Artisan Jon Warnes weaves his magic
PUBLISHED: 09:48 08 March 2016 | UPDATED: 09:48 08 March 2016
Willow weaver Jon Warnes is one of a group of artisans and craftspeople in the county transforming traditional skills. Liz Ferretti went to meet him
Grey skies and dormant plants make spring seem a long way off, but it’s in leafless winter that you can see the real shape of a garden. This is when Suffolk greenwood specialist Jon Warnes arrives to weave his works of art from bright bundles of cut willow.
Humans have a long history with willow. Experimental archaeologists have recreated a cosy Neolithic village at the Stonehenge visitor centre. Based on 4,500-year-old remains at nearby Durrington Walls, these houses have cob walls, roofs and fences made with woven willow and hazel. Further back still, 6,000-year-old causeways run over the Somerset Levels, where ash planks are held above marshy ground with hazel posts. These posts were grown with sophisticated coppicing techniques to get the fast, straight growth needed.
For all this long history, our relationship with willow has been mainly functional, and in modern times its use restricted to little more than wattle hurdles for sheep. But in the late 20th century we rediscovered this versatile resource. Jon Warnes has worked with willow for many years and passes on his enthusiasm for it through courses he teaches in this ancient skill.
“Willow weaving is a fun and satisfying way to learn a new skill, people get a lot out of working with this natural material,” he says. Jon’s monumental structures echo the curves of the willow he uses to build them.
“It can be a delicate balance between whether something is craft or art,” he explains “I come down on the side of craft because my work still functions as a fence, walkway or gateway, but to my mind it’s also sculptural.” The National Trust at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex needed to fence off the composting area of their botanic gardens. A willow fence fitted well with underlying messages of sustainability and recycling. Jon was called in to build it.
“The 20 metre long fence at Wakehurst Place served a purpose, but it was also quite playful. We put in windows at child-height and for wheelchair users, as well as taller ones, for visitors to look through to the composting area. I lived on site during construction, the birds got used to me and started perching on the willow. At dusk there was even an owl.” Another piece, a National Trust commission, was a windbreak at the Pictish Rodney’s Stone near Brodie Castle in Moray.
“It is important to choose a good location for a sculptural fence. The fence at Rodney’s Stone was designed to be a windbreak while a new deciduous wood grew up behind it, and I added echoes of Pictish design. The result is decorative, but doesn’t take away from its location.” Jon has worked on projects all over the world. In Canada, he and partner Stephanie were asked to help protect sand dunes on Toronto Island.
“Rather than putting up signs or fencing the area off, we created an arched willow fence to funnel people through this fragile habitat in a way that was more sympathetic to the landscape.” Jon sources most of his willow from Somerset, which announces its allegiance to this valuable crop with Serena dela Hey’s Withy Man, a 12 metre willow man who strides out to meet travellers on the M5 near Bridgwater.
There are over 400 varieties of willow, he explains, which range from bright yellows and oranges to a purply-red. Basket makers soak willow to use it nearly all year round, but working on a larger scale creates restrictions.
“Willow is harvested from November, once the leaves have dropped, until late March or early April when the sap starts to rise. It’s dried after harvesting, but we can’t soak enough to do a big project. Fortunately, willow stays fresh for two months after it’s been cut, so these big projects are winter jobs.” Jon works with non-living and living willow. The living willow is best planted between February and April, with a mulch round the base to give it the best start. I ask if we’re seeing a renaissance in willow work.
“Yes, it’s incredibly versatile. Rolls Royce sponsored a schools project I worked on in Orkney. We looked at all aspects of willow from botany and basketry to its use as biomass in a power station. It’s being used increasingly in bioengineering, for retaining river banks and land stabilisation projects, which are a modern take on the sophisticated techniques of our ancestors.” Jon is constantly innovating with willow in public spaces, as well as in more domestic settings in people’s gardens.
“Willow is a good way to extend the seasonal use of outdoor spaces, by incorporating seating, combining seating with a rustic shelter to protect against the wind and rain and so on. It can also be used to create intermediate spaces, outdoor covered kitchens including pizza or clay ovens.”
Expanding the ways we use willow feels very timely. Combining beauty with function, it’s the perfect sustainable natural resource.