About a year and a half ago I was at the Museum of Anthropology and saw an object that has fired my imagination ever since: a single, fitted shoe, similar to a"Croc" in shape, but woven out of satiny, silver birch bark and finished on the inside as well as on the outside.
"How did they do THAT??"
Amazingly, there are still artisans in Russia who know how to make these shoes, and I was able to learn from a book published by master craftsman Vladimir Yaresh: Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark.
Last spring I spiral-stripped the bark off of an ornamental cherry tree that had been felled in a park near my home. The bark was incredibly tough and supple -- more like leather than tree bark -- and I knew exactly what I would use it for.
Thanks to the LFAS alumni exhibition
-- a full-blown art show at the Roundhouse with over 90 artists -- the bark I had stripped a year ago finally got off my shelf and made into shoes. Though they're going to be displayed on a wall or a plinth at the art show, I'll be wearing them around after that.Thanks to my friend Sharon Kallis for the photos of me and my shoes in-progress.
I get a huge rush from making shoes. I love warm feet, and I know that other people also enjoy warm feet and appreciate it when I make socks and slippers for them, so I always feel that I'm doing something beautiful AND useful when I make a slipper or a sock; and I'm smug in the knowledge that a handmade slipper or sock of natural materials is truly a delicious luxury that few have the skills to create.
But there is a darker side to the thrill I get from making a good slipper; and that is that being able to cover one's feet in functional footwear is a very basic survival skill -- at least for those of us living with Canadian winters (even South Coast winters).
Last spring when I was at the Museum of Anthropology I came across a diagonal-plaited birch bark shoe
that took my breath away, and started me on a trek to learn about them and figure out how to make them myself. Woven shoes! I learned that they were originally from Russia and Scandinavia, and meant as an overshoe, to be worn over heavy woollen stockings and gaiters. I expected that they would be a lost tradition, so I was amazed to find that the knowledge of how to make them is still very much alive; and downright giddy to learn that master birch bark weaver Vladimir Yarish has published full project instructions in his book
I can now make diagonal-plaited slippers out of a variety of materials and without referring to the instructions. Of course, the slippers that I've made so far are delicious confections, and would never take the place of a good pair of Bogs for outdoor wear for a coastal winter. However, they are quite nice, and who knows where this will lead? I figure I could make myself a stylish pair of something -- cedar, perhaps? -- that would be just as good as my traditional ballet flats for summer time....
These are single-layer diagonal plaited 5mm 100% wool felt, with a suede sole and rabbit fur trim.
These are 100% wool, wet-felted, with a leather sole.
These are double-layer diagonal-plaited wool/rayon craft-weight felt -- they show off the playful and magical structure of the diagonal plaiting really well.
Afternoon light on some of my birch bark experiments....
In the top photo on the left is my first all-birch diagonally plaited vessel, a traditional Russian salt cellar design. Even though the bark I used was second-rate, salvaged from woodpile scraps, it was still remarkably supple and ready to weave; and the finished vessel has a sturdy, robust character. It is supposed to have a carved wooden stopper; I'm a novice carver, so I purchased some bass wood for the purpose.
On the right is a bark cylinder shell stitched with spruce roots. I tried working with roots last year and I was unsuccessful; this year, it worked out for me, and now I understand why spruce roots were the stitching material of choice for First Nations all across Canada, wherever they were available. I have some more large chunks of bark like this from the woodpile so I'm thinking I might do a tray like one I saw at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History last summer.
This second photo shows one of the sheets of salvaged bark that I've cleaned and scored, and some bundles of strips I cut from similar sheets. There's not a lot of usable bark in that sheet, once I cut away the brittle edges and holes; so I've had to adapt by scaling down my projects. Where the book says I need 24 pieces of bark that are 1/2" wide by at least 19", I've cut all my strips only 1/4" wide so that the 8 1/2" length that I get from them will suffice.
When I get home I'm going to buy myself a Jerry Stripper or an old pasta maker, or both -- it's very time-consuming to cut all those strips by hand!
The afternoon light is coming in long golden shafts through the skylights of the upstairs atrium at my inlaws' house here in Glen Margaret, Nova Scotia, as I write this. Though Nova Scotia has its fair share of ugly shopping malls and subdivisions (signs of wealth and well being, in their own way), the places off the beaten path here, and in the rest of the Maritime Provinces that I've seen, still breathe with a bucolic and genteel charm. For me it seems an utterly different culture from the rough, vigorous ways of British Columbia.
We have a lot of summer birthdays in the family, and a combined four children under the age of eight, and so I've been making a few little knick-knacks for the occasion. These little fairies are made of corn husks, which has become one of my favourite materials of late. It is so supple and so gentle in my hands, so playful. These figures require only dried corn husk and a little bit of fine yarn or heavy thread to make. I like to dry the corn husks quickly, spreading them out in the sun to be sure they don't start mouldering or get spots. The rope-like arms and legs add some visual interest and structural stability, and since they tend to curve to varying degrees depending on tension, they help to add individual character to each figure.
