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.
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.