Willow Product Manufacture:
A Brief Overview
Prior to the 20th Century, natural biodegradable willow products fulfilled many
essential functions in daily domestic and commercial life. They were used to contain
and package everything that needed to be gathered, transported and stored and many
of the designs for these containers were highly regional and specific to their function.
Nostalgia and Chemicals
Now the majority of commercially manufactured willow products on sale in Britain
are just poorly made imitations of 19th Century baskets and furniture. They are
frequently manufactured from willows that have been grown as a monoculture, with
all the attendant pest and disease problems of this type of cultivation that then
necessitates chemical intervention. The willow product which was once essential,
functional, biodegradable and locally produced without damage to the environment
has in the 21st Century become a nostalgic object made from chemically treated willows
that cause damage to the environment in which they are grown. Some of these products
are manufactured on the other side of the world and shipped in sealed containers
to reach their market and frequently the products are sprayed with fungicides to
prevent mould developing on the natural moisture containing willows.
The Poisonous Bread Basket
It is therefore highly likely that an imported willow bread basket still has potentially
toxic residues on it when we put our bread into it. Product labelling is increasingly
important for those of us who try to make informed choices about the things we purchase
but as yet there is no legal requirement for the producers of willow baskets to
let us know where they were made or how they have been treated. Many of the imported
willow products available in Britain have descriptions that imply they have been
made here. One furniture company produces an ‘English Willow’ range that is in fact
made in another European country.
Local and Organic
Individual basket makers in Europe are increasingly presenting an alternative, many
of them growing their own willows organically and selling their work locally. They
need our support. We can also question where the willow baskets on sale in our shops
have come from and only buy those that we know to be from sustainable sources. We
should also demand quality.
Rustic = Broken?
It is common to see willow baskets offered for sale in prestigious outlets that
are damaged in some way. None of these shops would sell a chipped cup or glass yet
one major London furniture store recently displayed a seriously denatured (a process
known in the trade as ‘antiquing’) willow laundry basket with 14 broken stakes and
bird droppings on the top. It is as though both the store buyers and the customers
no longer have any idea what a willow basket should look like.
My research set out to find alternative processes to hand-weaving for creating willow
products. Part of the reason why most willow products available to purchase in Britain
are imported is that skilled craft is an expensive commodity in Europe. My reasoning
therefore was that if we could find some alternative techniques to augment the traditional
craft skills it could expand the range of ways in which willow might be used to
create products that are relevant to the way we live our lives now.
Having developed several processes that could be used to create willow products,
it became apparent that unless changes could be effected in the way that willow
is commercially cultivated, finding ways to use more willow more quickly was not
the way to go. The results of this practical research will, however, be published
in the now completed thesis and will be available to purchase (by libraries) from
the British Library in the Autumn of 2004. Perhaps, by then, all willows will be
grown organically. The increasing popularity of living willow sculptures and garden
features has demonstrated how easy it is for anyone to grow willow and how readily
it will graft into a structure. This suggested that it should therefore be possible
to grow and harvest your own willow products. After several years of experimentation
on willows in France and in the nursery at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew this
train of thought has resulted in the exhibition, grown home, which is currently
on display at Kew. Initially grown home was scheduled to close in September
2003 but its popularity with the visiting public means that it is to remain for
at least a further year, which provides the opportunity to continue developing the
techniques and for some of the products to get to a stage where they can be harvested.
What is grown home?
grown home is a system of moulds and formers, that in combination with grafting,
allow the willows to grow into products such as waste paper bins, laundry bins,
chairs, tables, coat hangers and wine racks. A grown home product illustrates
the ideal product lifecycle, using only natural energy in its production it is harvested
when fully grown, peeled and brought indoors to use and at the end of its useful
life it is composted or used to light the barbeque. Everything being done in one
location also means that no fossil fuels are used to ship anything anywhere. Cultivation
on this scale means that pests and diseases are unlikely to cause a major problem
thus avoiding the need to use pesticides. Small scale also means it is ideally suited
to the urban environment where it can contribute to bio-diversity and whilst growing
provide an attractive feature in the garden or in a pot on a balcony or patio. Research
in product design suggests that part of the reason we so casually dispose of consumer
products we no longer want is that we never really had any connection with them
in the first place. We don’t know who made them and they are just one of identical
millions. It is, of course, much easier to dispose of something that you feel unconnected
to than something that you have some emotional connection with and it is for this
reason that customisation is currently a popular notion in product design. By having
some involvement or say in how the product looks or performs for you, makes you
less likely to become bored with it and will result in you keeping it longer than
you would otherwise have done. The product that you have grown yourself will inevitably
become a part of your life in a way that most manufactured products cannot. It will
also be unique and custom- made.
A chair planted on the birth of a child that will be ready by the time the child
is old enough to use it has an place in both the life of the grower and that of
the child that cannot be obtained through purchasing a chair.
grown home is a serious proposition about sustainable
design and for that reason I am working in conjunction with Windrush Willow to design and develop kits that
will make it easy for people to grow their own products. The first two kits, a coat
hanger and wine rack are available to order now
here for the order form) and a section of my web site will be devoted to
the images of products that have been grown by other people using these kits. It
will also provide a forum for an exchange of information on techniques.
Lois Walpole 2004
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