The name “osier” refers to a number of species of willow tree that produce long, narrow, flexible branches that are especially valued in basket-making.  It can also refer to the branch itself (also called a “withy”).

The best-known of the species is the common osier or basket willow (Salix viminalis).

Common osier (Salix viminalis)
The common osier (Salix viminalis). Photo courtesy of Van den Berk Nurseries.

The art and craft of willow basket-making is ancient and widespread, with long traditions in Europe, East Asia, and the Americas.  Willow-work is not limited to baskets, however.  According to James Arnold’s book The Shell Book of Country Crafts (1968), osiers (or withies) play a role in many essential crafts including: thatching, basketry, hurdle-making (livestock enclosures), and making coracles (a type of small lightweight boat) — among numerous others.

Willow basket, 1919
Willow basketry in the early 20th century United States. Photo courtesy of historichomeshowardcounty.blogspot.com.

The practice is alive and well today, though the economic and practical importance of willow-work of all types is far less than it was in previous times.  Still, there is a great deal of interest in the craft, and many opportunities, especially in the United States and Britain, to learn it from experienced crafters.

Willow baskets by Jane Wilkinson
Modern willow baskets by Jane Wilkinson. Photo courtesy of craftcourses.com
Modern willow baskets by Oxfordshire Basketmakers
Modern willow baskets from a crafters’ workshop. Photo courtesy Oxfordshire Basketmakers.

Featured photo credit: The Welsh Cyntell, basket by Ruth Pybus.  Photo courtesy of Potter Wright & Webb.

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