1. Cutting willow:

Willow is harvested annually in winter time, when the plants are dormant, the sap is down, and the leaves have dropped. For us this is from December until approximately March. We harvest just with secateurs. Some people prefer a hooked knife. Each stick is cut back down to the main stem. As close as possible. This ‘mother plant’ will grow each year and send out (once established) about 20 branches each year, depending on variety. Bundles are tied (loosely) and brought into a well-ventilated shed to dry out. This process can take up to four months depending on the climate. During this drying time, I grade my willow.

Why dry willow before use? Why not use willow fresh when it is still easy to use and flexible? The problem is SCHRINKAGE! Willow has a very high-water content and when drying will shrink a lot. When you make a basket with fresh willow it will eventually dry out and the weaving will become loose and have gaps. The basket won’t be sturdy and solid although it won’t fall apart.

Using semi-dry willow is an alternative but there is still a risk of having a loose basket in the end. Maybe for practice. But in general, I would advise to use fully dry willow and soak before use to make it flexible again

2. Grading: Sorting willow by size.

Grading is done to make life easier later. It means you can just grab a bundle of willow when you need it for soaking. No need to go through your willow looking for the right sizes. Smaller baskets will need smaller willow. Large baskets will need bigger willow.

What you will need:

  • A barrel/bucket, anything you can stand a bundle of willow up in
  • Measuring stick or marks on a wall. You will mark each ft/ 30cm. (making sure to measure from inside the barrel, not from the ground)
  • Step/ladder/platform/wall to stand on to reach the longer sticks. You can also sink your barrel into the ground a little for easy reach.
  • Plenty of space to put down you bundles close by.

             How to do it:

You will start by placing a bundle of willow into the barrel. Shake the bundle a little to make all the sticks fall fully into the bottom of the barrel. Starting at the top with the longest sticks you will grab them out above the closest mark. Let’s say all the sticks above 7ft. They will go on the 7 ft pile. Then you will grab all the sticks above 6 ft and put them on the 6ft pile and work your way all the way down to 2 ft. Most people throw out the very small stuff. I usually keep them for making St. Brigid’s crosses.

3. Varieties:

There are many different willow varieties and within that many varieties that are specifically developed for basket making. It is hard to recommend any specific varieties as their growth will vary depending on the climate, soil conditions and weather. But willow is a very strong plant and will grow nearly everywhere. It likes water but does not need to grow in soggy ground as is often believed.  My advice is to contact a local basket maker if you know of anyone. They will be able to advice you on what varieties grow well in the area. If you need any help let me know.

Here are some of my favourite varieties:

  • Salix viminalis golden rod: Not good for doing a border as it is soft and kinks easily. I love it for its yellow colour.
  • Brown Maul: dark chocolate brown willow, growing strong, sometimes too strong, but is beautifully flexible.
  • Harrisson: Strong growing variety, light brown, good for bigger baskets, very flexible, lovely to work with.
  • Lancashire dicks: Beautiful slender and small growing willow with a curve. Dries to a disappointing grey colour but my absolute favourite willow. It weaves like a dream!
  • Brittany blue/green: Very reliable variety, the blue one dries to a dark black/blue hue, the green one a little lighter. Love it for colour. Grows not too tall.
  • Salix alba vittelina: yellow willow variety when growing. Dries to a reddish-brown colour. Good all-rounder, great for colour. There is a subspecies called Chermissina. That one grows a little less tall for me, it is redder when growing but dries to the same colour as its parent, vittelina.
  • Slender tips/ red tips: Heavy cropping variety of long slender rods with red tips. Grows not too tall, makes plenty of thin rods that are great to weave with.
  • Salix alba daphnoides: A dark purple willow variety! Love it for colour. Can sometimes be a little bit harder to weave with and can grow a little too tall but worth to grow it for colour.
  • Welsh white: A very pale heavy cropping rod, grows a little bit shorter and is mostly quite thick but again worth growing for its very pale, nearly white, colour. Not good for uprights as the skin can crack easily when kinked.
  • Tallow Triandra: A variety I got from Future Forests in co. Cork. It is chunky, dark brown with obvious catkins. I love it because even though chunky it is flexible and dries to a lovely nearly purple brown. Great for uprights. Turns down a lovely border.

Where to get willow for cuttings (planting) and weaving:

Most basket makers would have some willow growing or know someone who does. If you know a basket maker local to you ask for advice.

In Ireland:

Barry Noyce Tipperary, his number is 086 8241393. He has a wide variety of willow varieties available and sells cuttings in the winter months.

Future forests in co. Cork have basket making willow varieties for sale as cuttings. They are not great at labelling and named varieties. Their website is here

The Organic Centre in Leitrim has some willow varieties for sale as cuttings. Their website is here

Outside of Ireland:

Musgrove willow growers in Somerset, UK. https://www.musgrovewillows.co.uk/

Somerset Willow Growers UK http://www.willowgrowers.co.uk/

Coates English Willow, UK https://www.englishwillowbaskets.co.uk/

West Wales willows, Wales. http://westwaleswillows.co.uk/

Redstone Willows, Cheshire,  http://redstonewillows.co.uk/

Blencogo Willow, Scotland: http://blencogowillow.com/

The willow bank, Gloucestershire, UK : https://www.thewillowbank.com/

World of willow, Dorset, UK: https://www.worldofwillow.co.uk/

De Vos. Willow supplier in Belgium. Also posting to other European countries. http://devossalix.be/nl/

The Basket Farmer, Ohio, USA: www.basketfarmer.com/

Dunbar Gardens, Washington, USA: http://www.dunbargardens.com/

Go Willow, New Zealand: https://www.gowillow.co.nz/

And this is not an exhaustive list, there must be more out there that I haven’t found yet….!

