How do you define a basket?

Over the last several months I’ve been thinking about how weavers are interested in creating so many kinds of baskets. The variety of techniques and materials is exceptionally broad.

In June, the Guild exhibited at A Day in the Life of Colonial White Plains. Lots of folks came to the table with questions about how baskets were made then and now. The exhibit table featured baskets similar to the ones that would have been used at that time, though made with modern materials. All of the baskets were functional with minimal decorations, and the visitors helped to imagine how they would have been used in a colonial household.

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In July I visited The Blue Door Gallery’s exhibit, “Putting It All Together” in Yonkers. Mary Parker had three baskets on exhibit. These were all random weave creations, designed to be purely visual and textural art.  And they achieved their purpose, creatively stretching the definition of a basket.

And then as part of a tour at HGA Convergence in Milwaukee in August, I visited the studio of Laura Weber in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. It was a petite and organized studio, tucked into one corner of the Woolen Mill Building in the back of the Pink Llama Gallery. Laura’s work represented a cross between Mary’s work and traditional functional basketry. Laura takes traditional weaving and shapes, including catheads, and “incorporates various upcycled and recycled materials such as reclaimed copper, driftwood, inner tubes and horse tack. These materials are either incorporated into the weaving or used as surface design elements.” (artdose, Art Guide 2016, Volume XV, p.4.)

So how do you define a basket? Any way you wish!

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Basket Making in Botswana

A friend of mine spent several weeks in Botswana last summer and brought me a wonderful basket made by weaver Tupwemo Mafuta.   She also brought me a book called Botswana Baskets: A Living Art with brief biographies about many of the weavers as well as general information about weaving in Botswana.

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Basket weaving is the most famous craft of Botswana, and provides income for people in rural communities, particularly in the northern part of the country. Baskets were originally used for sorting and processing grains and carrying food and possessions.   Basket making began to disappear as metal containers became available.

When refugees fled the war in Angola in the 1960’s, refugee resettlement officers encouraged local weavers to make baskets to be marketed in America and Europe. Eventually several cooperatives were formed.

The baskets are coiled, and made from mokola, a palm tree. The women collect their own mokola and often have to walk several hours to collect the raw materials. The palm strips are coiled around a core made of grass, vine or palm fiber. Each weaver is known for a specific pattern or traditional design. A bowl may take four weeks to weave; a large lidded basket may take a year.

The weaver of my basket was born in Angola and was married at thirteen. She never attended school. She learned to weave from her mother and she weaves daily.

To view more baskets go to www.botswanacraft.bw. There is a wonderful gallery of photos of basket patterns.

Teachers Who Inspire Me

As some of you may know I work fulltime as a school administrator. I recently attended a training program for the high school students who serve as mentors to my middle school students, and I listened carefully when the trainer asked the mentors to identify the qualities of a good teacher. The list was terrific. The session got me to start thinking about the basket makers who have taught me over my eighteen years of weaving so far, and who has been particularly special to me.

Several folks came to mind. I don’t know about you, but completing a step-up on a round basket was a challenge for me for many years. I read about it, I looked at diagrams, I watched other weavers at classes, but I still didn’t have it. Then along came Kate Conroy. Her clear explanation taught me to begin the process two spokes before the actual step-up, and once she had explained it, I had it forever. Thank you, Kate!

I had a similar experience this summer. Mary Jo Rushlow taught a basket with her own personal technique for hexagonal weaving, and again despite reading written directions, looking at drawings, and trying hard to master hex weave with other teacher, it was Mary’s way of explaining what to do that made it possible for me to be successful. I came home and a few days later very easily made a second basket using her technique! Thank you Mary Jo!

While I value what I have learned from Kate and Mary Jo because of the specific skills they taught me, other teachers have been inspiring to me for different reasons. Original designs, clearly written patterns, and realistic organization of class time allowing me to finish a basket within the designated class time were invaluable. Thank you, especially to Joann Kelly Catsos, Wendy Jensen and Joyce Flower for each inspiring me by their professional approach to instruction.

And one additional basket maker teacher has been precious in my progress as a weaver. This person, besides being an excellent teacher, is perhaps the best cheerleader for basketry that I have yet to meet. Her ability to encourage, inspire and champion the craft and its makers is so special. Thank you, Judy Flanders, for the many basket makers you have grown and cheered along the way.

So as the school year begins anew for me, I’m giving a big shout-out to basket teachers everywhere. They have preserved and promoted the craft of basket weaving for the next generation. Remember to thank your basket weaving teachers along the way, and support our guild and others because of the opportunities that they provide for teachers to teach, and eager weavers to learn!

Why Should You Join a Guild?

