Julie Gurr is one of the five New Makers that TOAST will be supporting and nurturing throughout the year. Her handwoven baskets are timeless and beautifully sculptural, and utilise the warm and natural colours of willow.
A calm expanse of the Romney Marshes surrounds the workshop of basketmaker Julie Gurr. Based in a former oast house, just a stone’s throw away from her Hastings home, Julie weaves sculptural yet practical baskets from several different varieties of willow. “I really like that feeling of openness and space,” says Julie of the vast, flat landscape that serves as a direct inspiration to her expressive woven works. “On a clear day you can see the whole way down to the sea.”
Julie’s intrinsic connection to nature has always been apparent. Before relocating to the southeast coast, Julie lived a quiet existence on the remote Scottish Isle of Arran. It was through working on nature conservation projects over 20 years ago that she first came across her now refined craft of willow weaving. “We worked on all sorts of different conservation projects when I lived in Scotland,” Julie reflects. “We did hedge laying, fencing to protect the trees and we built footpaths to keep people on certain routes, stopping them from wandering all over the place.” But it was the woodland craft and management elements, in particular, that led Julie to weaving. “The first basket I made incorporated lots of bits of the hedgerows I was working on at the time. I just found it fascinating.”
Drawn to the versatility of the technique, and with the aid of a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, Julie was able to extend her learning of the craft. Courses in Glasgow trained her in technical and practical skills, whilst a stint with master weaver Joe Hogan in Connemara gave her a grounding in traditional basketmaking. Several courses later, Julie eventually set up her own basketry business in Arran before making the leap over to East Sussex, making sure she would still be near the sea with enough land to grow her own willow.From the planting of the willow cuttings to the harvesting and soaking, Julie’s process requires year-round organisation and planning to ensure the final crop is ready to weave with. “A bit like a blackcurrant plant you take a cutting, stick it in the ground and the willow grows from that,” Julie explains, starting at the very beginning of the lengthy natural process. “Once the willow is established it’s quite hardy. But it needs lots of water, especially in the first year. You cut it in winter after a year of growth when the saps are down and the moisture is off, and then you have to dry it out completely and store it.”
Unhurried and ordered, Julie soaks her cut willow in large tanks when she’s ready to weave with it, allowing it to soften and become flexible enough to manipulate. This part of the process can take anywhere between one to two weeks, with factors such as water temperature, willow species and the natural elements influencing the duration. Once out of the tank, the willow is left to mellow for a day or two, letting the moisture dry on the outside and helping the bark to stabilize. “At this point, there's a limited time window when you have to use it,” Julie explains, laughing. “It can be really difficult to plan, you can't just turn up to the workshop, your willow might not be ready!”
When it comes around to the weaving, Julie works methodically yet creatively, turning to the techniques of several different cultures and countries to make each basket. “I’ve learned lots of different weaving methods over the years. I like to get good at one, try another, then move on,” she says. “There are over 100 varieties of willow that you can use for weaving, and each has its own unique bark colour. The white parts are where the bark has been stripped off,” Julie adds, describing the spiralling colour variations that lend themselves to her designs.An open weave reserved for vine weaving in Japan has been adapted by Julie for her Hanging Baskets in the New Maker collection, with the looseness allowing you to see right through to what lies inside. The weave for her Sculptural Baskets, however, is much tighter, giving it its potential for different forms. “The extra uprights in augmented weaving gives you the ability to shape. It takes much longer as there are more weaves,” Julie explains. “Rather than 24 uprights which round baskets tend to have, in augmented there are 48.” As a result, each takes Julie a couple of days to make, giving them their sense of movement with little room for mistakes.
There is an air of relief from Julie now that the warmer months are here. Sunnier days are relished for drying each basket out, the final step of the process. “It can all get a bit messy with my piles of willow everywhere,” she observes as she completes the finishing touches to one of the larger baskets for the New Maker collection, which can take up to three days to weave, finish and finesse. “I’m looking forward to emptying the whole workshop and cleaning it out. A proper spring clean.”
Photography by Paul Cochrane and Suzie Howell.