This is a little oval crayon basket out of some of last year's calendar pages. It is the largest thing I've made so far according to the diagonal plaiting methods outlined in Vladimir Yarish's book, Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark
. Because of the double-walled construction, these vessels become much stronger (and use up much more material) than one would expect from a vessel made of such thin, flexible stuff.
This basket also has a core inside its rim. I can't find any willow around here so I used a branch of a flexible vine-maple-like tree that's growing near the driveway.
What have I been doing with myself over the past several weeks? just bits and pieces, here and there. Perhaps the unsettled weather has affected me with its mood. This little plaited cube made of watercolour paper is one of the little things I did; I put some beans inside so that it rattles and it turned out to be a huge hit with the kids. The design is from Yarish's book, Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark.
This is a little string of birch bark beads that I made this morning. The project idea and instructions came from that book that I was raving about last week, Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark
, by Vladimir Yaresh, Flo Hoppe and Jim Widess.
Working on these beads got me thinking again about my observation that people seem to be most moved by the all-bark baskets. Does the intensity of the use of raw material make them more emotionally reactive? or just visually novel, compared to most of material culture?
This seems strange to me; aesthetically, I find them to be too raw, with the texture of the bark overwhelming. I like the bark shown in contrast to the smoothness of the veneer, which allows my eye to rest and to appreciate the texture of the bark in greater detail. These beads, I decided, have many of the same raw, rustic qualities that the all-bark baskets do, and I wondered if people will have a similar reaction to them.
I have to admit that there may be other reasons I feel averse to the all-bark baskets. For one, I spent years participating in finely pointed, dispassionate academic critiques of art, which favoured work that was intellectual rather than emotional. For another, my own personal struggle to understand and assert the value of what I do has made me shy from making things that are rustic, simple, unsophisticated or emotional. I am also afraid of making work that is 'too rustic' because it is too far outside the mainstream.
But secretly I like those things. I really liked the all-bark baskets when I made them; I would probably have made a lot more except my inner critic started in on them about the same time that I realized I was going to run out of bark imminently, and I had the idea that I might be able to make baskets from veneer instead. With my mission to investigate natural materials and make my audience more aware of the possibilities of natural materials, clearly I should be making more 'raw' work.
Seeing that plaited birch bark shoe at the Museum of Anthropology made me realize that I haven't really expanded my understanding of diagonal plaiting very far, so I bought a book by a Russian birch bark expert: Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark
, by Vladimir Yarish, Flo Hoppe and Jim Widess.
To my surprise and delight, this book contains it all: historical information, illustrated instructions for different harvesting methods and preparation, and about a dozen projects, including two different versions of plaited shoes and a gallery of contemporary plaited basketry.
I am excited, and grateful that there are kindred souls out there with the wherewithal to produce a document like this.
I saw some amazing slippers made of birch bark at the UBC Museum of Anthropology awhile back when I took my kids.
Here is a link to a pair on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vakuoli/974463955/
These ones aren't as clever as the ones in MoA, which were fitted to the instep of the foot, but a good starting point for replication I hope...
A couple of shots from our family walk to Garry Point this morning, including a great blue heron standing quietly at water's edge, and a large birch bark sleeve and some other pieces found amongst the banks of winter driftwood and broken cattails. I ended up filling the pockets of my big coat with bark, which was as much as I could carry, while I was trying NOT to look.
The banks to the west of the dykes in Richmond stretch out almost to the sea line of the horizon with marsh grass and cattails; and beyond them are the mountains of the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. It is a no-man's land of songbirds, raptors, and great flocks of ducks and geese, and it captivates me.
I've enjoyed making the little felt baskets, so I decided to experiment with some heavier, industrial felt. This mug-sized basket was my first test, made this afternoon. I was surprised to find that of all the materials I had on hand for the rim, the best-looking option was the same local birch bark I've been using for most rims since November.
While I was working on it, I wondered what William Morris and his colleagues would have thought about my mash-up of industrial and raw natural materials?I smile when I think of their horrified, disgusted reactions.
I think this basket is beautiful now, and I can easily picture it in the pages of some slick, white-on-white interior design mag, but I wonder if its aesthetic will stand the test of time. A hundred and fifty years from now, will our generations still be appreciating the subtleties of "rustic modern"?
If they are well-off, then they will probably have the refined sensibilities and insight to understand this cool, restrained object. On the other hand, if they are hungry and hopeless, I think they will yearn for something more tangibly valuable and beautiful, if they can feel the yearning for beautiful at all.