Baskets have been part of households for thousands of years. When they came into use is difficult to know. Pottery, intact or in shards, can be dated by archeologists. Baskets, made of natural fibers, decayed long ago. A basket is made by intertwining material in a specific pattern. A deceptively simple design that holds itself together by the weave. The idea may have come from birds. The nest is a circle of grasses and mud woven together by a beak with instincts as a guide. The placement is so wise, it takes the strongest winds to knock them out of trees. Nests seem delicate yet are strong, as are baskets. There are many styles, techniques and materials for weaving. The uses are limitless from holding eggs to people in a hot air balloon as it floats up into the sky. Basket makers, also called weavers, carry forward a handcraft that connects us through the centuries from our humblest beginnings into modern times. The craft is alive and well in safe hands.
Sandy Salada, a basket maker in Latham NY, said baskets were made first by Native Americans. “They were made out of reeds and sewn together. The materials used in the south include sweet grass, palm leaves, and long pine needles. The coiling method is the oldest style. Some are so tightly sewn they can hold liquid without any seepage through the weave. They were made simply because of needing something to hold things.” The tradition is more popular in the American South. Salada is one of few teachers advertising workshops in the Northeast for the next generation of basket makers. Salada, a graduate of Mercyhurst University with a major in Art Education, started weaving twenty years ago. She teaches at her home studio, and a variety of locations around Albany. “Once you make a basket, you can understand what goes into it, especially the quality of the material and design. All are hand made no matter where they come from. Anyone from 10 to 70 years old can be taught. Some can make baskets, but few can teach. A good teacher has to have a passion for the craft, it’s not a job, its passing on a tradition.”
Claire Williams, a costumed staff member at Old Sturbridge Village Living History Museum (OSV), learned the craft from a friend 35 years ago. OSV is a complete preserved working town from farm field to Parsons House in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The village depicts life as it was in the 1830s. Williams “always has one going.” The basket is an intricate puzzle made from oak and ash tree splints, cattail leaves, reeds, or grasses. This material is known as the weaver. The dimensions and design are measured before a basket is started. The base is the most complex part as it must join the spokes around which the weaver is laced. The spokes are the skeleton of the basket. The handle is made from different woods and carved or steamed into its shape. The handle slides into the weaver and is notched into the rim. The rim is lashed on with twine. The finished piece has a stable base, is sturdy, balanced, lightweight and can last for years. Where the weave starts and new material is added as it is being constructed is hard to distinguish. It appears as one seamless piece. Depending on the complexity of the design, it may take from two to ten hours to complete.
Williams said that in the early days of settlement in Massachusetts, Native American women sold and repaired baskets in the towns. The most popular material is black ash. Willow, ash or reed come from a variety of places and countries. A few traditional crafters know how to harvest the tree and create the weavers. The felled ash tree is soaked in a pond for three months, taken out, debarked, and pounded with a mallet. The softened wood comes apart at the growth rings. These strips of wood are the weavers. The process can take five months to complete.
Williams said that, “I always thought it was a beautiful craft, an art, but something useful all the same. They are not just for décor. It’s an art form that should not be forgotten or lost.” Williams makes her own dye out of black walnut using a dilution of water to get just the right patina on the basket. Her most favorite one is the “cradle made for my first grandson Jacob. His name was etched into the wicker along with his brother Caleb’s a few years later.” She has a vibrant air. Her hands are surprisingly soft matching her expression of contentment with life as it is. “Weaving is very satisfying, relaxing. I enjoy knowing that what is done is a natural, useful product.”
Williams is happiest when able to be close to nature. Originally, from Putnam Connecticut, she married a dairy farmer from nearby Pomfret and worked at a sawmill in the business office. She raised one daughter and in retirement, volunteers in the rural environment of the living history museum. She does not consider basket making a chore but a way of life. “It’s a fulfilling past time. There is nothing better than to be weaving a basket on a stormy day. Puts me in a mood, so relaxing to watch the snow fly.”
Sources and Links
Sandy Salada – Sandy’s Fiber Arts
Sue Morello – Sheldon Farm Baskets