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Basketry -- Beautiful and Versatile: There Is a Basket Style For Almost Every Job
Basket-making has proven itself an invaluable skill to Americans from pioneer times to the present. Few tools besides a sharp knife are needed to make a basket, the basic techniques can be easily adapted to whatever materials are locally available, and an endless variety of basket shapes and sizes can be created to fill almost any need that may arise. A soft, lightweight willow basket can serve for gathering eggs or one of sturdy splint--work for apples. A big, flat-sided basket can be strapped onto a horse to carry major loads, while a large, lidded basket--designed to let in air but keep out sunlight--will store dried fruits and vegetables all winter long. An open weave makes a good strainer; a tightly wrapped coil can be virtually watertight.
Old-time basket-makers often specialized in just one technique and handed down its secrets from one generation to the next. Modern practitioners see basketry as an art form. They explore a variety of approaches and strive for imaginative combinations of colors, textures, and forms. They also take advantage of the wide availability of basketry materials, combining everything from wire, string, and feathers with the traditional splints and grasses. Craft stores supply an abundance of imported and machine-milled splints and reeds, whose uniform size and flexibility make them easy to manipulate. There is also a nearly limitless supply of free basket-making materials growing in the countryside. T all grasses and weeds alongside a highway, honeysuckle that has overgrown its boundaries, and thin shoots pruned from a tree or bush all make beautiful, serviceable baskets.
How to Use Easy-to-Find Materials
Some of the most useful and widely available natural basketry materials are listed in the chart on the opposite page, but these represent only a few of the many possibilities for making beautiful baskets. Experiment with whatever vines, grasses, and leaves are available to you and try all the different methods of preparing them.
Brand-new or centuries old, all baskets are handmade because no way has yet been found to weave them by machine. While many modern baskets are primarily decorative, the old ones were absolute necessities.
Settlers in isolated areas, working with homegrown or locally gathered materials, used baskets in place of scarce metal-ware and pottery.
Most of the materials you collect will need some preliminary preparation to strengthen and preshrink them, since any shrinkage after a basket is finished tends to loosen the construction. Once the preparatory steps are completed, materials can either be used immediately or dried and stored. Dry the plants slowly in a cool, dark place unless you want to achieve the bleached effect of drying in full sun. To prevent mildew and general deterioration, store dried material in a location that is cool, airy, and free of moisture. Brown paper bags are good for storing small leaves and grasses. Vines can be coiled. Long grasses should be tied into loose bundles and hung.
When you are ready to make a basket, soak the dried material in water until it is pliable. Soaking time varies greatly. In general, the thicker and harder the plant is, the more soaking it will require. To avoid oversoaking, wrap the soaked material in a damp towel rather than letting it sit in water as you work.
Even a weak and brittle material, such as straw or grass, can be made into a strong basket when it is coiled. Gather 1 to 2 pounds of straw and 75 to 100 willow branches to use as wrapper for the straw. Choose long, straight first year willow shoots with no side branches. Weeping willow is good if gathered in winter, or gather shoots from a basket willow anytime.
When you are ready to make a basket, soak the willow in water overnight and split it as shown below. Prepare the straw by removing short, broken pieces. The easiest way to do this is to take a small handful at a time (a bunch about 1 1/2 inches in diameter is easy to handle), slap it against your knee, and comb your fingers through so that the broken pieces fall out. Soak the straw for 10 minutes to make it pliable enough to coil. Keep it wrapped in a damp towel as you work so it does not dry out. As you coil the basket, strive for evenly spaced willow stitches and straw bundles of uniform thickness.
Basic Coiling Techniques
Making the Basket
Use Corn-Husk Braids To Make a Place Mat
To make a corn-husk mat, you will need husks, raffia or other stitching material, a blunt needle, and a place to anchor the braid. For a good anchor, hammer a nail at one end of a plank, hook your braid over the nail, sit on the plank's other end, and pull the braid tight.
Dry the corn husks according to directions in the chart. A screen makes an excellent drying rack, or spread the leaves on a tabletop or board. Drying will take two to four days, depending on the weather. Prepare the husks by clipping off the ends to make them straight and even. Then soak them for five minutes. Finish the mat with a row of fringed braid.
Weaving Strong Baskets Out of Wood Splints
Black, or basket, ash is the ideal tree for making splints because it has tough annual growth rings separated from one another by relatively soft, spongy layers. The tough rings are torn apart into long, thin strips to make splints.
Red maple, white maple, hickory, elm, poplar, and sassafras are other sources of splints, but they are more difficult to process than ash.
Whatever tree you choose, it should be 4 to 6 inches in diameter with at least 6 feet of straight, branch-free trunk.
(Branches produce knots, which interfere with splint-making.) One processing method is to soak the whole log in water for a month or longer and then pound it with a club to break up the spongy layers so that the tough rings will separate from one another naturally. In another method the log is first split into eighths using hardwood wedges and a froe, an old-fashioned home-steading and carpentry tool that was used to make shakes, shingles, and clapboards. The eighths are then cleaved into splints.
Froes can still be purchased from specialty-tool mail-order houses. A sharp ax or cleaver makes a good substitute for starting the split in the log. Splints made by either method are fairly rough. They can be used as is or smoothed with sandpaper or by scraping with a sharp knife.
Drawknife is used to peel bark from whole log or from sections of a log that have been split into eighths.
Making the Mat
Braiding the husks
To start the braid, tie together narrow ends of three husks. Hook knot over nail and pull husks taut as you braid. Add new husk by laying its narrow end inside wide end of braided husk.
How to make the fringe on the final row
Finish mat with a decorative fringe. Add husks one at a time to the braid. incorporate the narrow end of each husk you add into the braid; let the wide end stay free to form the fringe. Husks are shown in color to aid in identification.
Splints From a Whole Log
------- 1. score parallel lines along trunk of log that has first been soaked for one month and then stripped of bark.
Splints From a Split Log
Weaving Splints to Form the Basket Body
------- 1. With smooth sides up weave a 20-in splint through three 22-in.-long splints.
2. Weaving on right and left sides alternately, add ten 20 in. splints.
Steps for making a hickory handle
Finishing the edge
A Square Basket Made From Ash Splints
To make a 10-inch by 12-inch yarn basket, you will need 1 inch-wide ash splints cut to the following lengths: 9 splints that are 22 inches long, 11 that are 20 inches long, and 7 that are 6 feet long. You will also need cane to reinforce the rim and two 1/4- to 1/2-inch-diameter hickory shoots for handles. Prepare the handles in advance by soaking the shoots overnight, then bend them into U-shapes. Finish the basket body, then fit the handles.
Before starting to weave, cut three 6-foot-long splints in half lengthwise. The halves will be used to create varied texture in the basket sides. Next, find the rough sides of the splints by bending them first one way, then the other.
Splinters will be raised on the rough side when you bend a splint with its rough side facing out. The rough side will form the basket interior. Finally, soak the splints for 20 minutes in room-temperature water.
Sources and resources
Allen, Laura G. Basket Weavers: Artisans of the Southwest. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Museum of Northern Arizona, 1993.
Hart, Carol, and Dan Hart. Natural Basketry. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1978.
Harvey, Virginia I . The Techniques of Basketry. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1986.
Hoppe, Flo. Wicker Basketry. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 1989.
Mason, Tufton O. American Indian Basketry. New York: Dover, 1988.
Pollock, Polly. Start a Craft: Basket Making. Edison, N.J.: Book Sales Inc., 1994.
Tod, Osma G. Earth Basketry. West Chester, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1986.
Tod, Osma G., and Oscar H. Benson. Weaving With Reeds and Fibers. New York: Dover, 1975.