How to Weave a Basket with Wisteria
Wisteria is a great ornamental plant that can be trained and used for basketry. It’s runners have been known to run 50 feet or more when given an unobstructed area like a yard or wooded area nest to where it’s planted. Many people grow wisteria as a trellis plant and let the runners get very long each year and then harvest them at the end of the season (like honeysuckle, bougainvillea, confederate jasmine and other ornamental vines._
Harvest in the winter time as with other vines because the sap is down, although summertime harvesting for wisteria is not out of the questions, since most of the time it’s long, straight runners don’t have any leaves. For example, the place I get most of my wisteria for the year is a man’s house who lives close to me - his wisteria runners run under his deck and have none - ZERO - leaves in the summer. The runners grow about 20-40 feet in length and there are hundreds.
OK, so when you get them home, I’d recommend coiling and drying the vines. You can, however weave wisteria green because it’s such a woody vine, yet very flexible, there’s almost no shrinkage. If you want to boil it know that the bark will come off usually. HOWEVER, the bark, especially on the runners that are pencil to finger thickness is excellent for cordage and fine twining - kind of like honeysuckle bark but MUCH better. It’s actually akin more to kudzu bark, in that it stays together in one long strand much easier than does honeysuckle.
You can twine with wisteria very nicely or you can use it in random weaving which is what I use it for alot. The larger wisteria you can split like kudzu, by taking a knife to the end and making a vertical incision down the center of the vine. Pull evenly and hold the vine between your knees as you split. If it starts getting off center, simply pull to the fatter side as you split until it evens back up OR just re-clip it again with your sharp garden clippers or knife. Wisteria without the bark dries a very nice ivory white and very smooth. With the bark, it’s a beige color.
Of you’re planning to plant Wisteria around your house or condo, just make sure you’re ready to keep an eye on it during the growing months and train it where you want it to go. Otherwise you will have a beast on your hands - and PLENTY of weaving material.
For more information on Natural Basketry, visit http://www.matttommey.com/basket-weaving-classes.html and download my free PDF called "7 Tips for Making Baskets with Natural Materials".
Inside I'll tell you what materials are good for making baskets, when to harvest, how to store and protect them, and even common tools used in the harvesting process.
I came to honeysuckle vine later in my basketry career. Since I always had such a love for and understanding of kudzu, rarely did I ever look for other natural materials to use. However, when I found honeysuckle vines, that changed. In my book it can never replace kudzu, but it sure is a wonderful material to weave with. The trick with honeysuckle, as will all natural materials, is understanding what it will and won't do, it's strengths and weaknesses.
There are those folks out there that use honeysuckle almost exclusively for their weaver. The Cherokee's still use a lot of native and Japanese honeysuckle in their work in random weave, twining, twill and rib basketry. Most of what I've used it for over the years tends to be as an additional sculptural element. The reason why is that the make up of the vine lends itself to being celebrated as a special feature, not just a normal weaver.
As a young vine, the honeysuckle vine runners can be very, very long - 20ft or more - and very pliable. The vine has a fine, paper-like bark on it that is a caramel brown color once it's matured a bit. When very young, it will be green. As the vine matures over years, it usually becomes crooked, very woody and has a lot of twists and turns. Usually you'll find honeysuckle growing in wet, bottom areas like around creeks, marshes or rivers. You can also find honeysuckle growing on barns, buildings or in gardens. There are lots of different varieties that can be cultivated for home enjoyment within your own basketry garden.
"Identification: Japanese Honeysuckle is an evergreen woody vine that may reach 80 feet in length. The leaves are opposite and elliptically shaped. The tan vine may reach a thickness of 2 inches in diameter. Fragrant, white or pale yellow tubular flowers appear in April to August. Spherical, black glossy berries containing 2 to 3 seeds mature from June to March.
