Grace Brindle, Brendan Glenn, Corrah Gonzales-Lipham
This week marked the transition from ARCN 222’s focus on Classical antiquity to a new subject of study: Early Medieval England. For the second half of term, students will be studying the lifestyle, beliefs, and practices of the people living on the British Isles in the wake of Rome’s fall. In contrast to their Mediterranean counterparts, Early Medieval English people relied much more on plants and vegetables for their material goods. This point became evident in the lab for this week as students processed plants to create cordage and weaved reeds into baskets.
On May 6, 2021, students gathered at Mai Fete Island in Northfield, Minnesota to ply rope and make wicker baskets. The immediate goal was for each student to create three feet of cordage for eventual use in the construction of a historically accurate Early Medieval English building. More generally, the purpose of the lab was to better understand the steps involved in processing different plant materials and compare the technique to our previous labs, such as wool working, to see how the technologies might transfer. How does weaving translate from making a basket to weaving cloth, if at all? How do different plant materials behave at different stages and how does the type of fiber influence the final product? How much time, foresight, and labor do these processes require?
To answer these questions, students worked with three different plant materials: cattail, dogsbane, and basswood. These materials were foraged locally and were all plants that would have been accessible to the Early Medieval English. At the cordage station, students stripped the fibers from the raw materials either by plucking leaves or peeling and hammering bark, and then left them in buckets of water to soak. They then wound these wet fibers into cordage by creating a kink and plying strips of fiber together. At the basket-making station, students cut reeds into uprights, placed their uprights in a base, and weaved wet reeds around the uprights to form their basket. By completing these tasks, students gained a better understanding of how Early Medieval English people used plants to create the goods that governed their daily lives.
There were three different plant materials that our lab groups processed into workable fibers: cattails, dogsbane, and basswood. While the goal was that each group would get a chance to work equitably among the three in both the processing stage and the actual formation stage, the reality of time meant that each group “specialized” in one and had limited knowledge of working with the others.
The goal of processing each was the same, but the actual working of the wood felt very different. The basswood was essentially a tough piece of bark that needed to be hammered for several minutes before usable fibers could be pulled off it’s woody source. If time had permitted, it could have soaked in sea water for months and the hammering stage would not have been necessary. Group E called this step “hard work” and they as a unit agreed that they could understand why the soaking would have been the preference. Below are three pictures of the basswood over this period of preparing the fibers. The first picture is the original piece of bark this group had to work with, the second was after three continuous minutes of hammering, and the final is the workable fibers of varying sizes after being stripped from the bark.
Cattail was the easiest to process amongst all groups. There was no manipulation by way of tools or soaking, the leaves fell off easily by hand. There was no strength required in the pulling apart of leaves, it was very simple to pick up the cattail and strip it of its leaves. Even pulling apart the fibers proved to be easy as well. The easiness of the process catches up to us in the actual making of cordage later.
Dogsbane was a “slow and difficult process,” says group F. The delicacy of working with these small twig-like wood pieces are a common thread throughout all group summaries, but the opinion of difficulty varies. In order to pull apart the fibers, we had to first shave the bark off with a knife and then break it into quarters with pressure between our fingers. Then we peeled back the wood from the fibers in each quarter half. Due to the size and process of dogsbane, it made getting longer strands fast very difficult.
Once each group had processed each of the above materials, we were allowed to move on to making cordage. Whether it was cattail, dogsbane, or basswood the rope making was all the same. Taking a long fiber from the bucket soaking each type, we twisted a single strand of fiber until it had enough tension that it looped in the center. From there you would move your hands to the loop and work with the two ends of the strand, twisting the top one in a motion away from you, then pulling it towards you over the bottom string so that the bottom and top switched. Then you would repeat the process over and over again. The picture illustrates the differences in the final product. (From left to right: cattail, basswood, dogsbane)
It seems to be the consensus that dogsbane makes the finest cordage, basswood makes the strongest and that cattail breaks easiest. Group E commented on how simple it was to make cattail and how much quicker a process it is, so they understood preferring this even with its downfalls. However, group F struggled with making the cordage. Every group had different insights on what each would be used for, and they all had varying opinions on what was hardest or easiest, but they were mostly able to agree on the end product and quality of fibers. Everyone had trouble splicing together new fibers to the running strands, with group b saying they strong-armed their splices and hoped for the best. Many groups compared this step of cordage making to spinning wool, recognizing the similarities in both motion and splicing. Many groups also commented on the communal aspect of this lab. Everyone was able to sit around making their cordage and talk to one another, as well as help when anyone ran into some trouble.
Wickerwork was an essential component of Early Medieval English material culture. Woven plant fibers of various strengths and sizes could be found everywhere, whether as structural support for earthworks, as the wattle in wattle-and-daub construction, as fencing for keeping in livestock or weirs for controlling fish, and–critically to this lab–as storage, in the form of basketry. Our introduction to the latter craft was smoothed along by a few shortcuts, but most people nonetheless seem to have gained an experiential understanding of the sometimes calming, sometimes nerve-wracking process of weaving a usable basket.
