Our vannerie group enjoyed a Saturday afternoon outing with a difference. We went to see Jean-Luc Guichard at his farm at Saint Albain where he produces willow for basketry. Jean-Luc proved very enthusiastic and over a cup of coffee around his kitchen table he talked to us about his work before taking us on a tour of the workshops and the willow fields.
Examining willow with Jean-Luc
Jean-Luc and his wife Fabienne started production in 1986 on 4.5 hectares of land that once belonged to his grandfather. They started by chance as his blind neighbour could not find a source of willow for his basket-making. At that time Jean-Luc wanted to find an alternative to cattle rearing so he planted 50 acres of willow. It was very labour intensive until Jean-Luc managed to acquire his specialist machinery. He is now one of only 200 willow producers left in France.
The harvested willow
Some willow grows in fields where he kept his cows, and some down on the alluvial plain of the river which is land unsuitable for building but ideal for willow. It is very easy to grow from cuttings and we admired a living trellis hedge made from criss-crossing willow withies which were simply stuck into the ground.
Willow comes in all sorts of different colours. It is planted close together, 14cm apart, so it grows long and straight to reach the light. After three years growth it can be harvested each winter for fifteen to thirty years depending on the variety. It is cut close to the ground using a tractor mounted harvester, graded according to length and tied in bundles. The shorter willow is more expensive per kilo than the longer stems. Production is thirty to forty tons per year.
Willow standing in water to be stripped in the spring
Jean-Luc grows varieties that do not have many sideshoots which is an advantage because cutting the sideshoots off leaves the stem with weak places that tend to break when the willow is bent.
Some of it is peeled to sell as white willow. In order to peel it bundles of willow are stood in shallow water over the winter and in the spring the green bark is easy to strip off using a brake.
If the willow is used straight away it tends to shrink which doesn’t matter if a close weave is not required. It’s better to be left to dry for a few weeks until the bark becomes a bit wrinkly. If it has dried out completely it needs to be soaked for at least a week before using.
There are other things to make besides baskets!
Fabienne showed us her vannerie workshop where she makes her baskets and runs courses for beginners. You can see her work at La Filaterie, the old textile mill by the river in Cormatin which is now a craft centre.