Skib for Groundhog Day

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Greetings from the Skagit Valley on Groundhog Day. Or is it Candelmas? Or a celebration of the Irish Goddess Brigit? Or Saint Brigit? It is certainly a point in the year when we are thinking about the coming of Spring. Indeed the willow is beginning to swell its buds. Some of the earlier varieties are even showing their first catkins. I thought I would upload these photos Katherine took of a potato basket, or skib, being made. She took a series of step by step photos to use as a handout for an upcoming basketry class. An Irish basket seems appropriate to the day (since I don’t have any “Brigit’s crosses” to show – Update: we do have a Brigid’s cross post now). There are good photos and descriptions of skibs in the Irish basketmaker Joe Hogan’s book “Basketmaking in Ireland”.

potato basket

potato basket

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Willow cuttings

willow cuttings from Dunbar Gardens

willow cuttings from Dunbar Gardens

We have been growing willow for basketry since 1994 at Dunbar Gardens. As Katherine became interested in willow basketmaking, she realized she would need to grow her own materials since very little cultivated willow was available to purchase in our area. In addition, it gave her more choice in selecting the size, color, flexibility and other characteristics of the willow she weaves with. As a result, we have tried quite a number of species and varieties of Salix here and currently have 60 varieties growing. We have planted over ten thousand willow cuttings on our Skagit Valley farm. Willow is easy to propagate in most soils. An eight to twelve inch cutting taken from a dormant one year old rod is planted directly into the ground in Spring. March thru April is an ideal time to plant. We have willows that are useful for basketry, garden trellises, living fences, furniture, and ornamental hedges. Willow is a very useful family of plants!

We have a list and descriptions of some of the varieties that we have had success with on our website. We are now cutting our willows and will begin shipping orders for cuttings next month.

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Oyster basket

Replica (on left) of traditional French oyster basket

Replica (on left) of traditional French oyster basket

Two willow baskets for packing oysters. The basket on the right belongs to Jon Rowley of Seattle who picked it up from a basketmaker in France back in the 70’s. Jon came by Dunbar Gardens after seeing my photos of Katherine’s baskets on Flickr.com. He brought his oyster basket along and left it with Katherine to check out. Jon works with Taylor Shellfish here in the Puget Sound region and has a vast knowledge and appreciation for oysters.

The basket is a traditional form used to pack oysters to market (baskets were then returned stacked in each other). Katherine¬† made the basket on the left as a copy. (Not bad for a first go!) She admires the efficient design of the original – a stake on each side becomes the handle, the border narrow on the back, the hinges made from one piece, the slewed base, and no waling which makes the shaping and corners more of a challenge. She did find a short description of a similar basket in “La Vannerie – l’osier” which is a French basketmaking manual. We have put Katherine’s version to use as a kitchen potato storage basket

basketmaker's perspective

basketmaker's perspective

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Winter color

basketry willow in sunset glow

basketry willow in sunset glow

Winter on the farm. Clear day brings some lovely yellow and orange colors out in the basketry willows. I took this photo just before the sun set. The variety in the foreground is Salix purpurea ‘Dicky Meadows’. This variety is at the top of our list for usefulness in Katherine’s basketry and good production in the field.¬† Of course, I can’t enjoy this view too long. I have to harvest all these withies before spring! These basketry willows are coppiced to the ground every year. The willow in the photo is one year’s growth. The slender, unbranched, pliable rods are what make the plant so useful to basketmakers. There is plenty more information about our willow growing at Dunbar gardens on our website page that describes the willow cuttings we offer for sale.

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