Although Katherine Lewis has been a professional basket weaver for thirty years, she started out as a farmer, selling produce at the market in Seattle.
“That’s why I started making baskets,” she says, “for display containers for Pike Place Market.” A basketry school in Fremont taught her European-style basket weaving techniques and got her hooked.
In the years since then she has taught basket weaving classes; served as president of the Northwest Basket Weavers Guild; traveled to Europe to study with traditional basket makers in the United Kingdom, France, and Poland; and has had several pieces included in shows at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. plus the traveling exhibit “Rooted, Revived, Reinvented: Basketry in America,” which appeared at the Whatcom Museum in 2018. Not only are her pieces beautiful and traditionally made, but they are woven out of willow that Lewis and her husband Steven Lospalluto grow themselves.
When Lewis and Lospalluto bought their Mount Vernon farm in 1994, they were focused on growing vegetables that they sold at markets and to restaurants around Seattle, but started planting willow as well for Lewis’ growing basketry business. They now grow 60 different kinds of willow, in every possible color, each with different weaving properties.
Not all of these are used for basketry; some are just ornamental, providing sprays of decorative catkins for the farmstand. Lospalluto does most of the farming (as well as the farm’s website and photography), and sells hardwood cuttings in the winter for anyone looking to start their own willow grove or add to their collection.
The willow branches are harvested in the winter, then bundled, dried and kept ready for weaving throughout the following year. The process of making a basket starts with soaking the willow, which takes at least two weeks and sometimes longer in colder temperatures. Once the willow is pliable, says Lewis, “it needs to happen pretty quickly.” She has only one or two days to finish the basket before the soaked willow begins to dry out again, which means the entire design needs to be fully planned out ahead of time.
Lewis tends to make large, sturdy baskets that hold up well to regular use. She has made pieces intended to be used as market baskets, laundry hampers, winery displays, log baskets, and even bassinets. Most are made with unpeeled willow, which shows off the bark’s natural colors in a myriad of patterns. One of the especially wonderful things about Lewis’ baskets is their scent; some willow varieties are particularly fragrant, especially when warm, even years after being cut.
Before the pandemic, Lewis was teaching hands-on classes, but Zoom teaching proved difficult given the materials needed, so at the moment she is focusing on her own work. She takes commissions for custom baskets, but always tries to keep a selection available for sale at their farmstand. Her baskets can also be purchased through the Dunbar Gardens website.
16586 Dunbar Rd., Mount Vernon, dunbargardens.com