Friday, 15 June 2018

Somerset Willow & Wool

I have long savoured Somerset willow and wool cloth and I feel very excited to be working with both of these fabulous woven products this summer.  The sight of my studio work tables adorned with willow in all shapes and sizes certainly feels like the beginning of an adventure with great heart.


Steeped in the history of Somerset, it is a delight to me that willow is still commercially grown on the Somerset Levels.  I love to stroll down to the willow beds at the Coates English Willow Visitor Centre at Stoke St Gregory and they make for an impressive sight particularly in the summer months.


As indeed does the harvested willow drying out in the sunshine - just one aspect of the labour intensive process that has been worked and honed in Stoke St Gregory for nearly 200 years.  Salix Triandra Black Maul is the non-living willow most commonly used for weaving as it stays flexible for up to six weeks when first cut.


Coates English Willow has a terrific story to tell about their history of growing and working with willow.  While machinery has lightened the load of the process, some aspects like sorting the cut willow are still done completely by hand.  I highly recommend booking one their informative and engaging tours at their Visitor Centre, where you have the opportunity to see all the stages first hand. 


In addition to being a resilient and eco friendly product, willow is also extremely versatile and a skillful weaver can turn their hand to all manner of creations.


I love to pop into the visitor centre shop on my workshop Saturdays at the centre and follow their ever evolving range of willow products.  I always find a new product to feast my eyes on - and very often take away too!


I have made many decorative textile additions for my willow purchases and then a few years ago I came across a Somerset cloth woven with a similar heart - beautiful wool flannel by Fox Brothers at Tonedale Wellington. Fox Brothers have been weaving woollen cloth for over 250 years and they employed over 5000 people at it's peak.  How fabulous that they continue to weave exquisite woollen cloth with British wool in Somerset.

Working with this historical Somerset textile in my fingers is pure pleasure and an experience hard to match.  I was delighted to organise a group visit to Fox's Somerset factory last year and to learn more about the processes.  Like many kinds of weaving, the skills required are considerable and those who work them do so with diligence and passion.


Visiting their  Merchant Fox shop in The Counting House in Tonedale is like taking a walk back in time.  They hold one of the largest collections of textile archives in Europe and it is amazing to see samples of historical textiles in full blazon colour.


Watching and chatting to their experienced tailor who also works in the Counting House is also a real treat and one off experience in a world of mass clothes production.  


And so this summer I am working with Somerset Levels stitcher Annie, to see how we can combine these two woven Somerset products that have notched up 450 years of history between them.  A willow item used for centuries seemed like a perfect starting point and for our first project we created a French style liner in cream check Fox flannel for this pretty Coates willow basket.


We also spent pleasurable time creating this contemporary willow woven heart notice board, which feels rather symbolic of our heartfelt work and adventures ahead this summer.  How fabulous to have work with a sense of passion and we look forward to all that lies ahead and sharing stories along the way.







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