West Moss-side Organic Farm and Centre nr Stirling Scotland

Red Cedar Day
A Red Cedar Day 
A day spent with Joan Carrigan on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada

I had a fantastic trip to Vancouver in May and spent time on Salt Spring Island.  Joan had visited West Moss-side Centre and ran a weekend masterclass in Cedar Bark Baskets of the NW Pacific in 2007 – beautiful baskets were made from material gathered, prepared and sent over from Canada by her.

Sorry Sam - somebody's thumb got in the way! 

Two years later mine still has pride of place in the Centre – I particularly love the Bear Grass (Silver Grass) which is incorporated into the pattern (more of that below).

The amazing cedar heritage of the NW Pacific First Nations has fascinated me for many years and it was so special to see and work with the material from the tree to the making stage.


I have collected other barks for weaving since (birch, willow, and cherry) and experimented with barks inspired both by Joan Carrigan and Anelma Savolainen (Scottish Basket Makers Circle Masterclasses, Shetland 2007).

I was to be in Vancouver in May for a conference, and so I wrote to Joan to ask whether I could join her for a day harvesting the cedar. This is the right time of year to collect the bark as the sap is rising and so the bark should come away from the heart wood easily. I was so excited as one red cedar had been felled on a neighbouring property and Joan and Richard (a beeswax candle maker) were planning to go into the forest to strip the bark.   


One not for felling!

The temperate rain forests of west coast British Columbia are as precious as the tropical rain forests and much has been destroyed by logging over the past 100 years. Douglas Fir and Red Cedar are the giants of the forest – and conservation of the forest is now very important. The traditional way to peel the bark was to do it on a living tree, pulling from the base, walking away from the tree and pulling up the tree – this does not kill the tree but does expose it to disease and although it will heal, the tree will bear the scar for ever. 

We tackled the fallen tree with a huge chisel and a draw knife.  The task first was to get the really thick outer bark off in order to peel the bark away in wide pieces.  There was a knack in getting just the right angle on the bark and keeping the tools sharp. The really skilful part was peeling the bark – revealing the smooth silky wet inner bark.  The cedar yielded its harvest under the hands of Joan and it was very moving to see the fresh beauty of the bark which was going to create exquisite baskets rather than being a waste product.

                         Richard                                     Kate                                          Joan

We rolled the pieces inside out and took them back to Joan’s house. Joan’s and Richard’s house is a cosy wooden house with wonderful views and of course full of baskets – the back room is the studio with a wood burning stove and a fantastic library.  The temperate ‘rain’ forest was true to form on the day, as the heavens opened but not till afternoon whilst we were working inside on processing the bark. Perfect timing..!  The cedar bark will sit and dry for 6 months before the final processing stage. As it happened Joan had some she had harvested previously which was ready to work.


                                         Cedar bark rolled and dried          Jerry Stripper at work                                        

This was dipped into water to soften it and then out came the Jerry Stripper.  A bit like a pasta maker, it has sharp blades which cut the bark into strips of a set width. The tool is actually a leather tool and as far as I know can only be bought at Leather Craft in Victoria, Vancouver Island. I went to get one and the friendly owner immediately asked me whether I was a basket maker (he only ever sells the tool to basket makers!). 


                                          Splitting the strips                   Weaving the wee basket

So next stage is to split the bark into thin pieces ready for weaving. You can get 2 or 3 strips from one – the inside one is the prime one as it is especially shiny. This is also extremely skilful task and whilst my processed pile grew but slowly, Joan had soon produced perfectly even thickness long strips.  It was very special to get the feel for the bark and it was an extremely satisfying process.  So there we had it - tree to weaving strips.  Richard let us work on and produced a wonderful supper which we had just enough time to stop to eat!     I then had the pleasure of making a wee basket from the cedar that I had processed myself!  I had wondered whether Bear Grass was local and able to be harvested. Actually not, as it grows at higher elevations on the west coast but Joan had a piece for me to use.  So the simple basket has just red cedar bark, Scirpus americanus (native sedge to the West Coast of N America) and Bear Grass.  The border is very special too (traditional to native baskets) and involves using a border strip and binding a length of waxed linen across the upright and folding it down against the linen and then flipping the next upright in front…..

Joan organised a week at the end of May for UK basket makers, so the cedar we were processing was to be used in the workshop. Nobody from Scotland was able to go but there were seven from the Basket Makers Association. Maybe we can find some funding to bring Joan over to Scotland again – or maybe we should go to Salt Spring Island – it is an absolutely magic place.  I even caught up with another basket maker – Denise Bachman – she too lives on Salt Spring and has a house full of baskets -  some of you will remember her from Arran Scottish Baskets Makers Circle AGM , 2006.

What a trip I had!!