If there is one single plant which neatly represents the Zeitgeist it must be the willow. Naturally occurring, easily renewable, functional yet decorative, and even capable of cleaning up grey water and acting as a power station fuel, it accords with a number of our current preoccupations. Never, I imagine, has it been so widely used in gardens - to make fences, "fedges", play tunnels, even sleeping crocodiles - nor more appreciated, particularly in its coloured-twig forms, for its winter beauty. And its popularity as a natural material for making household objects and objets is assured.
Which is good news for Susie Thomson, whose close-woven basketware is on show in Stafford, at the Shire Hall Gallery, from today until 17 February. The fascination and allure of her willow works lie partly in their sinuous, sculptural shapes, partly in their soberly polychromatic colouring, and partly in the skill with which they have been wrought and finished. If your experience of basketware extends no further than a stocking-snagging log basket, then Susie's work will come as a very welcome surprise.
I found it hard to squeeze into her house in a quiet Battersea street for the tall pyramidal "bolts" of drying willow stems that line the front hall and the passage to her studio. They come in a range of colours and picturesque names, most of which gardeners would not recognise - Salix purpurea `Dark Dicks', `Green Dicks', `Continental Purple', `Goldstone' and `Uralensis'; S triandra `Black Maul' (which, confusingly, is green), S x rubens `Flanders Red' - although we are more familiar with the bloomy pale purple S irrorata. She grows some of her materials on a nearby allotment, but also buys them in from specialist growers. When needed for weaving, the stems are soaked in water for up to 10 days to make them supple and to bring out the colour.
They are the raw materials for what is a deceptively simple but highly skilled operation. Susie sits, as is traditional, at ground level, on a seat without legs, her materials and tools close at hand, and a lapboard on which she places the basket on which she is working. As she weaves willow stems ("weavers") through the "uprights", the basket grows, till finally Susie has to stand up when making a particularly tall basket. The tools, too, are simple, as you would expect of a long and honourable indigenous craft tradition: pointed metal bodkins to make space in the weaving; a sharp curved knife; a wooden "rapping iron" for beating down the weave to help produce the dense effect; and sharp-bladed clippers for trimming.
Susie began her working life as a china restorer, but disliked the artistic restrictions it imposed on her. …