Cane weaver Sandy Jameson of Almond Seed Handmade tells us her maker journey feels like two bookends at times. “I began weaving as a young Christchurch city girl, and after a long but richly filled break I’ve picked up the cane again as a wise (ha!) rural Aucklander.” Sandy attends her local Pollok Market every month (COVID permitting), and says it’s really cool to engage with her local community and mix with the talented craftspeople and producers there.
What do you make?
Not just baskets! I try to weave practical, useful things that are also beautiful objects, everything from little coasters and pincushions to large food covers and lampshades. Many of my pieces are things you can use around the house, particularly the kitchen or dining room.
How did you get into your craft?
I grew up in a typical crafty Christchurch family and was surrounded by makers and producers from a young age. It was normal to have dolls dressed in outfits knitted by Nana, blankets crocheted by Mum, beans from Dad’s garden, and super trendy (read: 1970s) outfits sewn by my sisters and I. After I left school I took advantage of the huge variety of night classes running at old Hagley High School and other spots around the city at the time – Community Education, they used to call it – and took short courses on things like pottery, embroidery, breadmaking, and canework.
Something about the cane seemed to click with me, I had a knack for it and more importantly enjoyed it, and then friends and family started to ask me to make them things and it grew from there. After I got married my husband and I lived in a few different places and began to get involved in some of the local markets. The first proper one I went to was probably the Martinborough Craft Market, and I have fond memories of selling in Nelson out of the back of a Datsun 180B with a fold-up table!
After moving up to Auckland and having children I took a very long break from canework, but after a few difficulties in recent years (including a literal broken leg!) I wanted to see whether I still enjoyed doing it and whether I still remembered how to do it, so I made a couple of small things and got my second wind.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
My training has all been relatively informal. Our first night class was taught by the lovely Mrs Tweedy who lived nearby in St. Albans, and after that finished I continued to meet with her and learn valuable techniques. Basketry books come in handy for learning new patterns or getting inspired. The rest is just practice, practice, practice. Canework is a lovely old craft, and I’ve slowly accumulated my knowledge over the decades.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
When we went into lockdown last year I didn’t have much cane at hand so I tried to weave with different materials found on daily walks or floating around the house, and I enjoyed the texture you could get from adding a bit of wool and seagrass to a project, but cane is still my favourite. I have a few trusty tools I can’t do without, including my favourite sloped cutters I’ve had since soon after I started canework, and an old metal knitting needle that is kinder on the cane than a traditional awl. Processes? I guess the final trimming and tidying of a piece is the most enjoyable task, it’s so satisfying to take all the hairy bits off the cane to get it looking as good as possible!
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
The cane first has to be soaked to make it flexible enough to work with, so I’ll prepare the amount necessary for the piece I’ve chosen. The weaving should all be done in one go for the benefit of the cane, as it needs to be damp but it’s not good to keep soaking and re-soaking it, so I have to schedule my projects carefully to make sure I have enough time to complete them.
To start with a woven base, a number of stakes need to be laid out over and under each other in order – this is quite a fiddly process and I’m often on my hands and knees getting everything aligned, but it’s so important to get it right. These stakes are the main structural components that the cane is then woven around, and there are a number of ways to place them to get different designs. Likewise, there are a number of weaving patterns I can use, from more common like pairing (two strand) and waling (three to five strand) to more unusual ones like diamond weave or fishtail.
It’s much like knitting in that the consistency of the technique makes a big difference to the end result. Everything is shaped by hand individually as I go and I can change the type of cane or the style of weaving to make different shapes or patterns. If the cane dries out too much it needs to be re-soaked again before continuing. When the piece is completed a border needs to be woven using the ends of the stakes, and then it needs to be left to dry completely for a day or so before the ends can be trimmed.
What inspires you?
There are a few avenues to inspiration. Sometimes it’s collaboration with family or someone else sparking off a new idea. Sometimes it evolves from things I’ve made before, and I’m constantly wanting to tweak or branch off from old pieces. Sometimes it’s a request for a specific piece that I can figure out the logistics of or a pattern in a book that I’d like to use in some way. Sometimes I just look at something and think “That’s a good shape. I like that.”
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
I like to be able to make something that people love and will last them for a long time. They’re not buying a cheap plastic fruit bowl that’s not very good for the environment. My pieces will hopefully fill a space in their life that might have been taken up with something mass manufactured, cheap, or disposable. It’s a bit of me going out there and helping people.
