The basket is one of humankind's oldest art forms, and it is certainly an ethnic and cultural icon filled with myth and motif, religion and symbolism, and decoration as well as usefulness. Basketry, in fact, encompasses a wide range of objects from nearly rigid, box-like carriers to mesh sacks. Baskets range in size from "burden baskets" that are as much as 3 ft (91.44 cm)in diameter to tiny collectibles 0.25 in (0.64 cm) in diameter.
Some baskets are manufactured by machines, however part of the tradition is that baskets are defined as receptacles that are woven by hand of vegetable fibers. Although baskets may have distinct bottoms and tops, they are essentially continuous surfaces. They are woven in that their fibers are twisted together, but, unlike the weaving of textiles, tension is not placed on length-wise threads (the warp) because the fibers are less flexible than threads.
Baskets are part of the heritage of nearly every native people, and types of construction differ as radically as other customs and crafts. Uses for baskets may be the most uniting feature. Dry food is gathered, stored, and served in baskets; liquids are also retained in baskets that have been waterproofed. Basket-making techniques are used for clothing, hats, and mats. Openwork baskets are made to function as filters (for tea in Japan) and as sieves and strainers. Their variety and clever construction also makes baskets desirable as decorations in primitive cultures as well as modern homes.
Baskets are the children of the gods and the basis of our earth, according to the ancient Mesopotamians. They believe that the world began when a wicker raft was placed on the oceans and soil was spread on the raft to make the land masses. Ancient Egyptian bakers used baskets to hold baked loaves of bread. The single, most famous basket may well have been the basket made of bulrushes and mud in which the baby Moses was floated to safety. All ancient civilizations produced baskets; the Romans cultivated willow for their baskets, and the Japanese and Chinese also counted basketry among their many handicrafts with ancient origins.
The craft of basketry gave rise to pottery making because baskets were used as molds for some of the earliest pots. Consequently, the history of pottery and basketry, as unearthed and decoded by archaeologists, is irrevocably interwoven. Where the vegetable fibers have not survived, many pots that show the patterns of the baskets used to mold them have been found.
The Native Americans may well have left the greatest legacy to the world of baskets. The Indians of Arizona and New Mexico made basket-molded pottery from 5000 to 1000 B.C. as part of the earliest basket heritage. Their baskets (many of which have survived in gravesites) are heralded as a pure art form and one that was created not only by a primitive people but also by women. Basketry extended into the making of many other materials the Indians used daily including fishing nets, animal and fish snares, cooking utensils that were so finely woven that they were waterproof, ceremonial costumes and baskets, and even plaques. In the Northwest, the Tlingit and Chilkat made twined baskets from the most delicate of fibers. In the Southwest, the Hopi, Apache, and other Pueblo tribes made coiled baskets with bold decorations and geometric patterns of both dyed and natural fibers.
In the late 1800s, the basketry of Native Americans became popular as decorative objects with the disadvantage that there were fewer Indian craftspeople remaining to meet the demand. In 1898, after the Spanish American War, the Philippines, which also had a strong basket-making tradition, were governed by the United States. Rural dwellers grew their own basket-making materials and manufactured baskets for sale in the cities. The mutual need for baskets in the United States and the strengthening of the economy of the Philippines caused schools with classes in basket weaving to be established. The only books on the subject were about the baskets made by Native Americans, so the schools taught traditional Indian basketry to the Filipinos. Eventually, native Filipino weavers became the teachers as well, and both broad ranges of styles found a new homeland for manufacture and a ready market in the United States. The Philippine Islands remain a major basket-making center today. Basket weaving has never been found suitable to mechanization, but standardization of hand methods and concentrated production centers and facilities produce uniform, high-quality products.
Raw materials include a wide range of plant fibers including roots, cane, twigs, and grasses; reeds, raffia, and basket willows may be the best known. Concentrated cloth dyes are also used in some types of manufacture, and vegetable dyes are sometimes made by hobbyists to reproduce unique colorations imitating historic baskets. Wood is also used for some designs, particularly when the type of basket needs a solid bottom and for some types of handles. Other than raw materials, the basket maker needs tools like saws, awls, planes, knives, and beaters for hammering or bending pieces of willow. A tub is required for soaking fibers. If coiled baskets are to be made, sewing tools like blunt tapestry needles and thread are required. The manufacturer also needs patterns or designs. For the hobbyist, many of these items can be purchased in basket-making kits.
Historically, most Native American baskets have been made with willow (which is, in fact, the most popular basket-making material worldwide), twigs, and native grasses. Raffia and rattan have been substituted for these, with raffia taking the place of the grasses and rattan substituting for the more rigid fibers. Raffia is the fiber of the raffia palm, which is native to Southeast Asia. It produces durable, clean strands and can easily be dyed. Rattan is also a tropical palm; its leaves and stems are used in basket making, and it is often called reed or wicker. Rattan does not accept dye as well, and its fibers are hard to work. Usually, it is soaked and woven while the fibers are still damp.