4. planting willow

Willow is one of the easiest trees to plant. You get a cutting, which is just a piece of a living willow tree of the variety you want to grow and push it into the ground. Soil is best prepared or turned before planting.

It is important to keep weeds away from the growing stem. To do that most basket makers plant their willow through a weed suppressor. That could be plastic (like silage plastic) or the woven fabric weed suppressor (called mipex road stabiliser) or through a mulch (cardboard with woodchip/straw/hay or other material on top. This might have to be replaced annually)

The trees will need to establish themselves for the first 3 years. After that weeds would usually be less of a problem as the tree growth will be dense and usually enough to shade out most weeds.

Check out the video about planting willow here.

Year 1: You will get a few branches on your stems, they will probably be small and have a lot of side branches. Some will be good to use for basket making.

Year 2: More branches then year 1. Most should be good to use in basket making.

Year 3: You are getting close to a full harvest. All branches good for use.

Year 4: your plants are now established and should be bearing a full harvest, up to 20 branches per plant or more depending on variety.

5. Preparing willow: 

a) Soaking

Before use willow is soaked to make it pliable again. Depending on what willow you use soaking time will vary. There are 3 types of willow.

Brown: dry willow with the bark still on. Soaking guidelines: a day per foot/30cm

White: willow that has been stripped of its bark in spring. It is white in colour. Soaking time reduced to only a few hours.

Buff: Willow boiled in its skin for several hours. The skin will fall off. The tannins from the skin give this willow its brown colour. Easy to use, Soaking time is reduced significantly.

I only really use brown willow as I like the natural colours. This willow does need more soaking time though, but no prep time. And when buying will be significantly less expensive. The rule of thumb is you need to soak your willow a day per foot/30cm. A 3 ft bundle will be in the water, fully submerged, for 3 days, a 5 ft bundle for 5 days etc. Any barrel, bath, stream, pond, old boat, PVC pipe etc. will do as long as the willow is fully submerged in the water.

Soaking time will depend on:

-How dry the willow is to start with (my willow, being dried in Ireland would not be 100% dry. Less humid climates would give drier willow.)

-Temperature of the water. In summer the soaking might take less time. In winter more. Willow will not soak or become soft in water close to freezing. In that case you will have to find some way of heating it up slightly. It is also possible to put your willow into boiling water. This will reduce the soaking time to a few hours only.

-Variety. Some willow varieties need longer soaking time. Like Salix Dapnoides.

How to know when you willow is ready?

Do the 90-degree test. Pull one rod from the bundle and bend it 90 degrees or more. You want your rod to kink cleanly, without the skin cracking or the willow snapping.

Oversoaking:

It is possible to oversoak willow. This will result in a slimy, smelly bark that comes off easily. It is not nice to work with and does not look nice either.

b) Aftercare:

I like to leave my willow to mellow for a day or two before use wrapped in an old sheet. This will allow the water from the outside of the skin to be fully absorbed and make is extra soft and flexible. Once soaked you will have to mind the willow does not dry out again. It is not possible to soak willow for a second time. It will never regain full flexibility. The bark will also get damaged.

With care you can drag this time frame out quite a bit. I can sometimes keep the willow for up to 6 weeks.

When you find your willow is drying out a little it is possible to soak it for a day or two for a top up. (only when not fully dried out yet) But take care not to oversoak and damage the bark.

c) Steaming:

Willow can also be under soaked (taken out before fully ready) and then steamed for a few hours. This will make it extra soft to work with. It will also stay soft for longer. Steaming can be done by putting your willow in a wooden box or bag and adding steam. See video about how we steam here.

Steaming is not necessary. It makes life a lot easier though once you are using a lot of willow or using very thick willow for big projects. I have made a video about it on YouTube if you want to have a look at our steamer…..


6. Selecting willow:

How to select the right willow for your project? There are 2 options:

  1. Model your willow on a basket you have available as an example either in real life or from a picture.
  2. Imagine your finished project. Specifically think about what thickness of the willow in the border of your basket will need to be. This will be different depending on the size etc. Once you have a rough idea about that we will work our way back from there. We will need about 20cm for a border. Then add the height of the basket. Plus, 5cm or so to push the willow into the base. Look at one rod in your bundle that would fulfil those criteria. Once you have found one, find 24 more of the same thickness. (one extra just in case, always!)

Your base sticks will be slightly thicker then the buts of the uprights. Your weavers will be thinner then your uprights. We will need some extra thin weavers for starting in the base.

7. Tools:

For years I only had a pair of secateurs, an old blunt kitchen knife and a wooden bodkin my husband had made me. And it worked great! Over the years I have added a little to that. But that does not mean you will need all those tools to make a basket. Be creative! It is great that for basket making we need very few tools. Our hands the main important ones.

Tools I use a lot:

-Secateurs (they need to be sharp!)

-Bodkin (a small one is easiest to use)

-Weight (stone, piece of lead, metal, etc.)

-String or electrical wire (to tie up the uprights)

-Measuring tape (if working to specific measurements)

-Rapping iron (to bang down the weaving in the side of the basket to make it tight)