The art of basketry: what type of willow is used in basket weaving?

11 March 2024

The ancient craft of basketry pre-dates pottery and even stone carving as an artistic pastime. Today, people still gain enormous joy and satisfaction from weaving beautiful baskets for all manner of purposes.

As a highly versatile crop, willow is a fantastic material for basketry. Depending on the variety, it can be stripped, dried, or used freshly cut. At Musgrove Willows, our family has been growing willow since the 1920s, so we know our butt ends from our tips. But, when it comes to willow baskets, what type of willow is best?

Willow for basket weaving

Back in Roman times, Somerset was at the heart of the Britain’s willow industry. Over two thousand years later, this is still very much the case. And when it comes to English willow, there’s nothing quite like the willow grown right here on our Somerset farm for basket weaving.

The Somerset Levels are renowned for producing some of the most important willow species used in basketry and sculpture work. At Musgrove, we grow over 60 different willow varieties across nearly 200 acres of farmland. Amongst these, we grow Salix triandra, (almond-leaved willow) Salix purpurea (purple willow), and Caledendron – all perfect for willow basket weaving.

Black Maul willow

Black Maul willow
Black Maul willow

We’ll start our willow basket guide with one of our favourite varieties, Black Maul (a Salix triandra). This is the variety of willow grown most extensively on our Somerset willow farm. The name is somewhat misleading, as this willow isn’t black – it only takes on a black hue when steamed.

Black Maul is a very forgiving and supple willow, so you can do virtually anything with it. Dry it with the bark on and use it as brown willow. By boiling and stripping you can create buff willow or alternatively white willow which is cut in winter and left to stand in water until the sap rises in the spring. The willow is then stripped of its bark to leave a white colour rod.

Held in high regard by weavers, Black Maul is one of the best varieties of willow to use in beginners basketry.

Top tip: Black Maul is great for beginners to use, but don’t buy it as living willow – use it as a brown willow in basketry.

Old French willow

Old French willow
Old French willow

Thought to have a originally been brought over from France, Old French willow is currently quite rare in the UK. As a basket willow, it works very much like Black Maul.

Whilst similar in colour to Whissender willow – a beautiful, soft yellow – Old French willow rods are around the same thickness as Black Maul. Unlike Whissender, Old French willow rods are very flexible when soaked and allowed to mellow, making them perfect for basketry.

Top tip: A beautiful golden colour, Old French willow is extremely flexible and a great alternative to Black Maul for beginner basket weavers.

Dicky Meadows willow

Dicky Meadows willow
Dicky Meadows willow

Another variety of willow we grow here at Musgrove is Dicky Meadows (a Salix purpurea). Although not grown commercially in as much volume as Black Maul, Dicky Meadows is another very popular willow for us. It is a sleek, fine willow perfect for intricate basketry work.

A brown willow, when dried Dicky Meadows takes on a soft grey and pale green tint. Place this willow in the sun and it turns a beautiful light orange. 

Top tip: Dicky Meadows willow rods are usually very straight and taper off quickly, making it an excellent willow choice for fine basketry work.

Brittany Green willow

Choose the right willow
Brittany Green willow

Although it belongs to the same species as Dicky Meadows (a Salix purpurea), Brittany Green willow is very different. 

Brittany Green willow rods stay the same thickness throughout almost the entirety of the rod. The name is somewhat misleading, as its colour is predominately purply. The top section of the willow turns a purple, dark brown colour when dry. Left in the sun, Brittany Green gets a lovely grey, purple tip.

Its dark colour gives Brittany Green a rustic feel, and it can be easily mistaken for foraged willow. It brings to mind sunlit open fields and the days of yesteryear.

Top tip: Owing to its rustic look, Brittany Green is the perfect willow for making baskets with a medieval aesthetic.

Whissender and Pheasant Brown willow

Whissender willow

Whilst we don’t grow as much of it, Whissender (a Salix triandra) is a variety of willow very similar to Black Maul. Dried to a warm brown, yellow colour, Whissender willow’s stout, robust rods make it ideal for big, chunky basketry work – but it isn’t as flexible to work with as Black Maul.

Pheasant Brown willow
Pheasant Brown willow

Pheasant Brown (mollissima) is a variety of willow that we are planting more of. The rods are a rusty, red, brown colour. The bottom one to two feet of the rods are covered with a distinctive pattern of white lines, taking on the appearance of broken leather – perfect for creating striking basketry with a unique look.

Top tip: Create chunky baskets with thick, sturdy Whissender willow, and use the distinctive patterning of Pheasant Brown willow to create utterly unique basketry work.

Delve into the world of willow basket weaving

Explore our help and advice section for lots more useful information on the art of willow basket weaving, and please contact us for any and all willow enquiries.

If you’re interested in learning how to hand weave a willow basket of your very own, we’d love for you to join us on one of our basketry weaving courses. Held right here at our beautiful Somerset farm, with all materials supplied and lunch and hot drinks included, our basket weaving course is a wonderful day out for anyone interested in learning this time-honoured art.

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