Saturday, January 16, 2010

Using Natural Fibers In And Out Of The Shop

I've been gathering and using natural fibers, both plant and animal, for most of my life. Those slick and shiny needles that fell off longleaf pine trees were probably my first experience with natural fibers and we gathered them for weaving twine, necklaces, and even using them as money between ourselves as kids.

Those fond memories from making fun things with the pine needles didn't die soon as I moved into my teen years and learned to tan the hides of the small fur bearing animals that I had caught on my trapline. Wild leather was useful in making small pouches, holsters, and material for lining other items.

I was about 19 years old when I made the berry picking bucket in the picture to the left. For this bucket I used the bark from a tulip poplar tree that I carefully removed  with my ax and sheath knife during the spring when the sap was flowing strong and wet. When cutting poplar logs I had noticed that the bark would peel off almost like a banana skin so my mind tumbled upon that experience for a few weeks until I realized that I could make useful things from it.

I used a small green hickory twig around the rim of the opening to give it a more permanent shape and to help keep the poplar bark from warping as it dried out. From the hickory tree I learned that the inner bark made extremely strong binders twine when cut into thin strips so I used that for sewing the bark together including a circular piece for the bottom. I still have my berry picking bucket today and value it greatly as part of the history of how I became who I am. You just can't put a price on things like that.

Today I still find myself gathering various forms of natural fibers for making everything from Indian dream-catchers to weaving rope. I used some of the fibers from the inner bark of the poplar tree (top photo) to make the naturally woven rope in the picture to the right. Although the inner bark of a hickory tree is much stronger, this poplar bark is very easy to work with and provides my Boy Scouts with an excellent introduction to the many uses of natural fibers. Some of my students have made some amazing things using the fibers from these trees and I've been inspired on many occasions by their imagination, ingenuity, and ability to make something from nothing. Working with natural fibers is right down a kids alley and teaches them to be resourceful while also gleaning a lot of satisfaction from making something useful and beautiful from the woods and trees around them.

A couple of years ago our education theme was Black History so in woodshop class I provided each student with a small piece of 2" X 4" X 6" piece of pine wood for making an African mini-mask. We did a lot of research and found tons of information and various examples so using that as our reference point combined with their own ideas, the kids came up with some really beautiful masks. Just let kids loose with an idea and most of the time they will surprise you with their creations. American Indian masks could also be the subject for this project if desired.

The mask pictures just above show just how creative that some the kids got with their creations and I bet you can't guess what some of them used for decorating their masks. Yeah, that's right... the inner bark fibers of the poplar tree. They really got some "wild & woolly" looking hair using the fibers that we found in the woods and the more they worked them between the palms of their hands the more "fluffed" appearance they could achieve.
Just last Halloween I rambled the woods around property as Rambo as seen in the picture to the left.and once again those natural fibers worked great for my "swamp" hair. You certainly don't have to go to such extremes as I do portraying Rambo and scaring kids but if you're not using natural fibers for crafting, projects, or fun then you're surely missing out on a great avenue that can lead to many more discoveries.


  1. What a fun post this was to read! I love walking the woods to see what I can find.

    and.. if you'da snuck up on me looking like that my skeleton would leave this body in a dead run... good Lord your scary lookin there.


  2. Thanks for the kind words Marcia. Very simple things like my daily walk in the woods is one of the things that I look most forward to. There is so much more out there than just wood to find too!

    As for the Rambo costume, that was a big hit and I probably had way more fun than anyone should be allowed to have. Even at my age I can't wait for Halloween each fall.