The wonder of willow – a history of English willow

Some of our newest, and most popular, products are made from English willow. This traditional material is known for being extremely sustainable, which makes it particularly appealing given the growing importance of climate change and other environmental issues.

All of our English Willow Coffins are created by Coates English Willow, who are based in Somerset. Like Tributes, Coates is family owned and run, with a long heritage; it’s currently run by the seventh generation of the Coate family! The farm itself was established in 1819, and its 300 acres are situated in the heart of the Somerset Levels, a wetland area of enormous environmental and conservation importance. This unique landscape provides the perfect conditions for growing willow and is the last place in the UK where willow is commercially cultivated.

In the 19th century willow was a popular material, used for a wide range of products including baskets, packaging, food distribution and so on. The Post Office even used willow baskets for sorting letters! After World War II, and the invention of plastic, willow experienced a rapid decline, and the farm turned to the production of artists’ charcoal as its main product. But with a focus on local and sustainable materials and traditional crafts things have now come full circle, and willow is enjoying a resurgence.

The main benefit is that willow is very quick to grow, and in a season (usually running from late May to early October) it can reach 8 or 9 feet in height. After harvesting in winter, when the plants have dropped their leaves and provided the nutrients for the next season, willow remains dormant until the process repeats. Amazingly willow plants can last up to 30 years if properly managed. Compared to traditional wood, which takes years to mature, the willow cycle eliminates that very long wait to harvest material.

Using willow for coffins

During World War I there was a shortage of access to wood, prompting a local Somerset man to be buried in a willow coffin. The Coates Museum later displayed a replica of the coffin, to help share the history of the company and the ways in which willow had been used over the years. 25 years ago, the company was asked to make another willow coffin, this time for a friend of the Coates family, prompting growing interest in the use of the material for funerals. For the past 15 years, demand for willow coffins has been growing steadily and Coates now employs a full team of craftspeople to weave these important items.

The art of willow coffin making

Making a willow coffin is a fascinating process. After harvesting the willow is dried until it is needed, then it is boiled and stripped of its bark before being re-dried. At this point, it is soaked so that it is pliable, before being carefully woven into shape. The coffin is then dried overnight, before being dispatched for use. An experienced weaver can create a willow coffin in around 8 – 11 hours, although the process is much longer for those still training. Coates is investing in preserving this traditional craft process and encouraging future generations of craftspeople, with an in-house experienced weaver now employed to teach new members of the team.

Choosing willow

Willow is an incredible material, which grows quickly and without the need for artificial fertilisers. It’s also carbon neutral when burnt meaning it’s an extremely good environmental option. We are very proud of the association between Tributes and Coates, and the work we are doing together to offer a UK-sourced and sustainable option for families choosing willow coffins and ashes caskets.

Suggested reading

Are willow coffins suitable for cremation?
Casket or Coffin – what’s the difference?

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