tree. For details on this process, check out this series of 3 videos on YouTube from Leatherwood Crafts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-kn7cRqrls. Also check out these great instructions from Ken Peek on"How to make a Folded Bark Basket".You can also use a leather strap cutter and cut your bark in strips for weaving in traditional twill or plaiting work. Once you harvest the bark, use it immediately OR roll it up inside out and tie with a string until you're ready to use it. You can soak or boil to prepare it for weaving. This same process can be used for a variety of sapling bark. However, once you take the bark off a tree, the tree will die. Be sure to harvest sustainably and use the wood for firewood, mulch or some other purpose. Here's a recent video I did on how to harvest the inner bark of poplar trees! http://www.matttommey.com/blog/how-to-harvest-poplar-bark-for-hand-woven-baskets
For all of these ‘other’ materials, I prepare them the same way – heat and water. Vines are prepared by coiling them tightly and placing them in boiling water for a minimum of 10 minutes. You want them to be pliable enough to bend 90 degrees or more without breaking. I usually try to wrap a piece around my hand as a test. Sometimes you can get away with just soaking vines for a long time to get them pliable. However, the larger concern is bugs. Many vines, especially wild grapevine has a tendency to have teeny little mites in them. If you don’t boil the vines and kill the mites you’ll make a beautiful basket and then notice in about a week that there are sawdust pyramids all around the basket from where your little friends are boring holes. Not a pretty site. I’ve even boiled baskets that were already made in an effort to kill those little boogers. It works.
For branches like forsythia, eleagnus, laurel or rhododendron I created a steamer tube out of PVC pipe. I heat a large metal container of water over a gas flame (using my turkey fryer base) and from the container I have a piece of HVAC conduit connected (airtight) to a PVC pipe. Once the water boils, it creates steam that goes into the pipe, steaming the material. After about 10-15 minutes of steaming I am able to easily bend rhododendron that ’s 1” thick.