Click on the Image Gallery for Step-by-Step diagrams.
The woods have been one of my favorite places for as long
as I can remember, and still I find the wonders of nature
fascinating and never ending. While others collect jewelry
artifacts and fancy glassware, I am always thrilled to
bring home a discarded bird's or hornet's nest or beautiful
vines with unusual twists and turns.
My second greatest passion is creating things with my
hands. Each time I lay my eyes on a pleasing object, I feel
compelled to make it into something—and something
better, of course. One lifetime is not nearly enough for me
to try everything with which I wish to experiment. For a
while, clay was my favorite medium because it provided a
legitimate excuse to play, get dirty, and basically make a
giant mess. Creating a handsome and presentable object was
icing on the cake.
But then I discovered basketry and got hooked after my
first creation. As with pottery, you get to play and make a
mess while beautiful objects emerge, but you don't have to
wait around for the final result—there's no firing in
the kiln, no breakage, and no uncertain glazing.
There was just one problem: the more involved in basketry I
became, the more dissatisfied I was with the materials that
I was purchasing. At first I had to rely on mail-order
supplies, which meant I couldn't judge the quality of
materials before making a purchase. So I was thrilled when
I discovered I could make beautiful baskets from the
treasures I found in the woods. Purchased wooden hoops
could not compare with the magically twisted vine handles I
unearthed in my explorations. My old love, a walk in the
woods, was now, happily, a necessity.
One of the easiest ways for beginners to get involved with
basketry is to try random weaving—a great, no-fail
project. All you need are a bundle of long and flexible
vines (I suggest honeysuckle), a pair of sturdy garden
clippers, and some twist ties. You can use fresh vines or
boil them first to remove the bark. Because you needn't
worry about materials shrinking—tight weaving is not
characteristic of this style—you can even gather and
weave at the same time. The weaving technique consists
simply of making a framework and filling in the spaces. For
me, it's a quick, fun, and relaxing project to do at the
Directions for a Random-Weave
With one long, continuous piece of vine, form two large
hoops at right angles to each other. The use of one vine
takes advantage of the natural connection holding the hoops
together (see Diagram 1).
2 . Reinforce these hoops with at least
two more loose-twisted vines around the original hoops.
Keep all vines flowing in the same direction as you twist
around the frame (see Diagram 2).
3 . Continue adding new vines, always
starting at the rim. Secure these vines by twisting several
times in the same direction as the other vines that form
the hoop. As you fill in the framework, imagine that there
is a watermelon resting in the basket, contained by the
weaving. This will help you maintain a sense of the
basket's shape (see Diagram 3).
4 . Form the basket bottom with a vine
beginning in the center of the horizontal hoop and moving
toward the bottom framework of the basket (the lower part
of the handle). Wrap around the bottom framework and
continue around the other side of the basket to the
opposite rim. At this point, and each time you come to the
rim, go completely around it—don't just loop over
it—to lock the weaver in place and to make the vine
lie smoothly along the top of the basket. It is important
to do this correctly or the wrapping will pop up and appear
loose and poorly woven (see Diagram 4).
5 . Continue weaving randomly from side to
side in different directions until the basket shape is
defined by at least four to six vines. Use twist ties to
temporarily hold vines in place where they cross one
another. Don't forget to wrap completely around the rim
each and every time you reach it (see Diagram 5).
As you weave remember the invisible watermelon in the
center—go around it, not through it. When you have
several vines, begin to weave under and over them with the
new ones. New weavers no longer need to go from rim to rim,
but in any direction required to define the space. Go over
vines that are protruding and under those that need pushing
out. The under—over weaving locks the vines in place
and firms up the shape. The diagram illustrates the fastest
way to secure the vines, but not the only way. Remove twist
ties when framework is secure.
Continue weaving until the basket is sturdy and filled to
your liking. A randomly woven basket can be open and airy
or filled in. Again, I want to emphasize that this is
no-fail, so enjoy yourself as you weave. I filled in every
single hole when I made my first basket. Succeeding ones,
however, became more open and free. I usually like to add
materials until the basket has a nestlike appearance.
Two Helpful Hints
Start and end all vines on the rim, so the ends can be
As the basket develops, the handle often appears too small
in proportion to the rest of the basket. If this happens,
simply bring another vine up over the handle and weave it
in with the others.
A Selection of Fine Vines
If experimenting with different vine baskets seems like
an activity you'd like to get more involved in —
and I warn you, it can be addicting —
you may wish to keep thisreference list
handy. It'll give you a brief description of several vines,
along with tips on both finding them and growing them.
Wisteria, honeysuckle, kudzu, grape, Virginia creeper, and
akebia are the vines I use most frequently in my basket
making, mainly because they're available to me in the
mid-Atlantic region; of course other parts of the country
also have interesting vines, just waiting to be tried.
