From her garden studio, willow weaver Angela Morley creates natural baskets combining form and function.
Set back from a narrow lane, with views of the Mendip Hills peaking over the tops of hedgerows and apple orchards, is a beautiful garden. Here, in Pylle, Somerset, artist Angela Morley is hard at work, ensconced in her studio. She uses a palette of fiery oranges, yellowy greens, silvery blues and coppery browns. These are not carefully mixed paints, however. Instead, her colours come from graceful, balletic strands of willow, budded tree branches and papery dried leaves. From these materials she creates baskets that are both functional and beautiful.
“I take natural materials and give them a new lease of life,” she says. Many of them have been gathered from her garden, surrounding hedgerows and even her own compost heap. Weeds and offcuts end up there, and when she sees them she is inspired to use them. “I find inspiration everywhere. I can’t throw anything away. Each material requires its own unique treatment, so it’s important to get to know it first, handling it, and feeling the texture and how pliable it is. Willow bends more than a tree branch, for example, and grasses are much softer on the fingers.”
Weaving willow is the culmination of Angela’s passion for horticulture, sculpture and sustainable living. It is also the final piece in a personal journey that began as a child and progressed through her work as a garden designer. “I spent every weekend exploring the countryside where we lived. I fell in love with the natural world around me and its flora. That’s what formed me,” she says. “My parents were artists, but I didn’t have confidence in my own creative abilities. It wasn’t until I discovered willow in my 30s that I realised I had a hidden talent.”
She attended her first course on weaving willow in 2002 at West Dean College in West Sussex. “I’d always fancied making my own basket. I like learning basic, self-sufficiency skills,” she says. “I came home fired up to just have a go. I realised it didn’t matter whether what I made worked out or not, I could put it in my wood burner or on the compost heap. Weaving is very environmentally friendly.” Other courses followed, and today Angela runs her own workshops. As well as the baskets, she makes sculptural items such as willow balls, birds and nests.
Preparing the willow
Before work can start on creating a basket, Angela checks she has everything she needs on a table next to her. The key tools include a pointed bodkin for separating woven strands and a knife for sharpening willow tips to ease threading. She also uses side cutters for trimming any loose ends. Fastened bundles of willow from 4ft to 6ft (1-2m) long are grouped by colour and secured with twine. They lie on the floor with other materials waiting to be used. “It’s important to have everything you need in easy reach before you begin,” she says. Then she switches on Radio 4, the final touch to her creative routine.
From the 200 types of willow growing the UK, Angela has three favourites, ‘Black Maul’, ‘Flanders Red’ and ‘Dicky Meadows’. ‘Black Maul’ is a common chocolate-brown variety. “‘Flanders Red’ has a fantastic orange colour that dries even brighter,” she says. “‘Dicky Meadows’ sounds like a cider variety. I love the blueness and bendiness of this willow. I buy most of my willow in February from Musgrove Willows, near Bridgwater. I do grow some myself, but I forgot to label the varieties as I planted, so it’s a little haphazard.”
The willow she is using was harvested back in November, when the plant was dormant. The strands are graded, which involves grouping them in terms of their length. Then each stem is left to air-dry for five months under the porch of her studio.
“You can use willow fresh,” says Angela. “But it has a tendency to shrink as the water within it evaporates. So you could make a fantastic basket one day, then come back to it two weeks later to find it loose and rattly.” For this reason, she prefers to use dry willow, which has already shrunk. To make it supple, she simply soaks it before use in old tin baths and cattle troughs outside. This takes a day per foot of willow. There may be a little extra shrinkage, but not so much that it affects the end product.
As Angela works, she refers to her basic sketches, done in pencil on paper to map out her ideas. Inspiration comes in part from pictures, but also the materials she has to hand, although the end results don’t always match. “It’s much easier to draw a basket than make one, because the willow won’t always do what you want it to do. But that’s part of the fun,” she says.
Weaving the base
Sitting down, she picks up a dark 6ft (2m) strand of reliable ‘Black Maul’. “This is a good all-rounder,” she says. “It’s pliable to use and has a lovely green colour that works well in most designs.” The strand is cut into six equal sections. These are used to create the structured round base for her basket.
She makes a cut through the middle of three of her willow pieces using her knife. The others are threaded through the holes to form a cross, called a slath. This is secured with a pairing weave. Very thin, flexible willow tips, 4in (10cm) in length, are first wrapped round the four-spoke slath and then each individual spoke, forcing them to fan out. From here, additional strands of the same willow are woven under and over each spoke in turn, until the chosen diameter is reached.
“You have to be the boss of willow when you make traditional baskets like this one,” she says. “Everything needs to be straight and equal.”
Angela sharpens willow rods by scraping off the end with the knife. These are inserted into the base and gently bent upwards to form the sides of the basket. She guides and supports each stake with her fingers to ensure it does not kink or snap. To create decoration and introduce texture, she now weaves in eight-strand bundles of green sedge in front and behind the rods.
Other baskets will have different coloured willow or materials from the garden, such as dogwood, old man’s beard, plaited dahlia, daffodil and iris leaves, woven through. “I hate to see plants decay. Weaving gives them a new purpose. It never ceases to amaze me how I can take one floppy stem and, by weaving other pieces over and under it, I can create this incredible strength. The willow forms a simple frame on which to showcase more delicate materials that make pretty finishing touches.”
Developing her work
From round-based baskets, Angela has moved onto freer alternatives, including frame- and leaf-shaped baskets. These are made around a central, fork-shaped branch, such as silver birch or coppiced alder. Willow is woven to and fro between the prongs.
“This is a much more organic way to weave willow,” she says. “It bends a bit, I bend a bit and we meet somewhere in the middle. Until you get your hands on the material and see how it’s reacting, you never really know how the end result will turn out. It’s a celebration of the material’s unique character.”
One element of her work that brings immense satisfaction is teaching others. “I began teaching people how to make basic shapes such as hearts and dragonflies. Seeing how empowered they felt when they’d finished was a real motivator for me.”
She also takes on bigger projects. A recent commission was to make a willow dragon for a nature trail. Work such as this can take up to a week. “Private commissions are great because they push me out of my comfort zone and are even more of an achievement.”
In natural harmony
As she works, a thrush appears at the doorway of her studio. This is one of the many wild residents to make themselves at home in her garden and her displays. A willow flower attached to the outside wall of her shed has been inhabited by a wren’s nest for the past four years. “It’s so rewarding to see my work in use by nature,” she says.
Once the basket is the right height, she trims off the loose ends of willow and then adds a rim. “I use willow bark to make rims for my baskets, sewing it in place,” she says.
It can take a day to make one basket. Once it is finished, the offcuts are gathered up and taken to her willow beds. Here, Angela sticks them into the soil. “Willow is incredibly easy to root,” she reveals. “And it can grow 10ft (3m) in a year.”
Most of the willow she uses has been harvested after a year. However, she leaves some of her own longer, gathering it in leaf. At that time, the sap is high in the plant and she can peel off the bark in one strip.
It is easy to overlook the effort that has gone into the creation of these beautiful baskets but, for Angela, it never feels like work. “Weaving is my meditation. It’s repetitive, relaxing and connects me to nature. I’m at my happiest when I can truly lose myself to the process.”
Words: Emma Pritchard Photography: Heather Edwards