Cambridge Open Studios Interviews 2014 - Debbie Hall

We are delighted to start our series of interviews with Cambridge Open Studio Artists for 2014 with inspirational willow weaver Debbie Hall...

Debbie Hall

Where did your interest in weaving start?

I’ve always been creative and attracted to natural materials (and been fond of baskets), but didn’t really think of giving it a go myself until my late 20’s. We had just bought a house in Duxford with a totally featureless garden and at the time there was an amazing garden pot shop in the village. They had a few beautiful tall hazel and willow plant supports that I thought would give the garden some instant interest. I bought two and whilst installing them was struck with the thought ‘I bet I could do that!’ – the rest is history!

I set about finding somewhere to learn, which didn’t seem that easy at the time, and ended up finding a lovely teacher, Joni Bamford, who lived in Rutland just outside Stamford. I made my first basket when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, so I can always remember just how long I’ve been working with willow - 19 years now!

I loved it, and my first attempt looked like a basket and functioned like a basket! And it wasn’t just the end result that I liked, I really loved the process. Weaving with willow in the round has a wonderful rhythm to it, and I find it amazingly relaxing in that it requires enough mental energy to keep you from thinking too much about other things but not so much that you find it taxing in itself – When I get into the rhythm, it’s almost meditational

Joni offered weekend courses, similar to those that I run now, and when my children were very young my weekend basket workshops became my ultimate treat. My husband’s parents live a bit further up the A1 and on willow weekends my husband Matt would drop me off at Joni’s, and take the kids up to his parents for the weekend, picking me up on the way home.

Joni also did B&B and so I got to spend Saturday evening pouring over the wonderful basketry books in the extensive collection in her studio – I remember that I learned one of my favourite knots from one of her beautiful Japanese basketry books. The instructions were in Japanese, but the illustrations were excellent so it didn’t matter! I am very grateful to Joni (sadly no longer with us) for the part she played in helping me find the medium that I have been so continually inspired by.
 
Tell us about your workspace, and where you source your willow.

Garden

We moved to our current location in Shudy Camps just over five years ago and a big attraction of Blacksmith’s Cottage was the large garden with existing studio that would offer the perfect place for me to work and run courses from. I love to work outside, and I find the beautiful garden so inspiring to weave in. It also had polytunnel that was ideal for storing the willow that I had already started growing myself in Abington.

I have 6 main varieties on the willow beds in Abington and they are grown organically and hand-harvested and sorted. I love growing my own materials and now crop enough willow each year to supply 100% of my needs on all fronts – my own sculpture and baskets, teaching and living willow projects. This year I have had enough to supply a couple of other basketmakers and the kitchen garden at Audley End too.

Tell us about the how you work through the seasons when working with willow.

Studio

I love having control over my own supply, as although nature makes sure the crop is slightly different every year (the weather can be a siginificant factor in quantity, length, straightness and even colour), I can make the most of unusual rich bark colours and make my baskets and other structures, truly unique. Growing and using your own willow really allows you to get to know it well. My years of familiarity with it at all stages of its life means that I know how each variety weaves, how long I have to soak each sort for to get it ‘just right’ to work with, which ones work best for one job, and which for another!

Though preparation of willow is fairly straightforward, there is a lot of planning involved. Many of my willows take 2 weeks to soak before they are ready to weave and so I have to be quite on the ball preparing for workshops and making sure that I have enough materials ready for all my own and teaching needs. I also need to plan my storage carefully - I keep some in cool shady spots so the willow remains flexible longer for larger garden projects and let some dry out quickly in the polytunnels so that it can be soaked for basketmaking.

tulip

Being involved with the whole process also allows me to tune into the natural world and my working year is tailored to the cycle of the willow. The harvest takes place in the winter after the leaves have dropped and the plant is dormant, usually between Late December and March, which is also the time when I plant the living willow structures.

In early – late spring / early summer I work with the larger willow whilst it still flexible with its own sap, so I make larger garden pieces and teach workshops in plant supports and garden structures and sculpture. During the summer I'm often found making work to decorate festival sites and I also start teaching baskets and other smaller items using use willow from the previous year that has been dried and re-soaked. (Willow prepared in this way doesn’t shrink as much as mellowed fresh willow, which is important, as you don’t want to end up with a loose, baggy basket!

Autumn means I can start working and teaching with the current year’s willow, and I try to continue offering seasonal workshops – eg autumn might include berry picking baskets and a bird lover’s workshop, where participants can make bird feeders and houses – useful for the upcoming cold spells; and finally Christmas Decorations, before the whole cycle starts again. Throughout the year I work outside in all conditions and I have come to really love the variety – I feel truly blessed to interact with nature in all her guises. Lise Bech, a Scottish basketmaker who also grows and weaves with her own material, talks about working with willow ‘from bud to basket’, and I haven’t yet been able to think of a better description!
 
