I was inspired to make this piece using twine made of lime and foraged willow bast, after hearing about archaeological finds of looped fibre fragments from the late Mesolithic period (middle stone age) found in Denmark. That’s around 9,000 years ago, pre-agriculture, when people lived hunter-gatherer lifestyles. It’s a period of our history that I find fascinating and intriguing.
Few basketry remains are found from that time for obvious reasons- decomposition- but in boggy areas like in Denmark some fragments have survived and been recovered. They show a looping technique which is similar in structure to coiled basketry, which in turn hints at the origins of pottery.
The oldest known fibres used by humans are of twisted flax, dated at more than 34,000 years old. They’re microscopic and were discovered during excavations in a cave in the Republic of Georgia (update: evidence of twined fibres has been discovered in a French Neanderthal site dating back 90,000 years).
It’s quite hard to comprehend that kind of time frame… but check out the current British Museum exhibition of ice age art that covers this same period. It’s full of extraordinary, highly accomplished artefacts. So it seems very probable that relatively complex textiles and baskets were made with those twisted flax fibres.
Bast is plant fibre collected from the inner bark of trees. These fibres, which give strength to the stem, need to be separated from the woody core, and also from the outer bark. The process for this is called retting, and is done by micro-organisms either on land or in water. There’s lots more detailed, scientific info about bast here.
Lime bast and willow bast are really good, strong fibres and have been favoured by makers for millennia. The Antrea net, the oldest known fishing net in the world, which is made from willow bast, is dated to 8,300 BC. And check out the amazing Tyrolean Mesolithic find of Otzi the Iceman and his cape, dagger sheath and footwear, much of it made from lime bast. You can even have a chat with Otzi about it all on his facebook page.
Making the looped bag
With the expert help of Shuna Rendel I learned various looping techniques, in preparation for working with the bast stash I had in my cupboard. The lime, which was beautiful quality – long, strong and clean- had been given to me by a friend and I’d kept it a year or more while waiting for the chance to learn from Shuna. I also had some willow bast which I’d foraged from a fallen tree near my home, and the previous winter’s weather had done the retting for me.
First make your twine
Actually I did this as I went along, twisting and plying the fibres into a metre or more and then looping it until the length ran out. Then I’d extended it some more. I used a long, blunt, large-eyed needle for the looping. It’s a simple into-the-lag type of looping, in a spiral from the bottom up, tensioned on the leg of a stool. Different from the Danish Mesolithic fragments mentioned above, which were looped over a core.
I love the way it stretches open when you put something bulky into it. It has a delicious, woody smell and a pleasing colour variation from the different basts. The lime was by far the easier to work with. The willow was a bit raggedy and shed a thin, dark and dusty kind of membrane as I worked with it… but it was deeply satisfying to use material I’d foraged.
I didn’t bother to count the hours it took. Or the number of times I undid it to get the tension more even or to correct the shaping at the top edge. The methodical, rhythmical action of the twisting, plying, looping was totally absorbing.
A while back I made some bone and antler needles using only flint tools. I’ve used the antler one for stitched coiled basketry…now I’d like to have a go at making a large bone needle for this kind of netting and looping work. I have the perfect deer shin bone in my stash spot and some sharp flints beside it, just waiting…