Wire Jewelry Making: Explore Basket Weaving Techniques with Wire Jewelry Artists

Always on the lookout for fun new ways to use wire, especially ways that feel like metalworking to me, I came across this article by Ronna Sarvas Weltman, in the Dec/Jan 2014 issue of Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry. Ronna shares the work and philosophies of some of my favorite wire artists in this piece. I hope you enjoy as much as I did! –Tammy

Weaving Magic
By Ronna Sarvas Weltman

I've been fascinated by baskets for as long as I can remember. That has led to a profound curiosity about basket weaving techniques. Whether used in traditional or avant-garde design, some of the principles of basketry are constant, including the importance of solid construction techniques, craftsmanship and, of course, beauty.

  pink wire weaving pendant by Marilyn Moore, photo by Kara Saxby
By Marilyn Moore. Photo by Kara Saxby.

No surprise, then, when I learned how to work with wire, I immediately started experimenting with basket-weaving techniques. That led me to have a particular fascination with the wire jewelry creations of artists who use weaving techniques to create beautiful jewelry.

Marilyn Moore started as a basket maker, using natural materials like pine needles and raffia. When she returned to school to get an art degree, she started to explore color more. Then in her last two quarters, she studied with groundbreaking wire jewelry artist Mary Lee Hu. "I was more interested in making baskets out of wire," Marilyn says. She also began exploring making jewelry, partly because of economics. "Jewelry sells," she explains. "A lot of people don't want another object, but they'll almost always put something on their body."

Moore now makes more jewelry than baskets, but she uses her basketry techniques and aesthetic in her jewelry as well. "I really think my voice is an evolution of everything. What inspires me and the kinds of shapes I like to make are inspired by what I see all around me in nature. I do a lot with leaves. A lot of people have said my work looks aquatic, and I live in an area, Seattle, with a lot of water and sea life. In my early work in natural materials, I think it was the materials that inspired the work. Now that I'm working in wire, I'm more into the image and the look–rather than the materials–of what I'm doing. That being said, the materials also inform my work."

Moore has developed fascinating techniques for the beautiful blending of the colors of the fine-gauge colored wire she works with. "I believe, like most artists, that an artist has to evolve to keep the work alive," she explains. "When I'm selling the work, people are always drawn to what I've just made. When I do the same style of work over and over again, people are not drawn to it, even if they've never seen the new work. I think there is an energy to what is new and what comes out in a person's work. When I'm excited about what I'm doing, it translates into my work for sure."

heat patina copper wire weaving pendant by Mary Hettmansperger
by Mary Hettmansperger

Mary Hettmansperger embraced sewing, stitching, quilting and textile work as a child, and then moved on to basketry. "'Predictable' absolutely bored me," she confesses. "I found out really early on that I liked designing my own baskets and quilts, and my own direction was a more intuitive process and sculptural feel.

"I love doing small work. I also found out a long time ago that I am a person who likes to work with lots of parts and pieces and then assemble. And now I'm finding what is most satisfying is making components and pieces and then assembling them."

Hettmansperger uses a wide variety of techniques and materials, including torch fire enameling, polymer, colored pencils, and patinas, while incorporating textile and weaving techniques. .She also fabricates designs from silver, copper and brass, and loves to include found objects. "I find it satisfying to have a palette for my work of things that I have made," she explains, "and then design from there. I like spontaneity. I work through it physically, mentally and technically as I go. If I see it's too predictable along the way, I get somewhat bored and lose interest. I think the process is as important as the finished work.

wire weaving lattice pendant by Mary Hettmansperger
         by Mary Hettmansperger

"I feel creating is a collaboration between myself, the materials, and the mind frame I'm in. There are days that technically I hit a bump or roadblock or I'm not creatively in the spirit. I actually love that, because I don't try to take control of a piece. Those days I learn from my materials and see what they can and can't do, therefore making me think differently. I believe that materials oftentimes have as much to say as I do when I am working.The biggest compliment I get from people is that my work is spontaneous, and that's what I like."

Hettmansperger teaches wire weaving across many disciplines. Her students may be a group focused on fiber, or hand weavers, or jewelry makers. Seeing the way students handle the materials and approach the techniques, depending on their own knowledge and background, is an instructive glimpse into how we learn. Students who are familiar with threads, yarn, and soft materials grasp the weaving and stitching techniques quickly, but can find working with wire challenging. "When I teach jewelers," she explains, "I have to work on the weaving with them. They are at home with the wire. It depends on what students I'm going to teach that determines where I will put the emphasis on how they're going to get through the process. It keeps my job fun.