The first part of making a basket was assembling the materials. This was a fairly simple process, since the ingredients required were only three: reeds (of unspecified species, coiled and soaked), knives (for cutting the reeds), and a plywood disk base. That last item was the biggest shortcut we took when weaving, since building a basket base with reeds alone is a difficult task that takes time to learn.
The process of weaving a basket began with the cutting of eleven reed uprights which were then inserted into the wooden base, which would act as the structure around which the body of the basket could then be woven. After the uprights were secured (by folding them under one another in a circle so each kept the next tight to the bottom of the base) one then took a length of reed and began to weave it through the uprights in a slow coil, continually dunking the whole basket in water to keep it flexible and integrating new lengths of reed as previous ones were expended.
The creation of the body was, naturally, the meat of the basket-weaving process, and proved to be both the most pleasant and most aggravating part as well. Group B reports that basket weaving was fairly simple and easy, and that techniques like beveling baskets’ diameters were “intuitive.” Group F admits a level of confusion concerning the same, writing that “we were not exactly sure” why some baskets took on different shapes, and that the basket had its own “trajectory” which the weaver had to deliberately contravene if they would prefer another design. Group A agrees that basket designs could be “unintentional or intentional,” and adds that maintaining a tight weave was imperative for poor weavers, and allowed strong weavers to create more interesting designs. Their recorder also says that the process was “kinesthetically” enjoyable, an assessment backed up by group C, among whom “no one struggled after completing the first loop,” and who also noted that weaving didn’t require their full attention and allowed them to chat. Group E likewise write that weaving was a “great communal task” which nonetheless produced a “small sense of urgency” due to the constant requirement that the reeds be wetted.
The experience of basket weaving which appears to have been shared by most participants of the lab was thus a combination of fun, easy, simple work with the threat of “losing control” of one’s basket or allowing it to dry out and break. It should be noted, and most groups did note this, that this is the experience of a bunch of absolute novices at this craft, and that the process was simple enough that even a little training would most likely have given the weaker weavers a much greater degree of skill, control, and confidence.
Over the course of the day, students observed the differences between each plant material and came to understand the importance of choosing a material in creating each product. The experience of processing the fibers and creating the cordage varied based on the type of plant used, as each one had different physical properties. Likewise, each plant created a very different kind of cordage. While the Early Medieval English would have been limited to local plants, they most likely would have selected different plant materials depending on the function and use of the object they were making. Interestingly, students expressed different preferences for materials which may also indicate the role of personal taste in creating cordage.
In the group lab journals, several students commented on how this lab compared to Week 5’s lab on woolworking. Many students noted that the communal aspect of cordage-making and basket-weaving was very similar to woolworking, as they are all relatively mindless activities people could complete while in a social setting and chatting. Students remarked on the similarity of movements between spinning wool and plying rope. Unlike spinning, making cordage was more time consuming and required both hands, meaning it was most likely an activity one had to set aside time for and could not complete while multitasking. With both wool and wicker, students did notice that weaving involved placing different strands together in an alternating over/under manner to create a uniform pattern. That being said, some students thought the weaving processes were too different to have technology transfer between them.
By the conclusion of the lab, students had a much greater understanding of how Early Medieval English people processed and used plants. Each student left with their own wicker basket, three feet of rope, and a personal opinion on whether cattail, dogsbane, or basswood was the best material for cordage.
Group Data Reports
Introduction In the lab this week, the emphasis of the class switched from a focus on animals, animal products, and food, to plant products. Specifically, this week’s lab was focused on cordage and weaving. Most of the lab was experiential, as the entire lab was spent in one of two known processes: making cordage and…
For this week’s lab, we split our time between basket weaving and rope making. Both had their own learning curves, and although we started out rather slowly, we saw a rapid increase in our efficiency over the course of an hour and a half. The basket weaving was made easier because we had a solid…
Introduction This lab involved two activities: weaving baskets and processing wood into cording. The data collected was mostly experiential, in the form of descriptions of the difficulty or ease with which the processes required for both activities could be performed, the relative qualities of the materials involved, etc. These descriptions, in addition to the limited…
Introduction Similar to the wool week, most the data collected this week was qualitative as opposed to quantitive. I’ll do my best to recap group observations and reactions to various parts of the lab. There are 3 main components I’ll be discussing: Processing fibers, making cordage, and basket weaving. With regards to cordage, my group…
Cordage: Dogbane is the most fibrous of the materials we used in lab this week, allowing us to more easily translate wool working skills to this material. It produced very thin cord that was more easily added to than the other materials. Basswood was much more difficult to work with than dogbane. Its thicker fibers…
Cordage Our group started at the fiber processing station. We gravitated towards the tan cattails and spent the next 1.5 hours making cordage out of them. Austin collected the cattails from the arboretum this week, but our group could imagine people making cordage in the winter out of cattails collected in the fall. Our first…