Making Your Own Skep

This page will be a work in progress as I learn new tips and weaving tricks along the way, but this should–hopefully–get you started! Weaving a skep takes a lot of time and determination. It is easy to get frustrated at first, but as your hands gain “memory” of the feeling of the straw, you will find it becomes easier to work.

First, you will need grass to weave. I don’t have access to rye straw, but I would probably not use it if I did. It makes beautiful, smooth skep baskets, but I feel that the grasses we use around here are much stronger and thinner than rye, so they make for better insulation, in my opinion.

I use pasture grasses for my classes. They are mixed grass, mostly Indian grass, and we cut the grass when it is still green and at full height. Then, the grass must be laid out or stood up in buckets to dry. You’ll know when it gets dry, as it starts feeling “crispy.” If you gather two full 5-gallon buckets of grass, that should be enough for one skep.

I don’t cut the heads off of my grasses. Many folks do. While your grass is drying, get your tools together:

Here is what you’ll need: The wooden handled little “spikes” are called Fids. They are a rope-repairing tool. I get mine on Amazon. You want the small size. The large comb is for cleaning your straw prior to weaving it, the wooden mallet is for prepping the grass before weaving. The round piece of bone is my “collar” or “sleeve,” used to measure the grass thickness so you have a way of keeping the coil evenly thick. Scissors clip the rough ends of straw, and the Sharpie marks where you will angle your stitches to make the skep wider, or more narrow as you go. Not pictured is a water spray bottle, which you’ll need for spraying the grass to keep it flexible as you work.

You’ll also need to order binding cane (like they make chairs out of). I get mine on Amazon. I order the 6mm or 1/4″ flat oval reed, and it comes by the big role.

Okay, let’s get weaving! Starting the skep is the hardest part of the weave. You will be using a small amount of grass to start, and you need to bend and curve and pound it very soft before you start, or it will stick out everywhere and break. We’ll be making what we call a “star” to begin our skep.

To start, pull out a small handful of grass, lay it on the ground or in your bathtub, and spray it with water. Let it sit awhile as you soak some binding cane in water. You will always be working with soaked cane–if it gets dry, it will break. Start with about this amount of straw:Once the grass is damp, run the skinny end through your fingers, bending, twisting, and breaking down the brittleness of the grass. Then, bend the skinny part over on itself like this:Now, we are ready to get out a strand of binding cane. To start, cut off an 8-foot length of cane. If it’s too long, you will make yourself crazy trying to keep it from twisting. Starting at your bent-over tip, make a small loop of cane and then secure it to itself as you make 8 wraps of cane around your thin tip like so:Then keep wrapping like this, leaving just a bit of space between the wraps:All of this is just to provide enough straw to start building on. Now, we are going to wrap this little coil into a tight circle around a cork, a finger, or just wing it free-hand. It is helpful to curse like a sailor during this process, as the grass will be playing devil with you all along the way. But don’t be discouraged!Now, we’re going to take our long end of binding cane, and shove it through our loop of cane and straw at the tip of our weave, sort of like this, to hold our circle together:Trust me, yours will not look this neat. Don’t fret, it will be okay. Now, we’ll use our hands to really push or hammer this into a circle. Then, we add more “bulk” to the top of the skep by simply taking our long binding cane end and looping it around the loose end of our straw, making very close loops all the way around the circle:Here we need to be sure cane and straw are all positioned correctly for the duration of the weave: the straw tail must be pointing off to your left (I am right handed and weave to the left. You can weave either direction, but my instructions will be to the left). The cane must ALWAYS lead up from the center hole. My straw tail is pointing correctly the left, but you will notice that my cane is not right–it is leading from the outside, and the cane end will then go into the center hole (totally backwards). It is much easier to make sure you are on track from the start. I had to tie off my cane and add another to correct this. But when you are new to this, unravel what you have and start again (Honest, the experience of starting, tearing down, and starting again is very good practice that will serve you!).

With your hands, bend the straw gently and firmly around your circle, pulling the cane to keep it all even. Try and keep it as round as possible, because if it is crooked, it will be hard to correct the roundness later on:Now we are ready to make our first stitch to begin forming the star. The skep is woven from the top down, so you are looking here at the part of the skep that will be visible. (Note that the straw tail is aiming off to the right. This will all make sense to you someday…). As the coils progress, you’ll be holding the basket on your lap, with the star of the skep firmly on your legs.

