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Weaving Works of Art Courtesy of Nature
Tuesday, August 24, 2021


Sally Metcalf recently planted a hundred willows in the back yard she and her husband share near a wetland preserve along the Big Wood River.

They’re not meant to be food for the deer and elk that wander through her neighborhood, although some will likely help themselves. Instead, they’re meant as material for Metcalf’s basketry.

Metcalf creates beautiful baskets--functional and sculptural—out of big leaf maple bark, cottonwood whips, iris plants and other natural materials found in the wild.  And she will open her studio in Hailey to the public Saturday and Sunday to offer a glimpse into her process.

The free Wood River Artists Open Studios tour will be held from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 28-29, at studios in Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum.

“I love the meditation that’s involved with weaving,” said Metcalf, who moved to Hailey four years ago after spending 30 years in Oregon. “It takes me a long time to make a basket, and I love how it allows me to sit and calm myself. I also love the colors involved with basket weaving.”

Metcalf grew up in Burbank, Calif., near the ocean. Sewing as a youngster gave her the dexterity she would later need for basket weaving. Sailing taught her how to tie knots and a stint as a floral designer honed her eye for designing things of beauty.

She was walking with a friend along a logging road near her home overlooking Oregon’s McKenzie River when she saw a dead big maple tree on which the bark was peeling off.

“I looked at it and said, ‘I think I’m going to make a basket,” Metcalf recounted.

She returned home, found a book on basket making, then took off in the woods with one of the knives her husband Eric made and began sawing. And she made her first basket from a bunch of cottonwood whips she harvested near the river.

The bark of big leaf maple trees is her go-to. She harvests it, then peels the bark and dries it. 

“Cutting down a trunk doesn’t harm the tree because the trunks grow in clumps,” said Metcalf, who has gone on to publish her work in a variety of books on basketry. “If you cut it, 10 more sprouts grow.”

Back home in her studio, she soaks the bark, making it pliable enough to fold and twist. She cuts it with a pruning saw and box cutter, shapes it as she wishes, then pins it together with hand-forged copper pins and threads it with waxed linen. She stains the bark with a slurry made from black walnuts, then rubs it with protective beeswax.

Often, she’ll top a piece with twining woven into colorful design or rattan weed which she has dyed herself.

The outdoors provides the materials, as she collects the willow and dogwood in late winter and bark in late spring.  Her garage offers her a work space to saw, drill, sand and forge. A comfy chair in her living room offers her a place to weave as she listens to David Crosby’s latest album, her dog Sara napping at her feet.

Her finished baskets are woven so tightly that they can hold water. The insides of her baskets are just as exquisite as the outside, sporting totally different designs.

She picked up one basket made of cottonwood and sniffed.  

“It still smells good,” she said. “As a master gardener, basketry combines my love of gardening with my love of weaving. I’ve studied Native American basketry but I really love Japanese basketry. I love the complexity and the skill they have.”

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