What has been a highlight of your maker journey so far?
I don’t think of myself as an artist, just a crafter, so entering a piece of canework in the local Pollok Art Gallery’s annual competition was a real challenge. The design process involved setting aside a lot of my usual practicality and thinking more abstractly, and I felt out of my depth at times, but I was chuffed to get a highly commended award! It was so unexpected and made me feel like my work was valued and I did have it in me after all.
Describe your creative process:
It starts with an idea. The next step is to think about how I can put it into practice. I might sketch the shape and try to work out the size, the thickness of cane needed, the stakes, the type of weave. If it’s a special request for a variation of an existing piece I need to work out which adjustments to make. There’s a lot of working out needed beforehand. The actual weave is when most of the shaping happens, and this is determined partly by me and partly by the cane. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes you have to unpick it and re-do it, but generally the cane behaves the way I expect it to after using it for so long. If it’s a new project I’ll write down notes as I work or afterwards so that I can replicate it, but there’s always something a little bit unique about everything I make.
Describe your workspace:
There are a few things I need to have for weaving – a bit of space, a bucket of water, a seat – but in general I don’t need to have a dedicated workspace, so I like to make myself comfortable and weave in my sitting room. The base of the project starts out on the floor where I can lay out the stakes precisely, but after a few rounds I can pick it up and take it to a comfy chair to continue, laying a towel down first to prevent my clothing getting damp. When I’m weaving I need a certain amount of room around me for flicking out the cane to keep it untangled – family beware! I’m surrounded by other things I’ve made for inspiration or as a reference when duplicating a design, and since I’m often working on my own I have the TV or radio on for company.
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
It’s like trying to pick a favourite child! Impossible. I started off unsure if what I was doing was still relevant so getting my first Felt feedback ever was a real confidence booster, but I appreciate all my customers. They’re so lovely, and when they say they love my work or it’s just what they wanted or tell me how it’s being used it’s pretty nice to hear.
What are you currently listening to?
National Radio. There’s such a variety of content and it’s so well made it often draws you in, whether it be a podcast or interview or music.
What are you reading now?
Mainly the Herald! I’m fond of Alexander McCall Smith, but I’ve drained the library dry of just about everything he’s written so there’s a lull at the moment. His books have an enjoyable quirkiness to them and really great characters.
Tell us about your pets:
I’ve got quite a few chooks! It started organically, we were given some and then the kids were given some for calf club, and I’ve loved having them ever since. They’re really good for eating up the scraps and my extended family collects theirs too so none of our food waste ends up in the landfill. They’re doing their bit for the environment and they fertilise the garden too. We also have a lot of native birds in the garden who are almost part of the family, except when they eat all the plums!
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Think about it, go slow, but do it. You have to put yourself out there a bit. Do your homework, start out manageably and sustainably, and grow naturally. Try some markets, they can be great starting points. Be unique, but make what you make well, keep your standards high, and stay on top of quality control. It takes time but I believe every product should look as good as it possibly can. I like to not put all my eggs in one basket as not everything appeals to everyone, so I have a range of different products and if I try something and it doesn’t work I try other things. It takes time to work out what people like and even then tastes are different. Opt in to Felt’s seller emails!
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
It’s the whole circular economy thing. People help each other and don’t support a big institution that often isn’t very good with the way they look after the environment and their staff. Because I live rurally, I have a sense of community that I think translates to the craft community and I appreciate the sheer amount of hard work that goes into handmade goods.
What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
It means so much. It’s exciting, it gives me a boost, spurs me on, makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. My happy place is when I’m making something so it’s really good to know I can do it and continue doing it.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
Probably some hand-knitted toys for my grandson, some little dinosaurs and an owl. I bought them from a woman who has a stall at our local market. I loved how nicely they were knitted; they were unique, cute, and something I couldn’t get elsewhere. It’s really impressive how they can use knitting techniques to make something as unusual as a dinosaur.
What’s in store for the rest of 2021?
Can anyone tell right now? While in lockdown I’ve been weaving as much as I can to get a headstart on summer, as business tends to get more busy for me as the weather heats up, and of course there’s the Pollok Market, alert levels going well. I let everyone know about any other markets I attend on my Instagram, but with Felt keeping me occupied and all our lives so topsy turvy I might just try to enjoy time with my family. Oh, I do have one big lampshade project on the horizon that I’m excited and nervous about. Watch this space!