Ecology: Japanese Honeysuckle is a common invasive plant in the Southeast. The shade tolerant vine occurs along field edges, right-of-ways, under dense canopies, and high in canopies. This invasive vine colonizes by prolific vine growth and seeds that are spread by birds" from http://www.ncsu.edu
Like all vines, I recommend harvesting honeysuckle vine in the fall and winter months. That way they are less likely to snap when pulling them. You can always remember when pulling vines "Sappy Snappy". That basically means that when the sap is high, in the spring and summer months, vines are more likely to break when being harvested. Also, winter is a lot easier to harvest vines because there are very few bugs, no critters are out and all the leaves are gone.
Once you get your vines, you can store them in a cool, dry place until you're ready to use them. Just like the image here from one of my recent basket weaving classes, I recommend that you coil the vines into loose coils. However, be sure that they are small enough to fit in whatever pot you're going to use to boil them when you're ready to weave. Which brings me to the next step.
Whenever you're using honeysuckle vine, you'll want to boil it for 3 reasons, pliability, bugs and bark. Obviously, boiling makes the vines much more pliable and easy to use when weaving. Also, any bugs that are on the vines or in them for that matter will be nixed when you boil the vines. Lastly, boiling the vines will loosen up the bark so you can remove it from the vines. You'll want to boil honeysuckle vines for about 20-30 minutes or so - until they are rubbery flexible. (NOTE: Honeysuckle has a real papery outer bark that comes off pretty easily. It also has another layer of bark that's usually pretty tightly attached to the vine. Get that completely off too. It can be a pain, but once you get a clean vine, it will turn a beautiful ivory white.) With small vines, you can literally put on some 'gripper gloves' (you know the garden gloves with gripper on the palms and fingers), pinch the vine and pull the bark right off. With larger vines, I recommend you go all the way down the vine twisting the wet bark on the vine. Then once it's totally loosened up peel it off. If you're a papermaker, this bark is fabulous for natural fiber paper making. You can also use the long strands of honeysuckle bark for twining or making cordage.
Now that you have your honeysuckle all boiled and cleaned you'll probably be ready for a nap! Welcome to weaving with natural materials :) However, now the fun begins. I usually separate my prepared materials by size. Large, gnarly pieces are great for handles, long straight pieces for weaving and then medium crooked pieces for weaving or as an architectural element on other baskets. Whatever it is, you'll want to weave while the vines are wet and pliable.
Hope this article helps you feel confident in going out and harvesting your own honeysuckle vines!
As I've said many times, all kudzu is not created equal. Over the years I've learned that there are 2 very distinct types of vines. One I call the "climbers" and the other I call the "runners". At the end of the day, yes they are the same vine however depending on how and where they are growing the vines have very different properties. At a very basic level, climbers are large, rough and woody whereas the runners are smaller, smooth and flexible. In this article, I'll be talking about how use the runners in basketry, but you can read about the climbers here in my earlier article "How to Weave a Basket with Kudzu: Climbers".
Ok, so if you know me and anything about my work, you know that I'm a big, big fan of runners. One of the main reasons is because it took me 15 years to really figure out how to use them most effectively. Another reason is simply that I believe the kudzu runners are one of the best by far natural weaving material we have available to us in the southeastern US that hardly anyone uses.
Over 20 years ago when I started my basketry adventure I was immediately drawn the the runners. For me, it was a no brainer. you'd walk into the woods behind the curtains of large hanging ropes of kudzu and on the ground, literally like a spider web, were these long, pristine, smooth vines with no leaves. I can remember the first time I went out there to harvest this material thinking to myself "I have absolutely hit the jackpot! Now what in the world do I do with this?" Well, unfortunately, I didn't know what to do with it and I started following the traditional thoughts on kudzu which was to harvest green, use while fresh either whole or split and be happy with mediocre results because "that's just the way kudzu is." Literally, every book I read on natural materials basketry either said what I just said, don't use it because it's no good or whatever you do, don't use the runners. Long story short, i believed them and it set me back a long time.
When I started weaving, I started with traditional rib basketry forms and white oak and willow were the vision of what I was trying to create, only with kudzu. Honestly, I was very frustrated by the kudzu because I was using it like everyone said to use it yet getting these really mediocre results that didn't look like the quality I wanted to create. I eventually came to accept it, but I was never satisfied with my work.
