One of the best things about teaching is meeting a wide variety of people who have a wide variety of reasons for wanting to learn basketry skills. One of my students, Lucy, has attended three courses so far, and is working towards a doctorate at the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL.

Her focus is on exploring the human impact on near-Earth and terrestrial environments, and as part of this she is working a lot with Scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Just as sourdough bread requires a starter, Scoby is the starter used in the production of kombucha and other sour foods. It’s a gelatinous cellulose mat housing bacteria and yeast cultures that turn sweet tea into kombucha, growing on top of the liquid.

Image by Lukas Chin, shared under Creative Commons

The reason Lucy signed up to learn basketry was because she wanted to try creating some open-weave structures on which to grow Scoby. So far she has tried paper and cane. She has also experimented with attaching ready-grown bits of Scoby to random weave cane pieces.

Now she wanted to know whether it might be possible to weave structures with Scoby itself. On the face of it, weaving with a thick gelatinous mat sounds an unlikely project. But when Scoby is removed from liquid and dries out, it shrinks as the moisture evaporates, forming thin sheets.

Sheets of dried Scoby, about a year old

So I offered to spend a bit of time with Lucy experimenting with weaving Scoby. I had no idea how robust it would be, whether dried Scoby would become flexible again if sprayed, or what the optimum thickness would be. So I suggested that she grow some sheets of different thickness and dried them to different levels so that some were completely dry while others retained some moisture.

However, owing to problems of access over the Easter holidays and lack of drying facilities, she only had one sheet of Scoby suitable for weaving on the day I turned up. This had been grown for around 2.5 weeks and dried out for around 10 days. Of the other two, one had been grown for around 2.5 weeks but only dried out for a couple of days, while the other had been grown for around one week and dried out for a couple of days. Because they were being dried on a wooden board and no air could circulate properly, they had started to grow (unwanted) mould.

The only Scoby sheet suitable for weaving was bottom left

However, she had a couple of sheets that were about a year old – interestingly, the colour had become much darker in that time.

I cut the new Scoby into strips. It retained a small amount of moisture so was still flexible but reasonably robust, and I managed to plait a small basket.

It was quite translucent, but I didn’t take any photos of this.

Then Lucy had a go, using the older Scoby. It was quite brittle, but after being sprayed lightly with water it instantly became flexible enough to work with.

Using the offcut scraps from the edges, we also had a go at making cordage.

The offcuts were usually of irregular widths, and this was Lucy’s first attempt at making cordage, so I suggested that she gets some more practice with some easier material, like iris leaves or daffodil stalks. But she is very excited by the idea of growing Scoby on Scoby – creating a looped or openwork twined Scoby structure which could provide a framework for more Scoby to grow on.

Lots more to explore!

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8 Responses

  1. Fascinating post Kim….I’ve never heard of Scoby.

    Was it easy to weave the scoby? Was is the longevity of it….will it absorb air moisture & if so will it then be liable to encourage mould?

    Great to see you experimenting with different materials.

    1. Thanks Antje.

      It was quite easy to weave – not as robust as watercolour paper, but pretty strong. As to the longevity, I don’t know. The dark brown basket was made of Scoby that was a couple of years old, so it had changed colour. But it was very dry and quite brittle – it had not absorbed moisture or developed mould. So my guess is that as long as the basket is kept dry and not in humid conditions it should be OK. We shall see! 🙂

  2. How wonderful is our ability to completely ignore the artificial boundaries that restrict our creativity♥️ With no one to tell us this or that is right or wrong, practical or impractical, useful or useless…etc., everything is possible ♥️ and new frontiers can be reached!!
    Good luck👍🏾
    I love Lucy’s creativity and your facilitation of it Kim ♥️

    1. Thanks Joan. Sometimes it’s good just to experiment for the sake of it rather than with the aim of producing something practical! 😉

  3. Kim,the predominant decorative feature of our kitchen at present is two large jars of festering scobys! A relic of a kombucha making enthusiasm that hasn’t completely survived!!! I now know what to do with them. Fascinating. Thank you!

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