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Katherine Lewis: Beautiful baskets

Sep 6th, 2011 | Category: Crafts

by Jessamyn Tuttle

Walking into the barn at Dunbar Gardens brings you into a riot of scent and color. Baskets and fresh vegetables cover several tables, and tall bundles of gold, brown, red and green willow branches lean against the walls. Both the willow and the vegetables are grown on this Skagit Valley farm, by basketmaker Katherine Lewis and her husband Steve Lospalluto. It used to be the produce that had pride of place in their business, and they still grow for their farmstand and for local restaurants, but more and more the baskets are their focus.

Katherine Lewis with some of the baskets she has created and available at Dunbar Gardens in Mount Vernon. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Lewis first learned to weave baskets in Seattle in the early 1990s, at a now-defunct school in Fremont. “We were selling produce at the Pike Place Market,” she explained, “and several customers told me about the basketry school, since we were using baskets in our displays.”

She took classes from basketmakers trained in England and France, learning techniques from both traditions and incorporating them into her own style. She joined the Northwest Basket Weavers Guild, serving as its president last year. And she began teaching classes herself, participating in local art shows and craft fairs, and taking custom orders for her work.

While learning basketry techniques, she worked with reed, cedar bark, iris leaves, pine needles, bulrush and cattail as well as willow, but local availability of materials was important to her. “Cedar bark is lovely to work with,” she said, “but we don’t live in a forest.”

Other materials were available locally but needed to be harvested in late summer, already a busy time on a working farm. Willow, however, grew well on their property and was harvested during the winter.  “I did fall in love with willow when I started weaving with it,” said Lewis, especially since it could be used to make “real, functional, sizable containers” instead of purely decorative baskets.

Lewis works primarily with her own farm-grown willow, occasionally using imported when a project calls for specific characteristics or preparation, such as boiled peeled willow from England. Dunbar Gardens grows over 50 varieties of willow, although there are only about 10 varieties that she uses regularly. “It’s fun to have the potential, so you can add accents of color, but not all varieties are as well suited to weaving.”

Willow harvest and preparation is a time-consuming process. The branches are handcut, bundled into color batches, and dried for up to a year. When Lewis plans a new basket, she selects the appropriate colors and types of willow and soaks them in water for 1-2 weeks.

Once they are soaked, they need to be used within a week. “Unpeeled willow does not like to be dried out and resoaked,” said Lewis, “so you’ve committed yourself to that willow.” One basket can take anywhere from half a day to a full day and a half, and it needs to be done while the materials are flexible. Once the basket is finished, however, it will last a lifetime.

Lewis teaches 2-day classes, with each student taking away a basket of their own making. Dunbar Gardens doesn’t sell willow as raw material, but cuttings are available in the winter for those who would like to try growing their own. Lewis’ baskets can be purchased at the Dunbar Gardens farmstand and on their website, and custom orders can be placed at any time (Lewis recommends visiting the farm if possible to see the willow colors in person, as web photos can be misleading).

See Katherine Lewis’ baskets at the Dunbar Gardens farmstand at 16586 Dunbar Road in Mount Vernon, or through their websites www.dunbargardens.com and www.willowbasketmaker.com. For more information about upcoming basketmaking classes, call (360) 428-3076 or visit her website.

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