"Weaving itself," she adds, "just takes practice. Most of my classes don't have a full-on set project. Instead, I teach a technique. I like to approach my classes that way, and let students go as far as they want in the class. Everybody seems to get it. I think it's innate in the human spirit to connect threads and sew. It's across every culture.

"As far as the process goes, the one thing I love about weaving with wire, or weaving in general, is that it's very relaxing because there is so much repetition. I find it very meditative."

wire weaving earrings with gemstone briolettes by Deborah Gray-Wurz  
by Deborah Gray-Wurz

Deborah Gray-Wurz also goes with the flow in her approach to wire weaving. She credits wire weaving tutorials from Iza Malczyk, Nancy Wickman and Nicole Hanna for getting her started. Her own designs come from a variety of inspirations.

"I'll get an idea and want to do a color story," she describes. "I get into color moods. Sometimes I'll look at Pantone's Fashion Color Report. I like those colors. 'What can I do with that?' Or I'll dig through my stash of beads, cabs, crystals, and glass to see what I've got that I could work a particular stone into. I'll start with a sketch of an idea of what I want the piece to look like, but sometimes it doesn't end up looking like the sketch."

Gray-Wurz has a couple favorite tips for one of the fundamental basketry techniques, which is coiling. When making a coil on a mandrel, she suggests rubbing the mandrel with bar soap first. That makes it much easier to remove the coil from the mandrel.

She credits Lisa Claxton for a trick when spiraling with heavier-gauge wire, such as 16 or 18. "Flatten the end of the wire with a pair of flat-nose pliers," she explains. "When you start the loop, you get a tighter loop. It will make the spiral easier."

Jodi Bombardier also was already experienced with wire wrapping when she decided to use traditional basket weaving in her approach to weaving with wire.

"I love baskets," she says, "so I decided to go to library and look at basket weaving books to see if I could figure out how to do it with wire. I made 20 or 30 baskets, and then decided I had to transition that into jewelry."

Because she teaches extensively, she has a good understanding of what students need to know to successfully weave with wire. Because wire weaving often includes using smaller-gauge wire, she has tips for working with it.

  wire weaving basket by Jodi Bombardier
by Jodi Bombardier

"I always say to use dead soft wire," she explains, "especially with the gauge you're weaving with. I like 26 because I'm heavy-handed. The key is keeping that 26-gauge wire under control. I'll cut anywhere from 4 to 6 feet. Half hard will curl and kink a lot quicker than dead soft will. When it does loop, stop immediately take the loop out or it will turn into a kink. I discovered very early on we want to run our fingers over that wire because we're so tangible and hands on. When you're straightening your 26-gauge, your nails will strip it. Use the finger pad. It's easy to drag your nails over the wire if they're long, but it weakens the wire. It's almost as if it's scratching it, like using a tool on heavy-gauge wire and the tool leaves tool marks. I never use wire-straightening pliers on 26-gauge wire. It's too fine. I use finger pads."

Bombardier also has advice for technique as you're weaving. "When I weave, I really like a tight weave. The tighter you keep pushing your weave back, the more uniform and nicer it looks. Hold the weaving wire at a 90-degree angle to your frame. That way, if you pull it snugly, it will be pulled at a 90-degree angle, rather than pulling out or in. It is easy, if you're heavy-handed, to bend your frame or give it a bump. But if I pull at a 90-degree angle, I don't pull my frame out of shape."

It dawns on me, after my conversations with these artists, that although wire is stronger than most traditional basketry materials, it nevertheless does bear emphasizing that the wire needs to be handled just as delicately as the most fragile grass or natural material to ensure smooth coiling and wrapping when using it to weave. And that delicate approach does indeed mean approaching it slowly, deliberately, meditatively. I think that slow approach is manifested in the beauty of wire-woven jewelry, which often has a pattern and rhythm that can be quite alluring. And that allure is the magic that comes from art. -RSW

To get more articles as well as how-to tutorials that showcase the work of the finest wire jewelry artists, subscribe to Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry magazine.

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