Suzie Grieve weaves exquisite baskets, and although basketry is a worthy enough subject to speak to someone about, she goes a stage further: her creations are made from the foraged leaves of plants most of us wouldn’t give a second glance to. Who knew that dandelion was so versatile, that Iris leaves can reach almost six feet in length, or that willow bark takes on the quality of leather when it’s soaked in water? Suzie’s work is a highlight of why attention to the normal often yields something extraordinary.
Over the course of this happily rambling interview, Suzie expounded on areas of plantlife folklore in the UK, the history of weaving, the uses of plants in everyday chores (who knew you could make detergent out of ivy?), and the book she is currently writing. Dig in and discover history in the furrows outside your door.
The edges of places are always amazing and diverse.Suzie Grieve, Foraged Fibres
Suzie, I have an absolute tonne of questions to ask you, but let’s begin simply. What got you into weaving? What was it that drew you to it?
Well, I was always into plants. I think I was a bit lost when I finished sixth-form college, really, and I didn’t want to go to university, so I decided to try and make my own education. I sat down and just asked myself what it was I wanted to learn about. And it just kind of came back to plants. I was always interested in living in community and being more sustainable, and from there I ended up getting into foraging, and from there I kind of went into medicinal herbs, and from that into weaving.
They’re all just different, nice ways to connect with plants, really, but I don’t know what it was weaving. It just fit. It’s a really tactile, really neat thing to do. And, I’m quite an introverted person, so spending time doing this on my own, here in my little workshop, really suited me.
I’m either in here with a good audiobook, weaving away, or I’m out in the forest, collecting plants.
I’ll be honest, that sounds pretty idyllic.
Yeah, I realised pretty quickly that this is what I enjoy. And this is what I want to do – but I did doubt whether it was something I’d be able to make a living out of. But somehow it kind of worked out. It turns out people really like tiny, useless baskets.
Useless or not, they’re absolutely beautiful things. I keep coming back to what William Morris said: “keep nothing in your home you do not believe to be useful or beautiful.” So even if things aren’t utilitarian, I think having something beautiful is just such an enriching thing. What immediately struck me when I found your work on Instagram was the colours evident in all those little fairy baskets. Those are all from different plants, right? How did you learn about that?
In the beginning, I did a lot of researching. I spent hours just looking at pictures of baskets on the internet – on Pinterest and stuff.
The first thing I wove was our vegetable beds. That was in hazel, so pretty standard for that kind of thing, and that was when I was living in community. Then I think I also made a few other things out of olive suckers and willow, but you can only harvest willow in winter, and when it stopped being winter, I didn’t want to stop weaving, so that’s when I started looking for other plants I could weave with.
Presumably, the material you use affects how and what you weave?
Yeah – willow is like a whole thing in itself and you could (and people do) spend your whole life learning how to weave with it. It’s a really hard material whereas, obviously, the leaves are more malleable – completely different. I was doing some willow weaving with a friend and I was awful – I just kept snapping sticks.
From what I understand there’s quite a lot of soaking involved before you can get the willow to a point that it’s workable, right? It’s so lovely to see it tied up, ready to use, though, isn’t it? I’ve actually got a bundle in my kitchen leftover from something and, for now, it’s just sitting there and I keep going past it and just running my fingers through it. It’s like going through reed beds or something.
It’s really nice. I turned my hallway into a storage area for my various foraged fibres. I might need to tie them back or strap them down as they rustle whenever you walk past them, but on the other hand, I can hear if anyone’s coming up which is quite useful!
What sort of plants have you got there? Do you have favourites to work with?
I love Iris. It’s amazing. Mostly just because the leaves are so long – they’re like six foot or so – they’re so strong and they also grow pretty abundantly around here, too. And then willow bark is amazing. You just soak the strips in some water for something like 10 seconds, and when you take it out and it feels like leather. And then another favourite is dandelion – they’re like, super beautiful and shiny.
What’s great about dandelion in particular is how easy it is to find. The one thing that can be hard about doing what I do, is sourcing materials – nobody really minds you picking the dandelions. And, obviously, you pick them once they’ve finished flowering, once it finishes seeding, so you’re not taking anything away from the bees.
