handbuilt rhubarb forcing pot

Perhaps you’ve heard me talk of the rhubarb pot, that essential of the Victorian kitchen garden, and one of those beautiful objects that functions so simply to extend the growing season. Forcing rhubarb to reach for the light, warming and protecting it to set it growing earlier, and producing a fine, sweet, early fruit – this is the purpose of a rhubarb pot. Looking elegant in a walled garden is a fine off season occupation. When I saw the other potters handbuilding giant pots, I had to try making one myself.


Enormous thing. It will shrink by almost a quarter as it dries, mind. Mine is unconventional not only in being handbuilt, where most rhubarb pots are thrown or cast, but it is also singular in using white clay, where terracotta is traditional. Still, it ought to do the job, or at least be sculptural. Let me show you something of the technique I learned.


The trusty press.


After wedging the clay, and adjusting the height of the press to a good thickness, say, half an inch, the clay is flattened in the press.


A rib is used to compress the clay on both sides, to smooth and strengthen it.


As with any handbuilt thing, scoring and slipping connects the pieces – wide slabs that we slice and stand up and curve to meet. Any repairs later can use paper slip. Wonderful fortifying stuff, just wet clay with paper soaked til fibrous, not unlike papermaking.


Just a slight overlap is connected. Scored, slipped, pressed, then worked smooth. Applying the next piece to the outside makes the thing wider; to the inside curves it in. Many of the potters built the piece half way up, then flipped the entire thing and worked on it that way – but because a rhubarb pot is entirely open at the base, and only curves in at the top somewhat, I left it.


Knocking the clay into shape is one of those most gratifying tasks. It is amazing how much shaping can be done with a bit of brute strength and courage, as the clay doesn’t simply move but compresses. This bat is wrapped in twine to discourage the clay from sticking to it while it is the consistency of cool butter.


I still needed to remove some clay with darts, work redolent of dressmaking. By this time I was standing on a step stool to reach into the pot, turning it on a lazy susan.


Isn’t it a wonderful process? I adore the wheel and must be torn from it. Yet somehow this technique felt more compelling than a coil pot, and the proportions are fascinating to me. Consulting with my friend and mentor, Muriel, the potter at Winter Creek. I’m so lucky to study with her. She talked me through the most wonderful bit of throwing, to make a handle for the lid.

You might like to watch a Victorian thumb-sprinkler being thrown, another fascinating bit of historical pottery.

saddle stitch binding

The printed guides to good old fashioned patchwork quilting are the trusty companions to appleturnover’s old school movies. They’re great to refer to as you work on your project, especially if you haven’t always got the movie in front of you. I adore bookbinding and it is a pleasure to make these little booklets to go in every quilting kit. Let me show you saddle stitch binding.

printed guides © elisa rathje 2012

The booklets are printed with petite black & white stills, accompanied by detailed text to consult as you need to. I like to work from both the moving image and the still when I’m learning a new skill, do you?


I laid the images and text out, and had them printed at an excellent, environmentally sound old printshop in Vancouver, where I could get fully recycled, certified papers. Binding them was a little trickier, as I don’t have a long-reach saddle stitch stapler, though I hunted for one. In the end I discovered Paul Tseng’s brilliantly simple solution and followed it as closely as I could.

After folding the signatures (using my imaginary bone folder – wish, wish!), I clipped the pages in place and gently pressed a stapler into the spine of the booklet just enough to mark two spots. Now, find a sturdy, sharp needle. An awl would be better still. (Wish, wish.)

printed quilting guides © elisa rathje 2012

Gently puncture the pages through;

printed quilting guides © elisa rathje 2012

Til you’ve got clean holes to work with.

printed quilting guides © elisa rathje 2012

Saddle-stitchis standard for booklets, requiring no more than a few staples into the centerfold. Paul’s simple solution is to insert the staple by hand, and press it shut. Of course! So smart.

printed quilting guides © elisa rathje 2012

I pressed the booklets a little, and they were complete. There’s the pocket guide to Quilting Squares, a traditional “nine-patch” patchwork quilt, and Quilting Triangles, a traditional “broken dishes” patchwork quilt.

printed quilting guides © elisa rathje 2012

linocut carving

We gathered our newly acquired printmaking tools around a shady table in the garden, and spent the afternoon carving the linocuts. Would you like to try it?

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

Have a couple of blades, a v-blade and a rounded gouging blade, and a handle or two, a pencil and eraser, and a sheet of printing linoleum. Our table had an uneven spot where we could brace the linoleum as we worked, but a bench is ideal. Strong shears to cut the piece to size later are also useful. Draw a simple design, nothing too detailed, keeping in mind that you’ll be working with subtractive cutting – slicing away around the image, leaving the drawing raised to take the ink. I’ve begun by translating a bit of my logo.

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

We were working on a very warm day, otherwise it is a great idea to carefully warm the linoleum near a lightbulb, or with a hairdryer, to make it easier to work. Following our wood-carving practices, we outlined the shapes with the v-shaped blade. Always cut away from you! (Mind that children are carefully supervised and taught to keep little hands out of the way of blades. A good first aid kit is worth having nearby!)

