A love affair with willow

Lise Bech is a member of the SBC and an experienced & enthusiastic teacher of the craft:

I took up basketmaking eighteen years ago following my interest in indigenous crafts and affinity with the natural world. As I had previous experience of working with wool and vegetable dyes, weaving with wood and twisting plant fibres into string was a natural progression. Living in Northern Ireland for a couple of years I wove my first basket (to a Celtic Design) under the expert guidance of the aptly named Ms Greenwood! On moving to Scotland she gave 100 willow cuttings ensuring that I would 'keep my hand in'. That was the start of of my love affair with willow.

While waiting for my first willow crops to be ready I combed my local countryside for suitable weaving materials and - like basket-makers the world over - found myself using the most abundant plants such as field rushes, heather and even hair-moss. At that point I was not aware of the crucial role two of these plants had played in Scottish crofting life. Recently, however during my first visit to North Uist, I saw in a semi collapsing black house the total dependence of the roof structure on yards and yards of heather rope and rush string. As my knowledge of this had, till then, only been academic, this was a humbling experience.

I harvest the willow between January and March, using a pair of secateurs. This is done a few rows at a time, as it can be hard on the back. In May, as the wild iris fades, the leaves may be cut and hung to dry, bundled by their tips. August is the optimal time for harvesting rushes. Ideally these should be pulled rather than cut, but that requires much strength and patience.

Growing my own materials is like cultivating new friends - you call on to see how they are doing and experience the seasonal changes in colour, texture and flexibility. I still marvel at the generous palette of natural colors within the willow family.

With 1,500 willow plant (and over 20 varieties) now well established on a previously bleak north facing slope 1000 feet up, there is more beauty and many more songbirds - in this space where I live. In return I wish my work as a basket maker to convey the unique beauty of the varied species. Much of my inspiration for forms comes from the world of ceramics whilst the desire to honour my material increasingly supersedes the need to produce functional work.

In addition, working with my own willows has reconnected me to the seasonal rhythms and fostered a sense of pride and integrity with regard to the final product: home grown, carefully harvested and lovingly handmade in Scotland"

(From 'Flora Celtica',Plants & People in Scotland, Milliken & Bridgewater 2004, ISBN: 1 84158 303 0)