Make your own basket with fragrant lavender stems.
The graceful, flexible stems of lavender are suitable for many different kinds of basket construction beyond the usual lavender wands, but they have some interesting limitations. On the one hand, the stems are straight, unbranched, and fairly uniform. On the other hand, they are rather brittle and weak, and don’t lend themselves to tight weave structures that require major manipulation or that must bear a lot of weight. In making this wall basket, I also had to consider the buds: if I stripped them off to use in potpourris, the remaining straight stems would be fine for a tighter, more utilitarian container, but the buds were so lovely, both in color and texture, that I wanted to retain and make the most of them. That meant choosing a shape and technique that would show off the buds, and one that I could work without breaking them.
I started with a bundle of cut lavender, about eighty stems. Shaping and twining with raffia fanned the bouquet into a sort of airy sconce that can be used purely for decoration or to hold a bouquet or even a handful of potpourri in tissue.
Because my lavender was dried, it required soaking and mellowing to increase pliability. Fresh lavender can be used while it’s still naturally flexible. In either case, lavender is a pleasure to work with for the fragrance it emits when handled.
If using fresh lavender, you may eliminate these preparatory steps and proceed with construction of the basket. Dried stems must be soaked so they can be manipulated without breaking. Fill a tall jar with warm water and stand the tied bundle of lavender in it for 20 to 30 minutes. It may be necessary to weight the bundle so that as much of the stem’s length as possible is submerged while the flower heads remain dry.
Remove the bundle from the water, roll it up in the towel, and set it aside for at least 20 minutes to mellow.
Soak the raffia in water for only 2 minutes. Dyed raffia bleeds readily; soak it separately from the lavender—and wear old clothes!
Lay the lavender stalks out in four equal groups, keeping them separate and parallel to avoid damaging the buds. Holding three of the bunches in your left hand, place the fourth bundle 21/2 to 3 inches lower and in front of the others. This results in an undulating, graceful shape in the finished basket because the flower tips are not all at the same height. If some stems are shorter than the others, place them in this front bundle.
Begin wrapping the lower end of the stalks by placing the center point of a long piece of soaked raffia behind the shorter front bundle of lavender; let the ends extend out to either side. Holding the right-hand length of raffia out of the way, use the left-hand strand to wrap the entire group of stems. Wrap from the bottom up, letting the rounds of raffia slightly overlap one another and cover about 1 inch of the stalks. Wrap very tightly because the raffia will loosen significantly as it and the lavender dry.
Twining, or pairing, is a simple and ancient basketry technique in which two flexible weaving elements, or weft strands (in this case, raffia), twist around a series of more rigid, usually parallel elements, or warps (in this case, the lavender stems). In the basic sequence, or stroke, one weaver moves in front of the warp to its right, in back of the next warp to the right, and then out the front of the work, where it temporarily comes to rest. The second weaver starts one warp to the right of the first one and follows the same sequence: in front of one warp, behind the next, and then out the front. This stroke is repeated, always using the weaver on the left and progressing to the right counterclockwise around the basket.
With the lavender stems in your left hand and your fingers keeping the four bundles as separated as possible, pull the two loose ends of raffia to eliminate any slack and begin to twine. Take the left-hand piece of raffia in front of the bundle to the right, behind the next bundle, and let it come to rest dangling on the front of the basket. Next, take the strand that is now on the left in front of a bundle, behind a bundle, and out to the front. Continue for a total of four strokes, which completes one round, or row. As you twine, the raffia that is moving in front of a bundle should also pass on top of the right-hand strand of raffia that is resting. Keep the weaving taut.
Twine around the four original bundles for a total of four rows. (To keep track, count the number of raffia strokes that have stacked up vertically on a bundle.)
Next, split each of the original bundles in half. Make four rows of twining around these eight groups of ten stems each, working each new row of twining close to the row below it. As the weaving continues, gently open the wall of the container by pulling the lavender stem bundles apart and outward.
As the raffia ends run out or become shredded or flimsy, tie a new length to the old end with a square knot behind a warp where it won’t show.
Split each bundle in half again, making sixteen bundles of five stems each, and twine four more rows, allowing about 1/2 inch between rows. The basket should be significantly flared by now. Let the rows of twining freely follow the contours of the warps. Feel free to allow the rows of weaving to undulate. Work the last row of twining next to the previous row for stability.
If the length of the lavender stalks permits, twine a few more rows while splitting the bundles into groups of two or three stems. Don’t twine too close to the top of the stalks; the charm of this basket is that it emphasizes the elegant grace of the lavender rather than concealing it.
To end, tie a square knot with the two raffia ends behind a warp where it won’t be conspicuous.
Decorating the front of the basket, which may be flattened slightly or left conical, is up to you. I like to add a dried rose, some baby’s-breath, and perhaps a few bits of lavender, binding them with a few wraps of raffia secured with a square knot. With a long length of soaked raffia, tie the arrangement to the front of the basket with a square knot, then tie the long ends in a bow.
Form a small loop of raffia, tie it around one of the rows of twining on the back to hang your basket, and you’re done. The only problem—if it is a problem—with this project is that it’s hard to make just one! Enjoy the process and the product.
Linda G. Lugenbill of Colorado Springs is nationally known as a basketmaker and teacher of the craft. She has worked extensively as a guest researcher in the basket collection at the Denver Museum of Natural History.
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