Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibersClick here to learn more about this year’s theme.

Articles written by La Salle graduate and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

September 2019 –  Willow: 

The weeping willow’s draping leaves surround its trunk, and under that trunk is a useful fiber

Often found by the banks of rivers, ponds and lakes, the willow tree is a common sight across the country. It’s a beautiful reminder of how trees can take all shapes and sizes, as species like the weeping willow have draping leaves that surround the tree trunk. Under that trunk is a kind of fiber that has been used for several purposes, with one of the main uses being for basket weaving and cordage.

Willow was first used for its natural flexibility and the ease at which it could be grown and harvested, and many Native American tribes used it in their own fiber art. Often doubling as an artistic creation and a useful bowl or basket, these pieces can be seen in museums all over the country. The Tohono O’odham people in southern Arizona materialized their own Man in the Maze heritage symbol into baskets with the help of willow, cattail, and devil’s claw. The English also used the fiber for their needs. You might be familiar with the term wickerwork – the English were the first to coin that term for their use of willow to create baskets and other kinds of household items, although not as intricate as the Native Americans’ items.

Once the wood and bark are removed, the pliable material continues to separate. Credit: Jon’s Bushcraft

The creation of such crafts is an intricate process. First comes harvesting the willow bark, a task which can be quite rigorous. It involves stripping part of the trunk’s bark into thin strands about an inch or two in width. Willows are fast growing trees, so this process does not mean death for the plant. Once you have the desired amount of bark, obtaining the fibrous strands comes next. There will be still be wood attached to them, so removing that is essential. If harvesting in the late summer or fall, heat might have to be applied to help the bark separate from the wood. Once the wood is removed, the thin outer layer of coarse bark – the stuff that we see on the outside of the tree – sheds to reveal the pliable material that will continue to separate. Only a few more steps need to be done. Boiling and drying the strips further softens them, allowing you to pull apart the strands to create thin cordage.