They passed down coils of bark from generation to generation.Suzie Grieve, Foraged Fibres
And do all these have to be dried before they can be used? How long do they last?
Yeah. All the plants are different: willow bark seems to last forever. When I first started I sent an email to some amazing willow bark weaver over in America. She told me that apparently they even passed down coils of bark from generation to generation and weavers would weave a single strip into whatever they would make.
And on the other hand, you have something like dandelion, which is a really nice, accessible, weaving material.
Is this how people would have woven? What would they have been making?
It’s really hard to say because the people who made baskets did so from a utilitarian need, and as they’re made from natural materials, they wouldn’t have been preserved. Although people have found some really old baskets, it’s not like metalwork where the materials don’t degrade. Aside from the obvious – hazel, willow, and the like – we know that people definitely used Iris to make workbags; they’d plait them into really sturdy plaits, and then sew the plaits together to make big bags.
They’d also use rush to do that. And the local Juncus round here – they’d use that to make chair seats.
Juncus? What’s that?
It’s like a small brush. It’s got a spongy pith inside. They sometimes used to make candle wicks out of that. So they’d peel off the green part and leave one thin strip running all the way up to the top, and then they would dip it in that and use that as a candle. But they’d also use the leaves to make woven chair seats and baskets. And they grow all over here, Scotland and Ireland really.
When you were talking about baskets not necessarily lasting, it does make you appreciate that the evidence of history and past lives is usually made of non-perishable materials, but isn’t a good indication of how people generally lived. Brooches don’t biodegrade, after all.
Exactly: everything would have been made out of plants. Clothes, obviously, would’ve been animal skin. Apart from that, it was all plants and biodegradables.
So what came first for you, the foraging or the weaving?
It was the foraging. I just remember deciding what I wanted to spend my time learning about. And plants seemed like a really important thing to learn about, so I followed a book and obsessively went out finding the plants. If I didn’t know about them, I would just look through the book until I found them, until I knew the book from start to finish. That said, I’ve forgotten quite a lot of it. When I got into the weaving, it became everything.
So, you’re self-taught?
It’s a great time to be interested in something. I love how relatively straightforward it is for me to want to find out about different approaches to weaving, to find you on Instagram, and ask if we can have a chat.
Yeah. Not long ago, you’d only know about what you came across. You might have some old person to teach you their ways and learn skills off them.
Now, I hear you’re writing a book, too.
Well, so many people messaged me asking if I could recommend any books. There are a few, but none are really comprehensive and most are quite old and really hard to get hold of. So, yeah, I decided to write a book.
The idea is that it’s divided into two parts. The first section is going to be an alphabetical guide to all the plants and how to identify each of them. And, of course, there are lots of interesting things about various plants, so that’ll be in there as well.
For example, ivy is great for weaving. You can also peel it, so instead of it being like a grey colour, you can get a white – and you can also split it and do loads of different things with it. And with the leaves that you strip off, you can also make detergent from it. So there’s all this knowledge and folklore about plants and medicinal or culinary stuff. Cattails, of course, are amazing plants for weaving, but you can basically eat every part of the cattail too.
The second half is going to be the different projects you can do with the plants. So, as I’m writing, I’m like, “are you going too far with this?” It’s going to end up being quite a big book.
But, you know, that makes you realise how important a book like this is, doesn’t it? Even in the things you’ve mentioned here, there’s so much knowledge that we’re at risk of losing, unless somebody charts it. Do you remember that there was a survey a few years back where they asked a group of children how many species of flowers or animals they could identify? They found that very few could.
Exactly. And there was another one where they asked how many different logos they could recognise? Yeah, it’s a shame. That reminds me quite a lot of that book Last Child in the Woods – have you read that?
No, but I’m going to add it to the reading list. Backtracking for a moment, can you explain how ivy can be used as a detergent?
So, the process for preparing fibres for weaving is that you strip the leaves off, then you put them into little coils, and then you dry them. And then, when you come to weaving, you get these little coils and you make sure that they’re the same size as your bucket, and then you put them in and soak them.
But because you have to strip the leaves anyway, you can keep the leaves and you just put them in a bucket of water. I noticed that when I was soaking the ivy for weaving, I’d come in and sometimes the bucket would be super bubbly. And, when I poured the water into my bath and it cleaned it really well. So I looked it up and there are all these articles online about making detergent out of ivy leaves. Once you’ve made it, it keeps for quite a while and you put it in your washing machine instead of laundry liquid.
