Ask Lee Zieke how long it takes to complete one of our hand-woven willow baskets, and you’ll likely answer with the riddle:
“When can I say I started?” She says with a smile. “Was that when you planted those willows? When did you harvest them? Was that when you sorted them by size? Let them dry? Re-soak them?”
For visitors to Willowglen, the answer is clear. This green space outside Decorah, Iowa, offers ample evidence that the pieces grown and made here come from a lifetime of building skills and tending the land. Patches of willows and prairie flowers sway in the breeze just steps from a barn-like workshop filled with crafts, tools, and products recently harvested from the garden. Zeke and her husband, Lindsay Lee, have lived and worked here for more than four decades, a partnership as intertwined as any basketry they create.
Cultivate meaningful materials
The couple, who met while they were in high school in Cedar Rapids, named the place Willowglen long before Zeke had what she calls an “awakening” to the plant. They bought the property in the early 1980s and converted the former cornfield into a flower nursery. As naturalists, landscapers, and artisans, they were able to make a living in a way that complemented their lifestyle. Gardeners in the drift-free area turned to Zieke and Lee for growing advice and inspiration along with garlic and other perennials they had for sale.
The couple began growing different types of willow to use and sell to other weavers after Zeke attended a basket-making workshop in the Amana Colonies under the supervision of famous folk artist Joanna Schanz.
“When I first started knitting, I would go hunt wild willows for materials,” Zeke says. “I became instantly fascinated by this art form.” If you are a serious basket maker, you will look for a way to grow willow. “It’s the only way to get it in any quantity.”
Inspired by European willow plantations, they use traditional chopping methods. Cutting branches close to the base encourages shoots up to six feet long to regenerate each year. This makes willow one of the original dimensional building materials and an attractive renewable option for today’s sustainability-conscious craftsmen.
“Coppice is cool to me because it predates Saw,” Lee says. “Before the Iron Age, you could take a sharp stone and cut down the plant and six stems would appear the next year.”
Although they are winding down their business operations, Zieke and Lee’s commitment to craftsmanship and connection to the willowworker community keeps them growing.
Carrying cultural traditions
After the nursery closed in 2010, Zeke and Lee were able to devote more time to taking and teaching classes in popular schools throughout the Midwest. They collaborate to teach at places like nearby Westerheim Folk School, and Northhouse Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Lee and Lindsay’s thorough understanding of their material creates a unique opportunity, says Jessa Frost, North House Folk School’s program director.
“The closer you get to those resources that you need to make the craft, the more holistic, and I think, more meaningful and authentic the experience becomes,” Frost says. “(Lee and Lindsey) are able to infuse this knowledge into their basketry classes in a way that is truly special for the students. Not to mention the fact that Lee has extensive knowledge of European willow basket making techniques, and that she has worked with some of the best willow basket makers in the world.”
In addition to sharing step-by-step DIY techniques, the couple says they are passionate about passing on knowledge that was essential in the daily lives of our ancestors. Lee likes to weave ancient fishing vessels called coracles, and is experimenting with designing a canoe featuring frozen willow branches, while Zeke often works on wearable pieces that can be used to transport harvest or hold special household items.
“We tell people that, even if they never make another basket, they will never look at a basket the same way,” Zeke says. “I want them to make something important.”
Brianne Sanchez is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She has covered creative people for local culture magazines DSM, ‘ia’ and numerous Dotdash Meredith publications. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and loves telling stories about Midwesterners on a mission to grow vibrant communities.
Bob Moderson is a freelance photographer based in Lansing, Iowa. He was a longtime shooter/reporter for The Des Moines Register staff. He has been honored for his work by the National Press Photographers Association, a World Hunger Media Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Featured Photography. He has published work in numerous national publications, and currently photographs life and landscapes in the escarpment region of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.