Sarah Raven on the forgotten craft of willow weaving

Illustration of gardener Sarah Raven weaving a willow basket
The handmades tale: no basket you possess needs to be the product of a machine Credit: Artworks

In weaving willow baskets, expert gardener Sarah Raven has found the perfect way to unwind and indulge her taste for the traditional

I made a basket or two as a child and remember loving the whole process: the soaking of the stripped willow sticks in the bath, the weaving of the horizontals between the upright stakes, and the twisting triple run to hold the whole thing together like a woven rope at the top.

Using a circular wooden disc to start me off, I made a wastepaper basket at the age of seven or eight that my mother still has at home.

Nearly 50 years on, an American friend told me about Anne-marie O’Sullivan and her willow basket courses. With the wastepaper basket memory still fresh in my mind and the location only 40 minutes away, I booked in.

My first three-day session was last January and I’ve been back twice since then. I am obsessed. I’ve another session coming up soon, as well as a holiday in Spain with friends, accompanied by Anne-marie.

I love the fact that – perhaps like yoga (I’m not one for that myself, which is probably why I need baskets all the more) – basket weaving is at times extremely manual, but interspersed with periods of feeling peaceful and contemplative. Weaving the withies in and out tightly all day leaves you happy, if a little exhausted.

The weaving together of natural flexible wands is as deep a part of any culture as the making of food or drink or creating shelter

When you start you make mistakes all the time: selecting poorly matched material, weaving not to the left but to the right, or forgetting to tamp down gently with the rapping iron (that’s another great thing about the craft, the tools and their names).

There’s no cheating wooden disc to start you off with Anne-marie; you weave your own on the first day and it’s the fiddliest, trickiest part, but then you get into a rhythm. She is continually on the move through the class, advising here, correcting there, gradually leading you towards some kind of skill.

As I get better, I’m starting to plan willow arches and annual climber walkways for sweet peas and the cup-and-saucer-plant in the garden at my home, Perch Hill. We have a willow bed, so I can harvest the material I need, make the frames and grow the plants to cover them – all without leaving the farm.

I love the simple repetitive moves of arch and basket making, which require some concentration. You quickly make mistakes if it all becomes too automatic, but the concentration you need seems to draw on another and rather unused part of the brain.

Like seed sowing and pricking out, you can chat, you can listen to music (and should), but you can’t stop concentrating on what your hands are actually doing.

One of the reasons this is undoubtedly gratifying is the knowledge that basket making is one of the oldest of all human skills; the weaving together of natural flexible wands is as deep a part of any culture as the making of food or drink or creating shelter.

Every single basket you possess in your life is handmade. There’s not one – small or big – that is the product of a machine. 

Three Barrels

This series of Telegraph articles, brought to you by Three Barrels, is all about lost arts and forgotten crafts.

Britain’s favourite French brandy, Three Barrels is aged in French oak casks in the traditional way for a richer, rounder flavour. You’ll find hints of almond and walnut and a long finish of candied fruits and ginger.

To discover more about the brand and to find your nearest seller, go to

Follow Three Barrels on Facebook and share your favourite Three Barrels cocktail. @threebarrelsbrandy