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Hey Willow friends! We thought it might be helpful for some of you who are new to working with willow, especially the sculptural side of things, to know which type of willow we prefer to use for sculptural projects and how we carry out our willow preparation. We also thought it would be useful for you to know why we use the types of willow we use, which suppliers we use as well as some tips on willow preparation.

Willow types

There are literally hundreds of varieties of willow, many of these are found growing wild in the countryside or by streams and rivers, many are cultivars grown for ornamental appeal but the willow which is grown on a commercial scale for basketry or charcoal making is the type of willow I use. These are quite specialized cultivars grown for strength, flexibility and durability. They are fast growing and can be harvested annually or bi-annually.

bundles of coppiced willow
bundles of living willow

The type of willow I prefer to use for sculpture is a cultivar of a European species and is called Salix triandra. This variety seems to have all the right qualities for the intricate and detailed sculpting methods I use when making my sculptures.

This type of willow is strong and very flexible, it seems to glide over itself with ease and the bark rarely braises. When the bark has been left on the withies and they have been left to dry out completely, they are referred to in the trade, as ‘Brown’. These withies can be stored in a dry placed indefinitely until you want to use them, they will then need to be soaked.

Harvesting

Willow is harvested from the early spring months usually from the end of December to the end of March. During this short, seasonal period the coppiced willow whips, sometimes called withies, are referred to as ‘green’. These can be used for basketry or sculpture straight away without being soaked in water. These withies can also be left to dry out and then be stored for later use. However if you want to use them later in the year you will need to soak them.

Harvesting willow in the winter
Willowtwister Hanna willow coppicing

Soaking

When soaking the willow it will need to be completely submerged beneath the water so you will need some kind of long, narrow vessel, an old bath is useful for this. A few years back I was lucky enough to be given this big plastic tub but if you are having trouble finding something like straight away you might want to consider purchasing some soaking bags. They come in various sizes and lengths and don’t cost very much at all (approx £4 a bag) and can be bought from most of the suppliers I have listed below.

Plastic tub used for soaking willow
Plastic tub used for soaking willow

The general advice is to soak withies for 24hours per foot of willow so if your withies are 4ft long you will need to soak them for 4 days and nights. I usually add an extra day for good measure. The withies will want to float to begin with until they’ve absorbed the water so you will need to be weighed down with something heavy.

I usually use bricks or an old paving slab. If your soaking vessel is in direct sunlight cover it and if the weather is really warm I would advise changing the water half way through as the willow can begin to ferment, and essentially rot and won’t be any use, plus there’s nothing like the smell of stinky willow water!

After the willow has been in soak for the required length of time, I drain it and usually rinse it a little with the hose. I then allow it to stand for a while until it feels dry to the touch before working with it.

soaking willow in a tub full of water
Willow soaking

Suppliers

There has been a huge surge of interest in willow craft lately. This has led to a shortage in supply from some of the main willow growers/suppliers. This year in particular I had trouble getting my stocks from my usual suppliers Musgroves & Coates.

Both these suppliers are based in Somerset on ‘the levels’ where willow loves to grow on the flood plains. However this year I have planted some willow of my own and would encourage everyone with some space to grow, to do the same. Apart from avoiding shortages from suppliers you will also be providing a great habitat for wildlife.

snail using living willow archway as a home
Nature using willow as a home

Below we have listed web addresses for the main suppliers and others we have used.

If you would like to join our  (ahem… the first online school of willow sculpture & craft!) to receive notifications on courses then click on image below to be taken to our ENROLL Page

If you found this article useful or would like to ask us further questions, then please leave us a comment in the box below


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24 Responses

  1. I have read all your information and found it most interesting. I didn’t realise that it is an art form that goes back a long way. I cannot wait to see you all on March 3rd. Doug.

  2. You have covered everything I was wondering about. Thank you so much. I have 17 willow s growing in my garden and I cut them down in the spring and autumn months. I now have a good harvest growing and was wondering how to best use them. Your article has really helped and encouraged me.

    1. Hi Maureen, thankyou for your kind comments. I will ask my mother about your question regarding your willow and how best to use them as soon as she is back from her holidays. 🙂

      1. Hello willow twisters, what a great site, love seeing your work. I noticed in your article about preparing willow you that after soaking you leave it till almost dry before working with. Does this mean you don’t leave it to mellow in a damp cloth.?