When I moved to New York sixteen years ago, one of the first things I researched was where might I take local basketry classes. I joined the Westchester Basketmakers Guild that fall, and made some of my first non work-related friends who were members of the Guild. I have eventually joined three more guilds: Northeast Basketmakers Guild, Long Island Basketmakers Guild and the North Caroline Basketmakers Guild. I also maintain a membership in the National Basketry Organization. While I really only volunteer significantly in the Westchester guild, each group offers something different.

I think I view a guild as a repository of knowledge and information.   In each case I experience people who are willing to teach me tips and tricks that I can’t learn simply from browsing books, the Internet, or experimenting on my own. I am never the best weaver in any guild by miles, and I love seeing the work of others. I love asking questions about how to do something – I’ve finally mastered a step-up and I am hoping soon to begin to understand hex weave by watching someone else do it his/her way. And most of all, I am inspired by the amazing variety of basketry designs created by the Guild members!

Basketry guilds will only remain viable if you and I continue to join and hopefully volunteer even just a little bit. Think of it as doing your part to keep the communal knowledge alive!

Which, speaking of guilds, have you joined or renewed your membership in the Westchester Basketmakers Guild? It’s that time of year!

Weaving with Fishing Line

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In a recent entry I talked about how much I enjoyed weaving with sweet grass at the North Carolina Basketmakers Guild annual convention. I loved the feel of the grass and the beauty of the colors and my basket is easily one of my most favorite creations.

One of the things that happens when a weaver branches out and tries new materials is that he or she learns more weaving tricks or views the weaving experience differently. The tricks may be about tension, or placement of weavers, or the history of a particular kind of weaving style. There is always something new to learn, and it always adds to our depth of knowledge with respect to the materials we love best.

I’ve never woven with fishing line, so I’ve already signed up for the Candy Stripe bowl being taught by guild member Joann Fairbanks on May 9th. I am looking forward to working with fishing line over a mold, and when I’ve seen Joann’s other creations with fishing line, they have a transparency and a glow as well as a precision and neatness that I do not achieve with regular reed. And there will be no hairs to trim!  I know I will learn something new!

The registration deadline is April 25th so please sign up soon!

https://westchesterareabasketmakersguild.wordpress.com/upcoming-workshops/

Ramapo Mountain Basketry

Three years ago the Friends of Fort Montgomery approached our guild to ask if anyone could teach a few classes of basketry in the style of the Ramapo Mountain weavers. The group was hoping to learn enough basketry to do demos during their reenactment events. So Mary Parker and I began researching, and both of us found no references or articles on the Internet. I ended up designing and teaching two baskets in the style of colonial basketry – a field basket and a wall basket.

Mary kept researching. She learned about Blind Charlie’s, a restaurant in Pound Ridge, named for Charlie Scofield, who was a basket maker in the area. She visited the Pound Ridge Historical Society and learned all about Basket Town. Shhe developed a relationship with the Historical Society and we now have a biennial exhibit and sale. I discovered that I knew an owner of a former basket maker’s house and shop in Pound Ridge, and Mary and I got to visit the home.

But back to the Ramapo Mountain basketry story. I was invited to teach at Fort Montgomery again this winter, and this time we completed a market basket.   Peter Cutel, Park Ranger, shared an article with me on the Ramapo Mountain basket weavers.   The weavers lived in the Ramapo Mountains and wove their baskets out of maple. The texture of the splints was similar to brown ash. They also used red oak, white oak or elm for the sturdier baskets. A round rim lashed onto the bottom of the baskets was an identifying characteristic. The weavers also carved lots of other items from wood such as ax handles, wooden spoons and brooms. The last of the known weavers passed away in the 1960’s.

For more information on Ramapo Mountain basket makers and Basket Town, see the new page on this website called History of Basket Making in the Westchester County area.

Hello basket weavers – beginners and experienced alike!

Weaving with Sweetgrass

I recently returned from the North Carolina Basketmakers Association annual conference in Durham, NC. On Saturday, I signed up to make a basket out of a material I had never used before – sweetgrass. My teacher was Barbara McCormick, who learned from her grandmother and grand aunt how to coil with sweetgrass. She harvests her own materials, collecting the grass from May through October and cutting the individual palmetto strips by hand. Barbara makes a specially shaped tool from the handle of a spoon that enables a weaver to more easily slip the palmetto strip between the grasses when coiling.

Enslaved African people brought coiled sweetgrass basketry to America in the 1600’s. The baskets were used during the planting and harvesting of rice, cotton and tobacco. Today tourists can watch weavers work in roadside stands near Charlestown, South Carolina.

My basket was coiled without a pattern using sweetgrass, long leaf pine needles and palmetto strips to complete the coiling. Barbara started the bases for us and we completed the base, sides and swirled handles. I was able to finish my basket in about six hours and I love it! I love the play of colors between the sweetgrass and the pine needles as well as the decorative handle.

Sweetgrass Basket