Saturday, 31 May 2014

Wool and willow

The first basket I ever made was purple and yellow and traditionally used for collecting eggs. It's long since disappeared but had one (and only one) lovely feature - the handle was attached using a pattern called a God's eye. These days I used them not only for handles but also for tying together plant supports and trays, with split green willow. I adore them.

A couple of weeks back I was invited to take part in a fundraising day for a local community orchard, and to run an activity for some of the children who would be coming. It was tremendously hot and the willow I had carefully prepared was drying out too rapidly to be of any practical use. 

I had guessed this might be a problem so at the last minute I grabbed my basket of wool and proceeded to spend the next four hours showing small people how to make woollen God's eyes with willow twigs. Brilliant fun - ranging from very pretty pastel creations to some in the colours of World Cup teams!

There's something terrifically appealing about the way the stripes of colour harmonise and change depending on how they're ordered. I made them as a child and have always liked them; and when I read of their traditional use by the Huichol people of Mexico I fell in love with them just a little bit more - when a baby is born the father weaves the centre of the eye and a stripe is added each year until the child is five, in the hope of ensuring the good health of the baby.

So here we are in half term and while I crocheted and tweeted and hovered at the end of the table, the girls had their very own little weaving session. These are gradually taking over our house so we should be well protected with woolly amulets!

Apparently this one is in the colours of the Pride of Portree quidditch team ...

Here is a link to instructions if you'd like to make your own, including a variation on raised and recessed rows that I feel rather tempted to have a go at myself.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

All around my hat

If you've been reading for a little while, you'll have seen me mention weaving with Debs at Salix Arts. Whenever I go I know there will be a warm welcome, and wonderful food, and that I'll come away having made something fabulous.

But one of the best parts is the glorious willow Debs prepares for use in her workshops. I've bought a fair amount of willow now and hers is easily the most consistently lovely. This year she's asked me to lend a hand harvesting the current crop and I thought I'd share what's involved. (I can't share my back ache with you but it's nothing a hot bath won't sort out!)

Willow grown for harvest is coppiced and sprouts up from little stumps called stools. Each rod must be removed each year, by hand. This is straightforward but can be hard on the back and requires concentration if you're to avoid being poked repeatedly in the eye.

The willow beds are wet and muddy, and not a good place to drop secateurs (can you tell I've done this?!) Speaking of which, it's become very clear to me that oiling and sharpening tools becomes a daily job if you want to avoid hurting your wrists.

Once cut, the willow needs to be sorted by length and thickness - the high tech solution we use is to dump all the rods into a metal bin and then pull out the longest rods a few at a time and slowly, slowly group them into different piles. It's a toss up between sorting as you cut each armful, or cutting masses and sorting all at once. At the moment, the warm weather means the sap is starting to rise and the buds are threatening to break so we are cutting as fast as we can and bundling later.

After sorting, the rods are laid across a brilliant contraption that holds them together while we tie them with baler twine. Then they're ready to be taken back to Salix Arts.

At this point, what we have is called "green willow" - nothing to do with the colour. It's full of water and thus not great for basket making as it will shrink enormously as it dries. But it is gloriously coloured and amazingly flexible, and perfect for sculpture or making living willow structures. In a couple of months it will have dried out at which point it can be resoaked and made into all sorts of baskets and plant supports and decorations. But right now, I am using it to sharpen my skills in willow sculpture and little baskets that may shrink before summer is out but are perfect for spring flowers.

I have back ache, hand cramp, blisters and at the end of the day am tired to the point of exhaustion, but when the sun is out and the birds are singing, it's hard to think of a better place to be. If you'd like to keep up to date with the harvest you can follow me on twitter where I'm posting updates using the hashtag "willowharvest"

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Plaiting memories

Tiny tight plaits - a bit different from plaiting my daughters' hair!

I work in a local sewing workshop part time; it fits in very well with school, and the women there have become valued and trusted friends. We regularly put the world to rights over our sewing machines, and if ever I'm feeling low, a day or two in the workshop helps to sort out my mood and get me laughing again.

A while ago one of the women approached me with a rather unusual jewellery request;  about a year previously her daughter's pony had had to be put to sleep, and she was devastated. They had saved some of the tail hair with the thought of having it made into a keepsake but all the firms they had found online were prohibitively expensive. Would I be interested in making a bracelet with the hair for her daughter's 18th birthday which was coming up?

I will confess, I was taken aback. I had no idea such bracelets existed but a quick google showed that yes, they do, and yes, they can be very pricey. I agreed to go ahead, with some trepidation - but as I began to sort and plait the strands and create a unique piece, I found myself becoming rather emotional, thinking about the girl I knew, about how sad she had been and wondering how she would react. I found myself plaiting good wishes into that short braid. Mr DC said that he though it was all a bit odd - but I was pleased to hear she had been thrilled with it.

I select the longest hairs and place them one by one into a small bundle 

I mentioned this to the teacher at the stables where my girls ride, and she said that she knew about these bracelets and they were popular amongst both people who have lost their ponies and also those who are looking for quirky gifts for horse owners. Within a couple of weeks one of the horses at the stables was sadly put down and I was asked to make another bracelet, which I gladly did. This time Mr DC was with me as I gave the bracelet to the riding school owner, and when he saw how moved she was to receive it, said that now he understood why I had been willing to make it.