Every basket has a character that is largely determined by the kind of fiber used to make it. Design, therefore, may depend on the available fibers, or, conversely, to produce a particular design, appropriate fibers need to be purchased or found. Fibers are round, flexible, or flat. Round rods are usually woven among other round rods. Similarly, flat strips can be woven together or twisted around stiff rods. Grasses, crushed stems, or other flexible fibers are wrapped around each other to form a coil then the coil is stitched to itself in a rising spiral to form the basket sides. The designer, therefore, has determined what fibers are available and plans the basket accordingly.
Designs can be based on existing baskets, photos of historic types, a particular purpose or use for the basket, or a size and shape required for practical uses or desired for decorative ones. Another aspect of design is any pattern or coloration that may be worked into the shape of the basket. Again, materials, their natural colors, and their susceptibility to dyeing need to be considered.
Many baskets are made in very standard shapes and sizes, some unique to various
- The process begins by choosing a design or standard pattern including shape and size. Materials are also gathered or purchased, and the necessary tools for working those materials are assembled. If the fibers are such that they need to be soaked, then soaking is done in advance of basket making, depending on the nature of the fiber. Fibers are also dyed in advance of weaving or coiling.
- If the design calls for a wood base, the base is shaped, and holes are bored in the wood to accommodate the spokes forming the sides of the basket.
- A basket is built from the ground up. Its base or bottom is made first. For a round basket with a flat bottom (as an example of any of hundreds of types of baskets that may be manufactured), the base is made by laying out a series of spokes that are stiff and work like rods to support more flexible woven material. Other rods called weavers are woven in and out among the spokes; the weavers are lighter, thinner, and more flexible, so that they can be woven and so they won't be strong enough to distort the spokes.
- The sides of this kind of basket can be formed in either of two ways. Initially, the spokes for the base can be cut to be long enough to form the sides as well. When the base is finished, the spokes are soaked to soften them, squeezed with pliers at the perimeter of the base, and then bent up to form the sides.
- The sides are also formed by cutting side spokes and weaving them down through the base perimeter fibers and then up again so they form side spokes. Side spokes are essential if the base spokes are large. The sides are then woven with flexible weavers that are passed over and under the side spokes. Again, these weavers need to be smaller than the material forming the spokes so the spokes are not distorted. The side spokes are longer than the finished basket is tall; the remaining ends of the spokes are used to finish the top edge of the basket with a border. The spoke ends need to be soaked before the border can be made so the spokes can more easily be woven in and out of each other and the ends turned down into the basket sides.
- The handle of the basket is chosen of the best available reed to be strong, durable, attractive, and relatively smooth to the touch so it can be held. The ends of the handle reeds are soaked in water and threaded down into the sides of the basket. The over-lap has to be long enough to prevent the handle from pulling out of the sides when the basket is filled and used.
- If the basket has a lid, the lid is made in the same manner as the base, but the rods and weavers should be of the same sizes as those in the sides of the basket to match the appearance of the basket.
The individual basket weaver may set the standards for making a particular basket. In some cases, basket styles are somewhat rough or primitive and may allow for quality variations; for other styles, a high level of detail or conformity is required, and irregularities in materials or workmanship will be readily apparent. Where baskets are mass-produced, the quality is protected by working from a standard pattern or design, selecting uniform materials, and cutting or preparing the materials in quantities and to a quality standard. A supervisor may over-see a number of basket weavers and reject imperfect baskets; however, as in the case of most handicrafts, basket weavers take pride in their profession and demonstrate their skills in each product. Even mass-produced baskets are prized for their uniqueness, so some variations are to be expected and treasured.
Byproducts do not usually result from basket manufacture, although a basket maker may produce several different styles to make economical use of materials. Fibers are often imperfect, and there are many trimmings that comprise the waste from basket weaving. Some fibers can be finely ground and composted.
As packing and transporting devices, baskets have been replaced with cardboard cartons, synthetics, woods like plywood, and lightweight metal alloys. Despite the extreme decline in practical uses, the appreciation of handcrafted items has continued to grow. Baskets are widely used as decorations in the home. Baskets are also treasured as collectibles with areas of specialization including historic baskets, baskets of various forms, or the baskets of a particular culture. Among those that are particularly collectible are the baskets made by the Shakers, a religious community that immigrated to the United States and made baskets until about 1925. Shaker sewing baskets and baskets made of split ash and shaped to carry pies and cakes are highly prized.
Overall, the demand for baskets seems to remain constant. Companies that produce baskets find their products are in demand, but there is a shortage of worker trainees. Individual basket makers can take a wide variety of classes to learn designs and methods of meeting the specialized demand for traditional, detailed baskets. Collectors and decorators should not, however, view baskets as inexpensive. Cultivation of basket willows and other plants used for basket-making is considerably more limited as the availability of agricultural land diminishes, and skilled weavers all over the world have recognized the value of their labor and their products.
Where to Learn More
Couch, Osma Palmer. Basket Pioneering. New York: Orange Judd Publishing Company, Inc.,1940.
Rossbach, Ed. The New Basketry. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976.
Wright, Dorothy. The Complete Guide to Basket Weaving. New York: Drake Publishers Inc., 1972.
Clarson Enterprise, Inc. http://www.philexport.org/clarson/clarson.htm .
In a Hand Basket. http://www.inahandbasket.coml .
Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum. http://www.tahoecountry.com/nlths/baskets.htm .
The Weaving Network. http://www.weavenet.com .
— Gillian S. Holmes