Supplejack (Berchemia), which grows in the South,
is actually not too supple, but it makes a delightful,
contorted framework with a smooth gray-green bark.
Bittersweet (Celastrus) has similar
characteristics, but its bark is bumpy, gray, and speckled.
Be warned that neither supplejack nor bittersweet weave
particularly well. Kiwi (Actinidia) is a vine
reputed to be a terrific basket material. Finding what fits
your needs just takes some experimentation.
Wisteria. If I could have but one basketry
plant, it would have to be wisteria. I have yet to find a
technique that can't be done with some part of the wisteria
vine. The large upper growth—with its wonderful
twists and turns formed by its growth around trees and
other obstacles—is my favorite for framework. The
long ground runners, which are its means of propagation,
are the most flexible of the large weavers; half-inch
ground runners can be used with no splitting. Even the bark
of wisteria is a valued commodity, for although it is thin,
it is extremely strong and makes a wonderful wrapping
material. When I want to use the vine, however, I don't
strip the bark; a stripped wisteria vine is usually hairy
and weak. It's perfect as is, as nature intended it.
Wisteria is best harvested when it has escaped into the
wild, due to the fact that cultivated plants don't contort
as much when they grow. In the center of my neighbor's
front yard is a wisteria that is so carefully pruned I
wouldn't recognize it if it didn't bloom—no basketry
materials there. If a wisteria is growing on a manicured
lawn, its runners will most likely have been ruined by the
Honeysuckle. After wisteria, honeysuckle
is next on my preference list. It is usually found growing
in areas that have been cultivated and then neglected. It
also thrives along rows between fields and lanes, and in
hedges and bushes. You'll find honeysuckle along the edges
of woods, but it needs too much light to grow deep in the
woods. Because honeysuckle is known to choke less
aggressive plants, many people are more than willing to let
you harvest from their property. In fact, they will often
call you if they know you want it.
Most basket makers like to strip honeysuckle bark because
it spirals on the vine and tends to shed constantly unless
removed. Spring is therefore a good time to gather it, as
the rising sap makes bark removal easy. If you collect it
at other times, however, just boil it to remove the bark.
The resulting vine is smooth, hard, light in color, and
takes dye well.
Kudzu. In the 1930s kudzu was imported
from Japan for erosion control in the South. It is what I
call a beginner vine because it's so easy to use. Fast
growing and strong, kudzu is used in Japan as cattle feed,
medicine, food, drink, paper, and fabric. Unfortunately,
the extraordinary toughness of kudzu vines causes them to
clog the machinery of our mechanized society, and it is
thus considered more of a weed than a useful plant here in
the United States. It just keeps on growing—covering
trees, houses, and whatever else happens to be in its path.
The upper growth is similar in appearance to wisteria,
although not as woody or strong. It is fine for framework
on a decorative piece but is not as durable as you would
expect of a vine of its size. The bark—which is
practically rip-proof—varies in thickness with the
size of the vine; it can be used as weaves, for wrapping,
or even for cordage. My favorite parts, though, are the
ground runners, which j ust go on and on. If used whole,
they kink, but when split, they are wonderfully flexible.
There is none of the breakage or cracking that you get with
so many of the other vines.
Grapevine. The first vine everyone thinks
of in relation to baskets is usually grapevine. I love its
delightful tendrils, which I have just recently started
using for free-form miniatures. Grapevines can be wild or
cultivated and they tend to be straighter than other vines,
thus lending themselves to more traditional shapes. It is
most suitable for use as framework. With the exception of
muscadine vines, grapevine is not real flexible and makes
poor weavers, even in the smaller diameters. Although I
love the bark, I almost always boil and strip any grapevine
I use. Prone to insects, it is even more susceptible when
the bark is left on. The boiling kills any eggs within the
vine that could hatch later.
It should be noted that muscadine ( Vitisrotundifolia), which grows in warm climates only,
is usable in wickerwork, where there are no sharp bends.
Its aerial roots are small (,although quite decorative) and
beginners often find the tendrils frustrating to work with
because they catch on everything.
Virginia creeper. This
vine is common throughout much of the United States but is
not very strong. It appears to weave best when it's fairly
fresh because, once dry, it can never regain its full
flexibility. As with kudzu, the long ground runners are the
preferred weaves; the tiny tendrils add a lot.
Akebia. A Japanese import, akebia can be
used as harvested or with the bark stripped. Boiled,
stripped akebia can be dyed, but I prefer to use it
natural. A skinny version of kudzu, this vine is excellent
for weaving miniature baskets or for starting larger
baskets where small weavers work best.
Editor's Note: Doric Messick is a frequent workshop
leader at both national and regional basketry conventions.
This passage is adapted from Natural Basketry,
edited by Maryanne Gillooly.