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The art of willow

By Heather Large | Features | Published:

Willow’s strength and versatility has made it a highly valued crop since ancient times.

For thousands of years people have been using willow to make everyday objects from baskets to coracles.

Although these days it might be considered by some to be a dying art, there are still many dedicated basket makers and willow weavers, both hobbyists and professionals, across the country helping to keep the craft alive.

“At one time every community would have had a willow bed and somebody who made the baskets and was considered to be highly skilled,” said Shrewsbury-based basket maker and willow sculptor Ben Mayho.

“There are only probably a couple dozen of us making baskets professionally now, but what’s nice about the basket making world is that everybody helps each other. Everybody is happy to share ideas, skills and tips.

“In a lot of trades, people won’t tell you what they are up to but that’s not the case with basket making.

“Basket making is not necessarily a dying craft, but I think making things by hand is a dying art, so we need to support each other and have each other’s backs,” added the 40-year-old. Ben specialises in making functional and rustic baskets as well as creating lifelike and abstract sculptures.

He also teaches the craft through workshops for schools, groups and organisations such as The National Trust.

“I enjoy being creative and encouraging others to be creative and enabling them to develop skills. It’s very rewarding,” said the self-taught craftsman.

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When crafting his pieces, he works on an angled table to give him a better view of the basket or sculpture as it takes shape.

“When you use an angled table you can see it from above and see the sides,” Ben told Weekend.

Some of the willow Ben uses in his work is sourced from Somerset, but he also grows and harvests his own.

“I grow different colours and varieties that have certain qualities like being particularly slender, or more flexible or stouter.

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“Willow is an incredible crop. It will grow up to 12ft in a year and it will do that every year so it’s very sustainable.

Sustainable

“It’s a beautiful material to work with – although it’s tough on your hands. My wife is always offering me her hand cream,” said the dad of three.

The key to successful weaving is to first soak the dried willow in water. The length of time it needs to be left submerged depends on the variety.

Buff willow, which has had the bark removed, should be soaked for an hour to two hours. Brown willow rods with the bark intact take the longest, and are generally soaked for a day per foot of the length of the rod.

Flanders red willow, which is a harder red coloured variety, requires double the soaking time to make it pliable.

“It’s a case of working methodically and making sure you plan ahead so the willow has time to soak before you need to make something.

“After it’s been soaked, it’s much more flexible and you can carefully bend it into different curves and shapes. Once it dries, it’s incredibly strong and will last for years,” said Ben.

Smaller pieces are usually produced in the workshop with frames made from the willow itself. While larger items are most often made with steel frames that can support the weight of the materials.

He has created sculptures for clients ranging from award-winning garden designers, to organisations such as the National Trust, and for individuals’ homes and gardens.

Visitors to Attingham Park over the past few months may well have seen one of Ben’s more elaborate sculptures taking shape. Constructed from many thousands of willow rods and ivy from the estate, Mother Nature formed the focal point in the historic Stables Courtyard as part of its Inspired by Nature Christmas theme for 2019.

More than 200 hours of work, both indoors and out and in a variety of weather culminated in the finished sculpture, which Ben describes as a “labour of love”.

“It was such a lovely project to be involved in. They came to me with an idea, and I went back to them with sketches and then we worked together. The finished design was an amalgamation of all of the sketches.

“It was nice to have the chance to develop a design and they were able to see their ideas coming to life.

“With bigger projects like that it’s also nice to have more time to work on it and make it perfect. It involved some long days though. I would be on site from 7.30am until I lost the light, and then I’d be soaking willow at home until midnight.

“It was lovely to see it finished and I hope people enjoyed seeing it,” said Ben.

In August he worked on a show garden for Shrewsbury Flower Show with his wife Emma, which included a willow pod

Ben is also often called upon to make willow coffins and ashes caskets for local funeral directors and, as with his other work, it’s something he takes great pride in.

“If I’m making something for someone’s loved one I want to make sure it’s absolutely perfect and the best it can be.

“If I’m not happy with it, I will undo it and redo it until I get it right. Willow is biodegradable and it’s got that tradition of being used in the funeral trade,” he explained.

This year he’s planning more workshops at Attingham Park, including monthly Willow for Wellbeing sessions. “I’ve seen how good doing creative work can be for people and give them something to focus on,” said Ben.

He will also be teaching weaving at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery as well as working on new commissions.

“What I enjoy the most is working with my hands to create something new from what essentially is a pile of sticks. I feel a real sense of pride in what I do,” said Ben.

For more information on Ben’s courses and workshops see www.wildcraftist.com

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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