About 12-15 years into my journey, I had harvested a bunch of kudzu in the fall, as was my tradition and was weaving away. Time got away from me and I let some of my runners get dry. Too dry to split or weave. Instead of throwing them out that day, I decided to throw them in a bucket of water over night, just to see what would happen. Lo and behold (can you tell I'm from the south yet?) I went out there the next morning and I was able to split the kudzu. Not only that, but when I wove the basket, it stayed exactly as I had woven it. No shrinkage, no warping, no nothing. Just perfection. It was as if the lights came on inside my head and said "Eureka, Kudzu!"
I started experimenting feverishly and found that if I split the kudzu and let it dry, completely before I used it that I got tremendously different results. So that's what I started doing; harvesting, splitting, coiling, drying and then rehydrating in hot tap water for about 15-20 minutes to prepare to weave. It changed my work to drastically and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.
As I began to get more comfortable with the new material, I found that I could now go smaller and finer with the material and thus the weaving. My rib baskets got crazy tight and then I started getting interested in twining after being encouraged by a mentor of mine, Michael Davis. He said "Matt, learn to twine. Twining will change your life." And it did.
Using Kudzu Runners in Basketry
Kudzu runners are best harvested in the winter time, after the first freeze and frost. Around this time of year, the leaves of the kudzu will fall off and the vines will be much easier to access. Not only that, but the bark, as with all vines and trees, will tighten up around the plant in order to conserve energy for the winter. This is great for kudzu because when you split it or use it whole, the bark will stay on. Otherwise, if you harvest kudzu in the summer time, the bark will want to separate from the vine. That's great if you're wanting to use the vine and bark separately as I described in my earlier article "How to Weave a Basket with Kudzu: Climbers" but not so much if you're wanting to keep the bark on.
When you harvest the runners, you'll get a pile just like this image here on the left. Just to give you an idea, harvesting that much kudzu would take me about 2-3 hours in a good patch and I'm pretty fast.
Once you harvest the runners, you have 2 options: to split or leave whole. 95% of the time, I'm going to go ahead and split them because that's what most of my work calls for. Either in rib basketry or in my sculptural twining, I'm working very finely and so I prefer to have the vines split so that after they dry and I rehydrate them, I can size them appropriately. To split the kudzu vine, simply make a vertical incision at one end of the vine and pull apart evenly all the way down. As you're pulling, the best thing to do is hold the kudzu in between your knees so you can manage the twisting and turning of the vine as you split. If you hit a snag, or it becomes uneven just recut with your knife or scissors.
You can however leave them whole. If I'm going to do that, I would typically leave my smaller runners for that application. I use whole runners for doing things like bird houses or larger projects, especially if I know they are going to be used outside. Split kudzu runners tend to mold and decay very quickly if left outside, even on a porch, because of the moisture. However, whole kudzu holds up very nicely over many years in a covered outdoor application.
Whether split or whole, you should make sure to store your kudzu runners in a dry place, free from moisture, mold and direct sunlight. This will ensure that the runners will dry evenly and be ready for you once the time come to prepare them for weaving.
The main difference with leaving the runners whole or splitting them is in how you prepare them for weaving. Split runners can be easily soaked in hot tap water for about 20 minutes. Don't ever boil split kudzu unless you want to take the pith out. Boiling split kudzu causes the pith to turn into a translucent mush. It can be very easily scraped out with a spoon, leaving only the kudzu fiber and bark. This is very nice for fine twining work.
With whole vines, you can boil them but just enough to get them flexible for weaving. Don't ask me for a specific time, because there isn't one. Its just trial and error, mostly because of the size and differentiation of each batch of kudzu runners you'll be using.
I regularly use kudzu runners in almost all of my work and take it down to as small as 1/16th of an inch for fine twining. As you get to know this phenomenal material, you'll realize that the possibilities are endless.
Over 20 years ago I happened upon a book called "Willow Basketry" that changed my life. Funny enough, it was almost 18 years later that I touched my first piece of willow, but that book in particular ignited a passion within me to explore the use of locally-available, sustainably harvested natural materials in basketry. When I looked around in my area of the world - the southeastern United States - all I had was... yes, you guessed it: kudzu.