Now, take your fid and shove it hard at a slight angle about half-way up through your round coil. You will be going between your cane loops, and must also go through the previous stitch so that you begin “sewing” the basket together. Run the binding cane through your fingers to be sure it is flat, and that the shiny side will be facing up. Then push the cane through the slot on the fid. If it won’t go through, shove the fid in deeper and twist it around to make the hole bigger.Now, when I pull the cane through, you will begin seeing the “star” pattern emerge as the loops of cane separate:Continue this way all around the circle, hooking each previous stitch, and making sure you do not pierce the cane as you poke your fid through the weave.Now is a good time to see how to add more straw, because we want to be at full thickness of straw by the third round of coil. Full thickness is 2″. We’re now on Round 1. To add new straw, simply open spread the straw in your tail, and insert about 8 strands into the straw tail and then pull the tail around your new straw to hide it.

You should now be adding straw after each 3rd or 4th stitch. As more straw is added, you can add more straw with each addition, to come up to full thickness quickly If you don’t add straw regularly and often, your coil will be lumpy, so keep adding straw that you have dampened and combed out. Now, here is our star completed!Next, we begin (already!) forming our skep into a bowl shape. We do this by placing our fids at an angle. For our star, we inserted our fids straight up and down, parallel to the weave. Now, we’ll take our straw tail, and move it with our fingers to where we want that next coil to go:Here, I hold the straw where I want it to go–up from my lap into bowl shape.¬† When I make these new angled stitches, I am careful to grab a thick piece of the previous coil–about 1/3 of the straw. Note that I have put little Sharpie pen “dots” in black on the straw. I have marked the whole round, so that I know exactly where my fid needs to pierce! The rubber bank keeps the straw compact. This first stitch is good to mark with a rubber bank or a colored zip tie. It is helpful to know where the rounds first begin as you move up the coils, working to keep everything even.

When the straw is close to full thickness (2″), I’ll loop my bone “sleeve” onto the tail. By keeping the straw snug in the sleeve, I then know I am keeping the same thickness throughout the weaving. Straw to be added gets added into and above the sleeve.

The weaving will become easier now as the skep expands. You will need to add extra stitches between some of your loops, as we are adding more width to your basket. Try to keep stitches no further than an inch apart. With very thick skeps like this, the straw will be hard to bend and the more stitches you use to hold it in place, the more stable and even your skep will be.

You can make several loose stitches at a time, then go back and tighten them, pulling the cane as hard as you can. Use your mallet to “bash” the skep into a smooth round shape. You want the skep to be so tight you can jump up and down on it when you are complete. If it is woven too loose, it will eventually cave in to the weight of the bees and the comb.To add fresh cane, grab a new long piece, placing it over the top of the old, short cane end, and push the new cane end into the same hole as the old cane:

In the photo above, you can see the long, new cane atop the old, short piece. On the left of the photo, you see my hand holding the end of the fresh piece of cane that has been inserted to come up through the last stitch. This end simply has to be hidden away somewhere and secured so it won’t pop loose. So, you can see my fingers, bending it up and sticking it through the straw tail, where I will pull on it to secure it. Then, I can just clip it.

Here, you are looking at the fresh piece of cane. I’ve inserted the fid to make my next stitch with the fresh cane. You can see by my index finger, the old cane clipped a bit shorter, where it will be hidden away beneath the surface of the fresh cane.

I realize these images are by no means perfect. Starting with fresh cane is a process everyone does a bit differently. All you need to know is 1) secure the short end of the fresh cane somewhere in the weave. And 2) hide the old cane piece beneath the new one.

What’s Next?

Weave your skep so that it has a volume of around 30 liters. My skeps are about 14″ by 14″ and that is around the correct size. Filled with bees, your skep won’t be liftable if it is much larger than that, and small colonies always fare better.

Finish off your skep by simply refraining from adding new straw. Keep making the coils, which will become smaller and smaller til you run out.

SPLEETING AND CLOAMING

Spleets are little dowels or small diameter branches you can push through the skep side to side to offer some support to the combs. I’ve tried not using them. Trust me, you need them! Here is an old skep of mine with some bamboo spleets. I mostly use two sets of crossed spleets nowadays:I use an electric drill to make the holes for the spleets, being careful not to pierce any of the binding canes.

I don’t add entrances to the skeps anymore. I drill the hive entrance in their ecofloors.

To protect your skep from UV damage, you must cover it with mixture of cow manure (organic–you don’t want chemicals in the poop!). You can use just straight cow manure, or make a cloaming mix of 1 part cow poop, 1/2 part sand, 1/2 part clay.

Mix it all up and add water til the whole mess is like very thick pancake batter:Here’s Pixie, sharing her mudpie memories with me. Now smear this all over the surface of the skep. It will take quite a long time to dry. If it cracks while drying, keep aside some cloam mix to patch the splits.

Well, basically, that’s about it! Have a go!