        1. Thank you for your comments. Not to dry out but dry to touch and yes the same results can be achieved by leaving it to mellow in a damp towel

    2. Hello Maureen, I would suggest not cutting them until quite some time after all the leaves have dropped. Better to wait until the winter really as Autumn is fungi season, not the best time to leave open cuts on any tree really. After Christmas is quite a good yardstick to go by. If you coppice then, you can use the whips straight away for any number of crafts or sculpture, they very good for obelisks, and border hurdles, and the finer withies are great for basketry or sculpture depending really on what species of willow you have. Any left over that you want to save for later weaving projects you will need to dry out somewhere under cover, airy and dry for at least six weeks and then when you want to use them you will need to soak them for 24 hours per foot of length. I hope this helps. Sara

    1. Hello, it’s February, I would like willilow to replant and also to make into obalisks, we have our own willow, how will I need to treat it to use for those purposes, can I use green for cutting? Bt if I use green for the obalisks but will they then grow?

      1. Hiya, Yes if you cut green willow (which is the season for it now here in the UK) and then plant it it will sprout in the spring and you will have to cut it back regularly if you wanted to maintain the obelisk shape.

      2. Hello, was interested to read that you leave the willow to stand awhile after soaking before using. Do you leave it to mellow in a damp cloth?

  3. Hi Willow Twisters 🙂
    This is good information,thanks! I have willow growing that I will be harvesting as soon as the leaves have dropped. These are established plants of about 6 years old. Only last year did I coppice them so I now have 6ft plus rods to harvest. This will be my first proper year of harvest to weaving and I’m pretty excited! How long do I need to wait before weaving decorations with them? I understand they shrink when drying. Some sites say use straight away, other say dry for 6 weeks… Any suggestions? I’m thinking for my use and fog workshops.
    Keep up the good work 🙂
    Christina (Willow by Christina)

    1. Hello Christine, I’m glad you found this info useful. Its great to have your own willow to use, i planted a small coppice myself last year, for winter stem colour in my garden but also for craft when i cut it. I leave cutting until after Christmas at least, as Autumn is fungi season which isn’t a great time to leave open wounds on any tree. This way i get to enjoy the stem colour for a while. If you cut at this time it will effectively be what is termed as ‘green’ willow which means you can use it straight away and up to a two or three weeks after cutting it should still be quite flexible. Any left over that you want to save and use later in the year needs to be dried out for at least six weeks in an airy, dry space. When you come to use it for weaving you will then need to soak it for 24 hours per foot of willow. I hope this helps. Sara

  4. Hi, for how long after harvesting are the willow whips “alive” and will start to grow if you put them in the ground?
    /Helena

    1. Hello Helana, sorry for the late reply we’ve both been working away in Italy for a few weeks. After willow has been harvested/coppiced you can keep it in a bucket of water for a long time and plant it preferably before the end of April (or thereabouts). I have some coppiced willow i haven’t got round to doing anything with yet,which was cut around a month ago, standing in a bucket of water in my garden. It is just coming into leaf so i will plant it somewhere soon. It’s probably best to plant it before it comes fully into leaf but willow is very resilient and is likely to take root at most times from late winter into Spring.

  5. Hello! Thank you for the great advice. I have some willow I’d like to have a go at weaving into a sculpture and wondered what do you use to make the frame out of please?. Many thanks.

  6. Hi Hanna,
    I recently aquired some willow left over from a willow star-making demo. It has now lost some of it’s flexiblity. Can it be re-soaked?
    Karin

    1. Hello sorry for late reply. Yes you can re soak willow, but you will need to dry it out thoroughly before re soaking again. Bare in mind the willow is never quite the same the second time round, but it is certainly duable. Hope that helps 🙂

  7. hello can you help me I brought some willow mainly to try and make some animals I also put some in to grow which have started to sprout also all the rest of the willow is sprouting it has been standing in my shed I left it in about 12 inches of the plastic it came in will I be able to use it to weave with thank you

    1. Im so sorry i have only just noticed your question. You may have resolved this by now so i hope you were able to use the willow, which should have been ok to use then, back in March.

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