Look about you at nature, in the gorgeous hues of fire of Autumn’s transition. So we’ve picked the rosehips and the sweet chestnuts and made soup and nourishing biscuits against the impending chill. What now?
This is the season craftspeople and hunter gatherers of old would have been out busily harvesting not just food but fibre..yet another arrow nocked to the forager’s bow and one that is all too often overlooked. We are talking of Basketry, Papermaking and Cloth Making.
Take a good look at the hedgerow, the browning waysides. what do you see? Already the senses of a keen food forager will pick out sustenance, but expand our horizons as we realise that to carry and store these fruits, nuts and seeds, containers are needed. Let me introduce you to some fibre friends of the hedgerow. Admire the coiling spring of the vicious bramble. With a stout heart, knife and gloves these can be trained into a rustic and equally stout basket. There’s something really cool about making a friend of such a formidable foe.
The tall stately green-gilt-tan of autumn Reedmace (Typha latifolia) that my readers are familar with as a food plant can also be encouraged to tesselate in an attractive checker pattern into lightweight containers…once properly dried. In Irish reed-craft large lofts and attics were saved for this purpose and even now there is a flourishing trade in traditional, intricate baskets of bulrush (Sciripus campestris).
Now also is the time to embrace that old stalwart, the common Nettle, in a completely different way that is a far cry from pesto or falafel balls. First, find some old, tall, stick-like nettles growing in a pack. Now..get in there, right at the base, with some secateurs (and gloves again, tough old nettles at the time of year REALLY do bite). You will probably still get stung a bit, but you will be having so much fun you won’t notice 🙂 I have been cutting bunches several inches thick, stripping the leaves off (yes, keep your gloves on and use a piece of leather to strip..I used a wire brush!!). Then it is time to soak them for a week, in a tank or in my case in the lovely muddy canal next to my boat, tied precariously by bits of string. I am now drying them over the heat of the engine in the engine room, will they produce a gossamer – fine jumper or shawl? TBC!
Last but not least, Pine trees are shedding their leaves, carpeting the cold ground in a gentle springiness with their creamy gold needles. I have been scooping up handfuls gleefully into my bemused toddler’s buggy if I have no bags to hand, from various locations where I also get the same bemused look from passing motorists, supermarket staff or dog walkers. Once you have these beauties home, you will see, and feel, the difference between the different types, and then with the addition of some tying material and a significant amount of fiddling (my clumsy fingers are better suited to wrestling with brambles), baskets intricate as a spider’s web can be fashioned.
So, there’s some to get you started, now go out and harvest your own. As usual, though the parts you need are either ‘dead’ or dying down for the winter, this foliage is still useful in Nature as insulation for the ground, as homes for animals and breaks down into mulch and nutrients for the soil for next season, so don’t take so much from any one spot that a passer by would notice.
Choose stems and leaves that have a bit of flex in them yet are mature and quite dry, but not too brittle.. This is a difficult thing to describe and is best shown…stay tuned for my Basketry and Fibre courses. Too immature and they will be too weak and moist, too old and they will be too brittle and snap. The perfect basketry material is pliable, strong and a good colour with no spots of mould or weak parts. you will get the hang of it as you go along! In most cases you will need to prepare the materials by storing them in a dark, dry place until they shrink with drying (you don’t want this to happen AFTER it’s made into a basket or it ends up becoming a sieve!).
So once you’ve done that, come back and we’ll go into some of these in more detail and learn how to make some basic baskets and fibres.
See you soon in the hedgerow!
xx Hedgewitch Kat xx