Sunday, August 31, 2014

Basket weaving for mandarin eaters

My mum's been keenly following the adventures of a family of sea-eagles on whose highrise Sydney nest is trained a live-streaming sea-eagle cam (here, for those of you who need a bit of sea-eagle voyeurism in your lives). Every so often the family ornithologist emails my sisters and me an update: the egg's hatched!, the father's just brought back a dead fish!, the chick's taken up violin! I was very impressed to learn from Mum yesterday that the sea-eagles' nest is now six feet wide. That's, like, 183cm or so in the new money. Big! It's a truly impressive structure, woven out of sticks that have somehow stayed together through storms and rain, the comings and goings of a pair of grown-up sea-eagles, and the shenanigans of the baby sea-eagle (who, admittedly, doesn't seem to be doing much besides eating bits of regurgitated fish).

As a person with reproductive designs of my own, I see this nest as something of a challenge. Being able to weave a vaguely permanent structure out of natural fibres is clearly a vital parenting prerequisite, and one I lack. I was pondering all this yesterday as we wandered under the willows along the gully near Ma Harlot's place. Long yellow willow wands, just sprouting their spring leaves, were hanging from the trees like hair and a good scattering of these had detached from the trees and were lying on the ground. These fresh lengths of pliable wood looked like pretty perfect stuff for some amateur nest-smithing.

Or basket-smithing. Back when I were a wee lad, basket-weaving was regularly cited as the height of pointless hippy dilettantism, than which there is no better incentive for a person of my proclivities to wangle some natural fibres into a vaguely bowl-shaped mess. So, behold, my pointless hippy dilettante basket-making method:

1. I make two wreathes of roughly equal circumference. A wreath is just three or so lengths of willow, twisted together into a circle, with the ends tucked in.

2. I fit one wreath around another so that they form right angles (one wreath will form the keel and the handle of the basket, and the other will form the rim of the bowl). At this point I rummage around in my mother's kitchen cupboards until I find her string (although a purist would be using her  own nettle cordage), and secure the wreathes together with a God's-eye lashing.

(For those who skipped the God's-eye-lashing chapter of Girl Guides, there's a neato instruction video here.)

3. I extend the God's eye with some more willow. (It's not really bendy enough for this to work well, but, hey, we amateur sea eagles can't aspire to instant perfection.)

4. I cut some lengths of willow and use these to make the ribs of the bowl. The ends of the ribs get tucked into the messy God's eye lashing, so it helps to make these ends a bit pointy and to make the God's eye fairly substantial.

5. Beginning at one end of the bowl, close to the handle/keel and bowl-rim conjunction, I fold a length of willow in half and begin weaving it back and forth between the ribs. With my next length, I start at the conjunction on the other side. The ribs are at risk of popping out of their God's-eye anchors during this process, but they can be tucked back in again, and as the weaving progresses it secures the ribs.

And so, ta da!, a basket:

While it may not be quite the thing for a family of sea-eagles, it's perfect for mandarins or other things like mandarins (though I should note that when I offered it to my mother for just this purpose, she politely rejected it, which casts some suspicion over whether she really did think the spray-painted macaroni jewellery I gave her for Christmas '82 was the height of fashion).


  1. Those persons who wasted asparagus by casting it at basket weavers had obviously never attempted the task.
    Like so many other things it is considerably more difficult that it looks. And the end results (and yes I am including yours) leave rather a lot of more mainstream carriers in the shade, for beauty, and for function.
    Mind you, I suspect that sea-eagle structures use guano glue instead of God's eye. Shameless unbelievers that they are.

  2. Naw, thank you, Elephant's Child. This very simple act of basketry has seriously increased my respect for people who make wicker furniture (not to mention baskets that are actually symmetrical and not able to be repurposed as colanders).

    I hadn't thought about using guano ... might make the basket a bit unsuitable for mandarin storage :-)

  3. How lovely. It almost makes me want to be a girl guide. Almost.

  4. Haha! Guides taught me all the best things I know: how to pitch a gigantic canvas tent, how to turn an empty fruit tin into a portable pikelet stove, how to make a toy echidna for a nursing home resident out of a withered liquid amber seedpod. Etc.