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

Wiggle the blade a little as you cut to help it move without jumping away with the pressure. Slow and steady. Once all the lines are cut, take them a little deeper with the little v-blade. Like wood, if the cuts are nice and deep, it will prevent the drawn area from being lifted or damaged as the material in the negative space is cut away from the image.

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

Use the rounded blade to begin to lift the linoleum from around your image, again with a slow wiggle, working away from you.

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

If your first cuts are deep enough, you can cut right up to them without fear of nicking the image. Begin to clear a low-relief of linoleum.

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

I sheared the piece down to size with some heavy snips, as I was working a petite image. Later I’ll mount the matrix on a block of wood for easy stamping, but this isn’t necessary. My tall girl was capable of cutting her own subtractive pieces, but I carved the small one’s drawings out with her, holding the tool together, usually just cutting away the drawing itself.

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

A flat-sided blade seemed just the thing to smooth out the negative space. Do you think that’s what it was for? Sometimes I’d rather go ahead and do it, with a guess, than wait to be correct, and never do it! (Yes, I did later attack the surface of my piece to give it texture, it wasn’t a mistake!)

linocutting © elisa rathje 2012

All ready for inking, or mounting on a block and stamping! I’m delighted with linocut carving. Carving, drawing, printmaking are such pleasurable old skills. Working with my hands is a meditation for me. Next, printing! Will you join me? Back with that soon.


Since the earliest days of spring I’ve been visiting the pond on Old Plawhatch Farm, to document a project that grew out of a beautiful mentorship. A handmade boat. To celebrate the solstice and long days at the water, swimming days, boating days, I bring you the launch of the Flying Terapin.

When Callum, our 9-year-old mate in bushcraft, woodwork and art, first showed me the coracle, it was a skeleton of young coppiced branches stuck deep into the banks of the spring and woven together along the earth. Logs from a major pruning round the water (the algae on the pond needed to be reduced by exposing it to more sunlight!) weighted the top to create the boat’s shape as the young branches aged.
the coracle wood
This is the coppice where the new, bendy, sprouting branches were cut from. I love the tradition of building a boat beside the water where it will be set afloat, and using the materials found around it.
<the coracle woven
On my next walk on to the farm the framework had been woven together with more young shoots. In the farm shop one day I ran into Callum’s mentor, the affable Daniel Yabsley, and asked him about the project.
the coracle
Calico would be a traditional cover, but being fairly expensive, Dan helped Callum attach a tarpaulin to the framework instead. Canvas or animal skins were also used for these types of boats. One beautiful day in June a crowd of us joined the boatbuilders down at the old spring to launch the coracle. We flipped it over, off the bank and into the water. You can see the seat wedged in, not an easy project in itself.
the coracle launch
I think a mentorship is such a brilliant way to learn. One into the boat, two into the boat;
the coracle - they're off!
And they’re off! The boys used just one paddle and a wiggly sort of rowing.
Once round the pond and to the bank for passengers. The coracle is astonishingly stable! A race with the rowboat, and just about everyone (and their dog, truthfully) had a go.
the coracle © elisa rathje 2012 with thanks to james mccabe
Even me. What a thrill, to be out on the water on a beautiful day, in a handmade boat. Callum popped open a bottle of sparkling blueberry juice to mark the occasion.
the coracle © elisa rathje 2012 with thanks to james mccabe
(For the coracle thrill-seekers amongst you, you might like to know that one can spin round in circles rather quickly.) Such a wonderful old British tradition, coracle building. Happy summer solstice!

dyeing wool

The casual mentorship by family and friends in my life, introducing me to skills, tools, techniques, gives me tremendous courage. For months I’ve been actively avoiding a fleece, a wonderful big Jacob’s fleece that my sweetheart bought for a few quid at the farm shop. I’d never so much as watched someone washing or carding a fleece. Finally, my sweet friend Caz’s invitation to bring some wool and do some plant-dyeing over at Trefoil Farm School moved me to action. You know, the morning of our date. In fact it wasn’t difficult, or that messy. Out in the garden I clipped the tougher bits of wool from the fleece and put the rest into a tub of luke-warm, dish-soapy water, gently worked it, and repeated. Just to clean it a little and remove some of the oils. It’s amazing what scares me!


At the farm school, such a peaceful place, handmade buildings and everything beautiful, we set up at a table outside and the children all helped to card some wool. More about carding later – I’m very much in love with it!


The wool and yarn were placed in hot water, to soak before the dyebath.


Caz has a gorgeous collection of dyer’s books. We used Wild Colour, a copy of which I plan to get my hands on. Tansy!


We used dried tansy, prepare the day before. I think Caz had cooked the plant material and left it to soak and release more colour.


The plant-dye was strained off;


A mordant, one chosen to pop up the yellow colour, was added, carefully;


And all the wool added to the pot and set on the stove to heat for half an hour. The effect when dry was very subtle. More experimentation!


Most exciting of this process of dyeing wool with plants is feeling like we can begin wonderful experiments in colour now, with that courage you get from being shown how by a good friend. I have a red cabbage in the fridge and nettles in the garden that I might try first.


You might like a couple of images I made of the plant-dying, spinning and weaving projects Caz does with the sweet children at the farm school. I think her fibre work is so beautiful. Thank you Caz, and everyone at Trefoil for the tremendous inspiration!