What do you love most about willow and what makes it such a versatile medium to work in?

willow

Willow is such a versatile medium to work in and it has kept me interested for nearly twenty years – I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be able to think of something new to make with willow, and I find that sense of possibility very exciting. Each piece of willow is different, and every rod has a thick (butt) end and tapers to a thin (tip) end) and whilst you get to know well the characteristics of the different varieties, I love the fact that I have to work with the inherent qualities and shapes to get the best results. I like the challenge of that too, and get quite bored with the evenness and dull colours of other basketry materials such as cane.

tools

One of the things I like most about working with willow is that there is very little interaction of tools – like potters, basketmakers get to shape each of their creations directly with their hands.  It’s a very direct and hands-on medium. There are a few tools that make parts of the process a little easier (such as a basketmakers bodkin) but to make a basket, all you really need is a sharp pair of secateurs and a weight to hold it steady as you work on it. Though you will need to prepare materials in advance, by soaking and mellowing, making a basket or willow sculpture can be a very immediate thing. In a day you can transform a bundle of sticks into a beautiful, practical piece that can be used right away.

If kept indoors, a willow basket or sculpture could last fairly indefinitely, its only real enemy being a very damp environment (goes mouldy) or wood worm! I love that brown willow (this is a term for dried willow with the bark on, regardless of its actual colour) has a look of the ancient to it, even when it is just made. I like to play with this characteristic, and with careful choice of colour and weave, often try and produce pieces that are obviously quite contemporary, but also have an ancient or traditional essence.

Floating rings

The cycle and ease of growth makes willow the perfect ecological material to work with. I grow it without any chemicals, it is cut, sorted and bundled by hand, and once it is dry, the only thing you need to make it workable again is water. I am proud that the materials I choose to work with have so little negative impact on the earth – because I plant so much of it in a year, carbon wise, I’m sure the small amount of diesel I use to transport it around is more than offset!

sculpture

When working outside with willow I also love that I am not completely in control. With living willow I plant and shape it initially (and sometimes I will continue to shape and prune it) but once it starts growing, really it takes on a life of its own. With the non-living willow, I shape it initially, but then it will gently rot away over several years, taking on new textures and colours at it changes with the effects of the weather. The final stages of a once strong and colourful piece, are fragile, delicate and grey – a very different, but equally inticing beauty!

Though working outside in the winter can be hard, I still love it – I really do get to see nature in her full glory in every season, and I have become a firm believer, that you can do anything in any weather if you have the right clothing – my favourites are my merino wool long johns and my soft warm croc wellies.

When Karen and I visited you, we were amazed at the array of colours in the different types of willow. What makes them all so varied?

colour

There are hundreds of different varieties of willow. Many of them occur naturally in the wild, and many of them have been specifically cultivated and cross-bred to produce a wide range of materials for basketmaking. I grow 6 varieties in quantity at the willow beds at Abington and a few more at home, which I have in nursery beds until I have enough cuttings to plant a decent size chunk with the others. One of the things I love about growing my own willow is the variety of colour that it allows me to bring to my work. Not only does each different variety have its own distinct colour, but this colour can also vary from the weather conditions during the season, its position in the willow beds (those on the edge get more sunlight) and where it is stored – I store my willow in dark sheds, and a bright warm polytunnel and get different colours in each.

growing

One of my varieties, salix purpurea ‘Dickie Meadowes’ ranges from a khaki/grey when stored in the dark to a peachy/lilac when ‘sunburnt’ in the polytunnel. I can get further colour variety by steaming willow after it has been soaked (I use a household wallpaper stripper for this), and this generally makes any variety go a shade or two darker.

When I am making my living willow structures I also like to make the most of colour and often plant three or more different varieties – not only does this give different colours in leaf and stem, but different leaf shapes and increased biodiversity! The majority of my basketmaking willow (as opposed to the big stuff for structures) are purpureas. These willows have a greater salicylic acid content in the bark, which makes them great for people, like me, who want to grow organically as they taste very bitter, so are not as tasty to potentially damaging insects and larger nibblers like rabbits and muntjac.
 
We loved seeing the example of living willow in the chairs and outside 'classroom.' Where have you installed this type of work?

