Bushcraft: Making a Willow Basket


I like working with my hands. When doing so, my mind tends to slip into the present and errant thoughts subside. I view this as good and practicing this state helps me focus during daily routines. When I’m not using my hands to create something, I get tense and nervous. I’m not sure why this happens, but I suspect the need to use my hands runs in my blood — my father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all carpenters.

Weaving a willow basket by hand.Last year, we moved from a house with a big workshop to a small house with a shed that just fits the canoes and kayaks. I lost the place where I built boats, paddles and whatever else I needed to build. For this past year, I’ve struggled with finding satisfying projects and am attempting to keep my connection with boat building by doing my Winter Free Canoe and Kayak Plan Project. But, without a real project (even note the language I use when writing about my hands), my hands have suffered. While trying to find a reason why I need to use my hands and why if I don’t, I feel like something is missing from my life, I picked up The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. Early in the book, Frank R. Wilson writes, “I would argue that any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function, the historic origins of that relationship, or the impact of that history on development dynamics in modern humans, is grossly misleading and sterile.” Does that answer my question? I don’t know, but I do know that when I make something I’m happier.

The bottom of a weaved willow basket.To help fulfill my hand’s needs, I built a willow basket. Somehow, I stumbled upon Jon’s Bushcraft’s Weaving a Wicker Basket tutorial. It looked like an easy enough craft to learn from the Internet, so I decided to try. I’ve always wanted to build a pack basket, but gathering and pounding black ask seemed a bit more than I wanted to commit to without a workshop. For the willow basket, I’d just need to gather some willow.

Finding willow ended up being harder than I thought. I found lots of thicker willow with lots of branches, but what I wanted was a thin willow shoot, preferably a year-old shoot from an old stump. I spent an entire day looking for the perfect sticks when it occurred to me to look under powerlines. In Cook County, power companies clear the lines every couple of years and they leave the stumps. My instinct proved right. I found a massive batch of perfect willow shoots.

I don’t want to rehash Jon’s Bushcraft’s tutorial, but I’ll make a few notes. First, making a willow basket is much harder than it sounds. In college, we used to make fun of the football players for majoring in basket weaving, but in retrospect, it probably challenged them more than we supposed. I ran into the first problems right at the start!

The basic shape of the willow basket takes shape.In order to link all the sticks together for the base of the basket, you’re suppose to twine the stakes together. I found that after I did as instructed, I had a hard time evenly spacing the twigs for weaving. For a second basket, I twined first around four spokes at a time for the first wrap and then two spokes at a time for the second wrap. This spread the spokes more evenly.

The second part that I struggled with was the French randing. I just couldn’t figure it out. I spent an hour one afternoon trying to figure out how to French rand. Eventually, I decided to skip it and just use a simple weave to build the basket’s sides.

In the end, I think my first basket turned out nice. It has enough gaps, that I’d lose a few berries if I went out gathering, but for bigger items, it’d work just fine. I think the weavers I used are just a little to thick. The next one will use thinner weavers. The process itself was satisfying enough to fulfill my hand’s needs. I love that I was able to turn something I gathered from the woods into a functional item using only a pocket knife and my hands.

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