In a previous life, I made baskets for a living, which offered yet more opportunity for personal injury (secateurs + fingers = lots of blood), but was otherwise the most therapeutic of occupations. The rhythm of weaving – whether to make snoods, blankets, or ali baba baskets for theatrical props – busies the hands and calms the mind. Merino wool doesn’t give me callouses, and I no longer have to work outside in all weathers, but otherwise there are many similarities!
“wicker, noun, a small pliant twig, cane, etc., adj, said of a fence or basket, etc. made of interwoven twigs, canes or rushes, etc.” (from Chambers). Its etymology is 14thC Scandinavian, possibly from the same root as the Swedish, vika to fold, yield, or bend.
Willow, one of the most popular forms of wicker (and pretty much the only one I worked with), comes in a range of different “finishes”, including: brown willow – which has the bark left on; buff willow – which has been stripped; and white willow – which is cut in winter, and left standing in water until the spring before being stripped. Of course, willow is not the only wood that can be woven. It’s probably the most efficient, along with hazel and dogwood; but almost any plant that produces a long enough and strong enough rod can be used. Multicolours can be found this way too, with dogwood producing the most wonderful reds, and types of ornamental willow producing orange or purple stems. Traditionally, different woods and finishes would have different uses: e.g. white willow was used for washing baskets, as there was no colour to leach into the wet clothes. Other forms of natural wicker include rush, seagrass, rattan, cane, and bamboo.
The name wicker is also associated with such forms as the Wicker Man, a wicker-built framework said to have been used by the Celts for human sacrifice (though there is little evidence for this). Modern-day neo-pagan communities continue to burn various wicker figures at festivals during each year, but without anyone inside!
We still have the first basket I wove, from buff willow, which has survived well over ten years of daily handling (it started life as a toy basket, and now lives in our food cupboard and is constantly raided for snacks), with no signs of wear or tear. Wicker is a remarkable material.
Update: check out my Wicker board on Pinterest: