28 June 2002

PASSIONATE WEAVER HEARS WILLOW TALK

Versatile in the garden and beautiful in the home,

theres nothing so wonderful as willow, says

basket maker and willow grower Phil Bradley.

He taught Mike Stones how to get weaving

PHIL Bradleys fingers listen to willow. After 12 years of crafting and growing willow, it tells them when to force a weave and when to let the wood rest. Its an infectious passion, as I found out on a weekend willow weaving course organised by The Field Studies Council at Blencathra, near Kendal, in the Lake District.

Our weekend began with dinner in the centres canteen and then it was down to the business of the weekend – willow. To the uninitiated its just wood or, worse, twigs. But dont say that to Phil. For him, willow is not just a passion, its a craft and business – a way of life and almost a philosophy. Our introduction to the wonders of willow was a slide presentation revealing whats possible with the material. Trellises, screens, plant supports, play structures, baskets, living willow arbours… The versatility of willow seems endless.

"I used to work in forestry but after meeting a basket maker, willow got its claws into me and has never let go," says Phil.

Over a pint of fine West-moreland bitter in the college bar we learned about the missionary zeal with which he hunts new varieties of willow. Phil works with more than 20 varieties, each with its own characteristics. But he often scrutinises maps for signs of old willow beds in the hope of saving a forgotten variety, possibly with unique growing and weaving characteristics.

After so much enthusiasm we were anxious to get weaving. Our opportunity came the next morning. The first project was a conical plant support ideal for runner beans with Chris Bonnington aspirations. But before our first weave, we had to sharpen the secateurs with a wet stone. "Its a lot cleaner than an oil stone. Just make five or six circular strokes. Its like stroking a cats head," explains Phil.

The next task was to select 16 rods of equal length and girth from a big pile or bolt in the corner of the studio. Taking a baseboard drilled with 16 circular holes, we snuggled the rods into holes. "Now straighten the rods natural curve with your hands to flatten out their bellies," instructed Phil. "People tend to be too tentative with willow." Rely on your fingers not your eyes, he continued. "You can feel any difference more keenly than you can see it. Thats the willow talking to you."

The 16 rods were tied at the top with willow woven into a ring. Then we were introduced to the weavers best friend and staunchest ally – the three rod wale.

"Find six well-matched rods and insert the tip of three rods behind three uprights. Now pick the upright on the opposite of the circle and repeat the exercise with the remaining three rods," explains Phil.

Feeling as though a knitting needle could come in handy, we began the bottom weave that gives the plant support its strength. Phil wont countenance glue or nails so the strength must come from the tightness and accuracy of the weave itself.

Here goes… Pick up the rod on the left closest to you and thread it over the first two uprights and behind the third. Push the weaving rod down with both index fingers. Do likewise with the other two