Since then I've made a few bracelets, mostly for people whose ponies are very much still alive; but this month there was sad news about the pony my girls had their first lessons on. She had died, at the grand old age of 35. Their teacher wept as she handed me the hair they'd carefully saved, and I wept as I made the jet black bracelets.  I don't know how many of the bracelets are ever actually worn; I suspect most are keepsakes that are looked at occasionally. They do remind me a little of Victorian mourning brooches, and I try not to think too hard about that. I feel very honoured to be trusted to make them. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Trial and error; or, my adventures with sourdough

Well, I promised last time some sourdough action; I can't pretend it's been smooth sailing but now, finally, I feel I'm getting the hang of it.

I started off using the River Cottage recipe, which produced a loaf that looked OK, and was definitely tangy, but a bit flat and without the holes it should have.

So I tried a variation, which had far more water and resembled a dough monster until cooked, when it ripped itself apart.

Undeterred, I carried on, and came across James Morton's advice to bake it in a cast iron casserole dish and finally, a lovely well risen loaf! But Oh. My. Viciously sour to the point of being inedible.

I will admit, I was tempted to give up at this point and if I hadn't been so determined (some might say stubborn) I would have stopped there and then. But then I read somewhere that underfeeding the starter  can cause sourness. And that the method I was using was actually bound to maximise that. Aha!

I fed my starter twice a day. I started to follow James Morton's white sourdough recipe. I started proving in bowls instead of just on the counter. I baked everything in a scorching hot pot. Bingo! Delicious bread, risen properly.

But still, the texture wasn't quite right. I ordered Brilliant Bread and started to go through it, learning new recipes and novel techniques for kneading and I think I've now discovered my very favourite recipe - it's Pain de Campagne, which is a loaf risen with normal yeast and flavoured with sourdough starter.

One morning I accidentally added too much water and the dough turned into some kind of monster, but this time I knew how to knead it and prove it without adding more flour. It overflowed the proving bowl and flolloped into the cooking pot. And when I cut it the next morning and saw the open, holey, chewy texture I'd been craving, I swear I heard angels singing.

It's all gone now. I'd better make some more!

Monday, 27 January 2014

Rather more than 52 loaves

Clockwise from top left: Shipton Mill overnight loaf; River Cottage muffins; treacle plait; roti

At the rate we're going, I shall have baked far more than 52 loaves this year, and will end up the size of a house, or at least a generous caravan. I am finding that homemade bread is more filling than shop bought so that while I am baking most days, they are little loaves and many are using wholegrain flours and/or seeds.

So, this week the successes have included and overnight rising bread which started with a tiny bit of yeast (recipe here); River Cottage English muffins which are far too delicious to be legal; a plaited loaf from an old Bake Off book that had treacle in it and turned rather brown; and an old favourite, roti that puff up if you get them just right and are gorgeous wrapped around curried chickpeas. Yum Yum.

Evil in bread form

There was, however, one complete disaster. I had been so looking forward to making this loaf, called the Hazel Maizel. It includes maize meal and apple juice and sounded really interesting. It baked up well, looked good and my husband seemed to like it. I cut & buttered two slices for my bread obsessed smaller daughter. After a couple of bites she said "Erm, I'm not that hungry actually, mum," and went off to get ready for school. Not wanting to waste the precious crumbs, I took a bit bite. Oh. Oh dear. I thought I was going to have to spit it out. It was still kicking round the kitchen the next morning, which is unheard of. Needless to say, I shan't be making it again.

Full of promise ...

As to the next batch - exciting times ahead as I start experimenting with a rye sourdough starter that has gone through the first week or so of maturation and is just about ready for use ...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Back to basics

I am mostly a self taught weaver. I took a term of nightclasses when I was living in the US twenty years ago, and went to a few workshops but most of my baskets were woven from books and patterns and just messing about with rattan cane at home. Since I returned to the UK I have been concentrating on weaving with English willow, learning mostly with Debbie Hall at Salix Arts, and weaving by myself for days and days using rods with gloriously coloured bark.

Recently I discovered there's another basketmaker living locally. Roger specialises in working with buff and white willow, and beautiful decorative plaited borders, and actually makes willow coffins most of the time. I decided to visit last week to make a basket with him, to see how he works and to pick up some tips. I wasn't too worried about what our project was so together we came up with a simple round design that would allow time to look at each stage in very close detail, placing every single stroke with immense care, and the result is a tray that I'm really very proud of. It's rare for me to look at a piece I've made without picking out the mistakes, but this one ... well, for once I can see far more good than bad.

I'll be going back in a couple of weeks to make a different style of basket with a variation on the braid decoration. If it works out you can be certain I'll be showing photos!

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Year in Books: January

I used to belong to a village bookclub that met once a month; we had a lovely group, though to be honest some months there was less book discussion and more drinking wine and chatting. But it was a happy hour or two out, with good company and some interesting reading.

Times change and while the book group is still going, the crowd that were in it when I was no longer attend; the dynamic changed, the books became very serious and I was finding that more often than not I hadn't read them, so I stopped.

Laura's idea for an informal online reading group appealed to me enormously. We get to choose what we read, and how we write about it. Our only commitment is to try to read one book per month, Surely I can manage that?

So, my choice for this month is the Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. No, it isn't great literature, but I am enjoying it and I am actually reading again, and for now I am happy with that much.