In The Willow Weaving Workshop
How charming it is to hang a certain something from the Christmas tree, but however more so when a decoration is handmade in Britain using nothing but what is grown from the earth. Such is so with the woven willow tree decorations invited into our collection for Autumn/Winter of this year. They are the handiwork of Issy Wilkes, a willow farmer and weaver based at her family’s farm in rural Worcestershire, with whom it was our pleasure to spend the day earlier this autumn. Together, we walked through her willow fields that nestle between apple and cherry orchards (the farm also grows and makes its own cider for which the wet willow system filtrates the water that feeds the orchards), learnt of the various species and their strengths, and then watched as she picked, sorted, soaked, steamed and finally wove our trio of tree decorations from the attic of her workshop.
The thread of family is one that knits and binds the entirety of Issy’s life as a weaver. It was from her mother, the esteemed basket maker Jenny Crisp, that she learnt and later mastered her craft. “Mum makes traditional, stunning baskets and has done for more than 35 years. It’s what I grew up knowing and have been picking up bundles of willow since I was probably seven or eight years’ old. I learnt a lot through osmosis. I decided instead to train in theatre design making puppets, sculptures and creating sets. When I had my daughter Orla almost three years ago everything changed of course. I couldn’t go off anymore for weeks on end to work on festivals and film sets so I decided to return to my roots and follow in my mum’s footsteps,” Issy explained over a rather decadent slice of chocolate cake and pot of tea at her kitchen table – her home is in the attic of one of the farm’s barns; a portion of which is dedicated to her workshop. Jenny, who joined for the first part of our visit before whisking granddaughter Orla away for a few hours of entertainment, added: “I always hoped Issy would show an interest in willow and she did so instinctively. But watching is only one part of the learning. You need to be able to handle willow fluently; it asks for a great deal of time to master so you must put the hours in. It’s like learning the scales on the violin. You have to learn to dance with it, about give and take and where its pressure points lie.” Issy listened attentively before telling us how the greatest lesson she learnt from her mum was of repetition and judgement in material – an intuition that is rare to possess but that her mum did and she is fortunate enough to have had that passed down to her, she hopes.
To find such a small, authentic willow maker in Britain is a joy, but to find one where the willow is grown by the same person makes the story richer still. Issy told us of the 15 types of willow she has grown over the years with the help of mum Jenny there to provide advice be it on growing, cultivating or weaving complex structures. “Usually, you wait until the leaves fall to cut willow, so I do it in winter, all by myself pretty much, by hand. It’s exhausting. We then have to keep a close eye on any unwelcome pests from January to June to protect ourselves from infestations. If we don’t, we lose our crop and our crop is our business,” Issy continued.
Three generations walked with us through the willow fields pointing out different varieties. Black Maul we learn is a common willow and works well for our dainty decorations. Amusingly named Nancy Saunders is another good willow specie though not quite as pliable for such small objects. German Zwortdriebast is grown by Issy too – a traindra willow Jenny informs us that is bendy and grows up to nine feet tall – as is the fine, elegant Purpurea that’s ideal for basketry and fencing, and Petite Grisette which was another option for our willow tree decorations.
Once harvested, the steps that follow involve grading the willow into bundles according to their thickness and length – ours use the thinnest willow stalks possible. They’re then soaked in water for five days and steamed for 20 minutes to change their colour to our desired deep nutty brown. All of which is done in the farm’s courtyard while the weaving happens upstairs on Issy’s yellow tufted weaver’s stool. She smiles to herself as she weaves and hums occasionally. “I find it so calming and could sit here quite happily for hours and hours uninterrupted, though that rarely happens with a little one about!” Issy tells us as she pauses the weaving of our Christmas star decoration. Each one takes but a matter of minutes to weave, but their simplicity, their tactility, their authenticity is the sort that will last a lifetime and more.