A sizeable part of my business is creating and maintaining living willow structures. This is seasonal work as the willow can only be planted in the dormant season (usually between the end of December and March). I have been planting and weaving living domes, tunnels and sculpture in schools, nurseries and private gardens for about 15 years now, and I still get to see some of my early creations, when I go back to maintain them – some of the main growing rods in the older structures are now as wide as thick as my arms!

Most of my work is in schools, where domes and tunnels provide interesting places to play, function as natural open air classrooms, and provide welcome leafy shade from the sun in the summer. Learning to look after a living structure can also tie in seamlessly with the national curriculum. During, for example, an assembly on looking after a new living structure children will learn about photosynthesis and transpiration (why the structure will die if the leaves are pulled off, or rods are bent!). There are many insects and birds that particularly like to live on or around willow, and you can often watch the entire lifecycle of certain insects, such as ladybirds, which are particularly interesting as their larval stage is so different from the adult creature.
 
You are always experimenting with different ways of working with willow, do you have a trademark method that you feel you have mastered?

Though I am constantly experimenting with new shapes and designs, over the past few years I have been developing a particular oval based handbag shape that tapers in at the top and has a wooden handle (sometimes thick willow, sometimes, driftwood or similar). If I am asked to teach by other groups, this particular style is often requested, as it is different from anything that others teach.

Last September I taught this kind of basket for the Basketmaker’s Association at a 3 day residential course at Westhope Craft College in Shropshire. At the end of the weekend it was great to see so many baskets inspired by my own designs, and as with all my teaching, I picked up a few little ideas from my students too!

Another development from this shape has been larger shoulder bags (often with leather or hessian tape straps). One of the beauties of being in control of your own designs, methods and materials is that you can change any of them when you see a need. I realised from using the last shoulder bag that I made that I didn’t like the way the curve made it gently bounce against my hip. The latest ‘upgrade’ is on its’ way, and this time the base is made in an elongated kidney shape, to gently curve round the hip rather than nudge against it.

In terms of particular weaves, I feel that my speciality or trademark is zigzag weave (sometimes known as reverse French randing). It is not commonly used by many basketmakers, probably because the transition between rows looks rather complicated (it’s fine when you get used to it). It’s a little more time consuming than other weaves and the willow has to be in very good condition because the materials have to undergo quite radical bends. So, why do I like it? It looks great – giving an impression of strength and openness at the same time, and it’s quite hard to get it looking good. It is very unforgiving if you make a mistake, and I really like a challenge.

Tell us about the workshops you run from your premises. What can people achieve in a 2 day course with you?

workshops

I run workshops making all sorts of things from willow, from large sculptures (one couple made a giraffe earlier this year!) to tiny bird houses. Many of the courses are day courses, and these tend to focus on things that can be made using just a few techniques, such as trays and platters. Plant supports also fall into this category, and people are often amazed and delighted that as complete beginners they can go home with 2 lovely quite decent size examples.

Though you can make a basket in a day, you do need to learn quite a few techniques to produce a successful one, and so I much prefer to teach basketmaking over 2 days, giving participants plenty of time to work slowly and carefully and let all the new learning sink in properly. Taking your time also means that participants get to practice a border (the most complicated part of a basket) on a special jig before trying it out on their actual basket!

What is the most ambitious structure/piece you have made from willow, and what would be your favourite thing to make?

The most ambitious structure I ever made was a 9m long living willow slave ship made in a school in Olney in Northamptonshire to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. You could go inside the ship, and one end of it had a living dome cabin and the other a slave ‘cell’. I remember the 2 masts were fairly tricky to construct. There were also living willow slaves, chained together with their heads bent low in submission and 2 dome structures connected by a short tunnel, the floor plan of which mirrored the shape of shackles. The ideas were all based on sessions that I had organised earlier in school, and so the children were very involved in the planning stage. It is interesting that kids are often much more ambitious in their ideas than adults!

tunnel

My favourite thing to do is to have time to experiment, and then build on the original idea if I can see further improvements. If I have a new idea, I love to be able to try it out straight away. This doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but I have very recently been given a large chest freezer by a friend, and I am planning on using it to store pre-soaked willow so that I can be spontaneous – if I fancy making something, then I could have materials ready in a matter of minutes rather than days. I have tried it out on a very small scale, by wrapping rods round the drawers of my small freezer and it seems to work, so I am very hopeful.

What dates can people come and visit during Cambridge Open Studios and what will they expect to see?

My studios will be open on the middle 2 weekends (12th, 13th and 19th, 20th July).

I will have a range of things for sale including tiny willow birds, floating ‘living’ pond sculpture, baskets in many shapes and sizes, platters and trays, plant supports and planters, flower and dragonfly garden sculptures, bird tables and anything else I might come up with over the next month.

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