That’s incredible. Have you tried it?
I haven’t yet, but my friend tried it and she said it worked really well. I need to try before I write about it, obviously, but it’s yet another thing that’s right there for everyone to use – if only they just knew about it.
I was in my local refill shop recently and I noticed they’d got soapnuts in. It reminded me that twenty years ago there was a brief craze for them. But I also read that the problem with exporting soapnuts to Western countries is that people in the soapnuts’ native countries don’t then have such easy access to them. But all the while we’ve got ivy growing everywhere.
It’s the saponins in it, apparently. Definitely worth looking into.
I think when you interact with plants as well, it makes you really care for them and care about them. If they’re absolutely integral to your life and your living. There often seem to be people who say things to criticise foraging, like “Oh, leave nature for nature; leave the leaves of plants for the animals”. Either you can gather your greens mindfully from a fully working ecosystem, or you can go down to Tescos and buy some salad that’s in a plastic bag from some land that has had to be cleared to grow on, and has had loads of pesticides and fuel to grow and to transport. It doesn’t make much sense to me.
I mean, foraging is something that can be done without thinking and yes you can cause damage. But I think the majority of people who do it really care about the plants.
I should think you have to have a reasonable understanding of what you’re looking for before you go foraging. So, surely there’s a little bit of emotional investment in there anyway. Presumably, we can all identify a nettle?!
You’d hope so, wouldn’t you?
I’d like to know a little about the hedgerow weaving that you’ve done. There’s a beautiful basket on your Instagram page with a more freeform style to it. How different is that process from making the fairy baskets that you create?
I mean, they obviously take longer and they use different materials, but it’s really nice doing both. Weaving leaves is very gentle and soft and you can just kind of wander around the room while you’re doing it. Once you get going, you don’t have to look at what you’re doing. Whereas with the hedgerow weaving, it’s more like you’re having to wrestle it into place. But I love them. Hedgerows are amazing.
So the materials for these literally come from hedgerows?
Yeah, a lot of the materials do. I live on the coast, so a lot of stuff I gather comes from there. The edges of places are always amazing and diverse. Where the forest kind of stops and then the sandy part starts is the best place for finding brambles because they just start out towards the sea and obviously they’re looking for land but they never find it, so they just keep on growing.
Wow, that’s a very poetic, beautiful sentiment. I love the stuff that’s on the edge of anything – that sort of liminal space between two things.
If you were weaving an ‘edge space’ basket, what materials would you be using?
Gosh, bindweed definitely – that loves edges and fences and slopes everywhere. Dandelions are always along verges and hedgerows, on the edge, poking out at the bottom of hedgerows. Brambles, ivy, honeysuckle, clematis. What else…
You’ve basically described the bottom of my garden right now, which is making me think I’m just all edge.
Ha! Well, those are plants that are good for weaving. But then there are also plants that are just good fibre plants. I would make cordage out of nettle but I wouldn’t weave with nettle.
What is cordage?
Cordage is basically just making a long string out of shorter fibres.
Twisting two strings in different directions? Like with yarn or rope? Now you mention it, I think I saw someone making a huge rope out of grass.
Exactly. And it’s crazy because you can turn really quite weak, sharp pieces of fibre into really strong, long pieces of string. They say that making cordage was one of the most significant ways we changed how we lived. It was used for everything: snares, fishing nets, holding anything together.
When you think about it, it must have been one of the earliest discoveries. To survive without string is very difficult. When you make fire using a bow drill, that needs string as well. And it predates pottery, too, because they’d make the baskets and cover the basket with clay and they could put fire underneath or heat up inside to fire them. All the first pottery examples have baskets imprinted on the inside.
That is amazing.
It’s really interesting, isn’t it? Over the years, I’ve shown a lot of friends some basic basketry techniques and a lot of them have commented that they feel it’s something they’ve done before. Somehow, the movements feel familiar. And, if you think about it, for most of the time we’ve existed as humans, people have been weaving. It’s a universal thing, and I love how it’s still relevant.
Discover more about Suzie Grieve on the Foraged Fibres website, and Suzie’s Instagram page.