I had never seen kudzu used in basketry at that point in my life. I was just a college kid who loved the outdoors and making things with my hands. Little did I know that just like everything that comes in contact with kudzu, it would take over my life and turn me into a major kudzu advocate, or as some have said over the years, "the King of Kudzu".
I have to admit, when I first started using kudzu, I had no clue on how to use it in weaving, much less prepare it in order to get the best results. All I knew was that there was plenty of it and it looked as if it might be weaveable. Thanks goodness my instinct was right, otherwise who knows what I'd be doing all these years later!
Kudzu is Kudzu, Right?
When you look at a kudzu patch in the spring or summer, the first thing you probably see is the large green leaves. Those are not going to help you very much, unless of course you're using it to make paper like basketry artist Nancy Basket. For the most part, as a basket maker, you'll have to look a little deeper. Way deeper. Below all the leaves down to the vines.
Now when it comes to the kudzu vine, I initially thought there was only one kind of vine. However, over the years I've learned that there are 2 very distinct types of vines. One I call the "climbers" and the other I call the "runners". At the end of the day, yes they are the same vine however depending on how and where they are growing the vines have very different properties. Let me explain.
The climbers, as you might think, are the vines that make their way up and around the trees and all their branches, covering everything in sight. In the winter, when all the leaves fall, they look like huge ropes hanging from the trees. The bad part about this is that these vines essentially smother the tree and kill it over time. However, from a basketry perspective, they create a vine that has some very unique properties.
Climbing kudzu vines are typically:
That being said, these climbing kudzu vines are great for some things in basketry but not so great for others. The secret, like most things, is knowing what you can do with it and what you can't so you don't have unrealistic expectations about the material and your final outcome.
Climbing kudzu vines would be best suited for more 'rustic' work where you want to use chunky, funky material. It's great in large or small random weave applications either whole or split. You can also twine or plain weave with it as well. When you split larger climbing kudzu vines, you'll notice that it frays pretty bad, leaving a lot of extraneous fiber. Some people like it, some people don't. I tend to not, but that's just me.
95% of people that weave kudzu weave this type of material. It's traditionally harvested green and woven right away, giving you a real organic, freeform kind of look. Don't be surprised when you weave it this way because your basket will become what we call in the south, whopper jawed. For those of you not from the south, that means crooked or warped. Basically when you harvest and weave this green material it's going to shrink a lot and contort a little as it dries. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but again just expect it.
Deconstructing Climbing Kudzu
The best way I like to use climbing kudzu is to deconstruct it in a couple of different ways. First, you can make a sisal-type material out of it by doing the following:
This method is great to use if you're a coiler or a twiner. You typically have very long lengths of material that's very flexible and perfect for coiling and twining. So if you're coiling, what do you stitch with in this type of basket? Some folks use waxed linen, and others I've seen use raffia. However, I would suggest using the kudzu bark that you set aside!
Kudzu bark is one of my favorite materials to stitch with and to do fine twining with. Just use very sharp scissors, a knife or a Jerry's Stripper to cut the material to the size you want. It's super flexible and very, very strong. Just watch out for knots or holes in the bark that might weaken as you work. Regardless, it's a fabulous material.
Finishing With Fire
At the end of weaving a basket with climbing kudzu, no matter how you've prepared it, you may want to do what I call 'singeing" the basket. Basically, while it's still damp, I take a cotton ball, dip it in alcohol and while holding it with some metal tongs, light it with a lighter. You basically just made a big wick. Take this flaming wick and move it quickly around your basket and it will burn away all those extraneous fibers we talked about a few minutes ago. If you like those, then just leave it natural. Either way, I'd recommend spraying it with a satin finish polyurethane spray. It just seals it and brings out all the natural colors.
Matt Tommey is a leader in the contemporary basketry movement and has been a maker for over 25 years. The focus of his work centers around the use of southern invasive plant species in basketry. He has served on the board of directors for the National Basketry Organization and taught at Arrowmont, the John C. Campbell Folk School and other locations both in the US and internationally.