Judith Needham’s unique willow creations from Farnham
PUBLISHED: 14:13 05 June 2014 | UPDATED: 14:42 05 June 2014
Looking out over the beautiful Farnham Park, Judith Needham finds plenty of inspiration for her unique willow creations. Janet Donin joins her there for a chat
When did you first start working with willow?
I didn’t go out of my way to take up willow weaving. I was living in Scotland and stumbled across a course in basket making in the local village hall and became completely hooked. I don’t have a background in design; in fact, I took my degree in electronic engineering and then went on to do fund-raising and project management, so working with willow is my third career. It wasn’t until I moved south 12 years ago that I started designing seriously.
Tell us about your first project?
When my daughter Innes was about two she wanted a playhouse, but I didn’t fancy those plastic ones so I thought, maybe I could scale up my skills in basket making to create one in willow. Friends said it was great and encouraged me to make more, so that was it, and I’ve never looked back.
What is it about willow that appeals to you?
It’s an amazing, sustainable material with a unique flexibility. I get mine from Somerset, but the terrible weather in the winter was a bit of a problem as that’s when willow is harvested. I make my playhouses during the first three or four months of the year, which leaves me free to do experimental work as well as teaching the rest of the year. When you first start working with willow, it’s a little hard on your hands but mine have toughened up over the years.
Describe your designs to us?
My playhouses are all variations on a theme. The Onion design is the main shape, which is quite bulbous in the middle and has a slatted wooden base that my husband Justin makes for me. My other basic playhouse, which I call my Curvy Wigwam, is the same size but has more gentle curves and no base. Both are about one-and-a-half metres wide and two metres high. For the main structure, I use fresh green willow, which is very pliable – so perfect. The dried, earthy coloured willow is for the weaving, which I need to soak in a cattle trough in the garden for a couple of weeks before I can use it. Creating the shape is the tricky bit and involves a lot of pulling and pushing to get it right. The building takes about four-and-a-half days but the finishing and coating with linseed oil can take another fortnight.
Can you adapt these designs?
Yes, that’s the fun part. I’ve adapted the Onion design into a variety of slightly different shapes for clients. One of my favourites was based on a terracotta pot with an opening in the back. I’ve also designed a pear-shape and a rocket. I can make them with windows and attach a door with leather straps if the client wants. One of my first designs has two turrets which I call Dreaming Spires. It’s pretty large but a great space.
Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?
It’s all around me. We are so lucky that our house overlooks Farnham Park. We can even walk through the park down into Farnham. The deer come right up to our fence and there are always foxes around. Seed heads and of course vegetables have inspired my playhouses but I also like architectural structures like minarets and towers, and ceramic pots are inspiring too.
What is it about the playhouses that you particularly like?
We all live in square spaces, but there’s something about sitting in a circular area that’s comforting, private and safe and appeals to both adults and children. The playhouses are really intended for outdoor use but some clients like to use them as reading pods indoors.
Do you design anything else?
Well, there are lots of basket shapes, plus flat platters for the dining table and I love my garlic holders, which are made by an African plaiting process that is quite fun and satisfying to create. My latest projects have been animal shapes. Justin has just built me an eight-foot war horse frame in metal, which I am taking to the Aldershot Military Museum where the local boy scouts are going to help me weave in the shape with willow.
Tell us the best thing about your job...
I love working from home in our new kitchen extension, which has huge windows overlooking the garden and park. But I also enjoy teaching basket weaving at Farnham Maltings and to the local Brownies, Scouts and WI. So I get a good mix of alone time and meeting new people, which I actually really like.
How do you like to relax?
I’m one of those lucky people who really enjoys their job. I’m always busy weaving, I can’t stop. I’m even making small things when I watch my daughter play football. I should do more in the garden as I love working with my raised vegetable plots. I’ll be sorting them out soon.
What’s the best thing about living and working in Surrey?
I feel I landed on my feet when we moved to Farnham. There is so much art and craft on our doorstep, from the art college to The Craft Study Centre and Farnham Maltings, which give the town a great cultural atmosphere. We also have the most beautiful woodlands in Surrey, which I love.
• For more information about Judith Needham and her work, call 01252 659134/judithneedham.co.uk.