Basketry is one of humankind’s oldest art forms – believed to be even older than pottery and cloth weaving. It’s also one of the few remaining crafts that’s primarily done by hand. While some contemporary basket styles are made by machines, a machine can’t replicate the dexterity and creativity of the human hand in gauging the suitability of materials, intertwining fibers, and shaping a woven basket.
Perhaps because of its long history, the process of basket weaving can feel familiar, even to a beginner. Although the initial setup requires some patience and concentration, after a few rounds of weaving, most people quickly get the hang of it.
The natural world – woods, meadows, and marshlands – is bursting with potential basketry material, including reeds, rushes, grasses, pine needles, willows, brambles, honeysuckle vines, bark, and even roots. In contrast with materials specifically grown for basket-making – such as white oak splints or cultivated willow shoots, which are predictable and uniform in shape – foraged, or “hedgerow,” basketry materials come in interesting, organic shapes that tell the story of the plant. Some vines intertwine together or twirl around branches; others ambitiously reach for the light. This is what sets wildcrafted baskets apart; they incorporate nature’s own story and creativity. The basket you weave from foraged materials will not only be useful and beautiful, it’ll also connect you with the landscape in a whole new way.
In this tutorial, I’ll walk you through the process of weaving a small, round basket from foraged vines and willow rods. A round shape is the easiest shape for beginners. Although you could simply make a bowl-shaped basket in which the bottom spokes curve upward to form the basket siding, with this tutorial, you’ll learn how to make a flat base and then add upright stakes to form the siding. If this is your first basket, the final piece may be a little wobbly or funky, but don’t worry, this project is meant to be rustic.
- Bodkin: A long tool with a tapered end that’s helpful for pushing material between weaving.
- Spokes: Short rods that form the foundation of the basket base.
- Uprights: Long rods that form the foundation of the basket sides.
- Slype: An angled cut.
- Slath: The center of the basket base, where the rods are secured by the first rows of weaving.
- Weavers: Vines or other material used to weave the basket.
- Trac border: The simplest type of basket border, worked with one stake at a time.
- Waling: An over-under weave that uses three weavers.
Tools and Materials
If you can’t get willow rods for the spokes and uprights, use the straightest vines you can find instead.
- Clippers or pruners
- Sharp knife
- Twine or string
- Clothespins or clamps
- Needle-nose pliers
- Bodkin or screwdriver
- 10-inch-long willow rods, pencil-width or thicker, for spokes (6)
- 2-foot-long willow rods, slightly thinner than a pencil, for uprights (23)
- Various vines, thinner than the uprights, for weaving
- A particularly attractive or interesting arc of thick vine, for the handle
Winter is the best time to harvest vines for basketry, because you’ll be able to see the vines more easily on trunks of trees and on the ground. Also, sap is down in winter, which is a good thing, as vines are less flexible when sap is running.
Remember to ask for permission if you want to harvest outside your own yard. Most homeowners are happy to let you to do some hedgerow pruning on their behalf.
Good vines for basketry include wisteria, kudzu, honeysuckle, bramble (with thorns removed), and grape. Look for vines that are long, strong, and pliable enough to wrap around your hand. If a vine makes a “U” shape when you gently bend it, keep it; if it cracks in a “V” shape, it’s too brittle.
Cut vines close to the ground and remove any leaves and branches. If you’re collecting kudzu, harvest runners close to the ground – the ones with bark, not the green and fuzzy ones. Honeysuckle can be brittle, but it’s a wonderful weaving material, with runners up to 20 feet long. It can be found growing in low, wet areas, such as along creeks or in marshes. Brambles often have attractive green shades and can be excellent for basketry, but you’ll need to remove the thorns with a sharp knife after harvesting.
When foraging willow rods, look for long, straight rods that aren’t overly brittle. Places where the plants have been cut back regularly, such as ditches along roadways, are usually good for finding straight rods.
Preparing Fibers for Weaving
Tie your foraged vines into loose coils, and then store the coils and your willow rods in a dark place until you’re ready to use them. With the exception of brambles and wisteria, which can be woven green, vines and rods need time to dry out and shrink a little before you start weaving.
Once you’re ready to weave, prepare the vines by placing them in boiling water for about 10 minutes. This will make them pliable and kill any mites and bugs. Dried and cured willow rods need to soak for at least 2 to 3 days prior to weaving. (A kiddie pool, trough, or wheelbarrow will work well for this.) After soaking, wrap the rods in a towel to “mellow” for a few hours.
Separate your prepared vines by size. Ideally, weaver vines should be thinner than a pencil. If you want a whimsical, organic look, likely with lots of gaps, you can make the spokes and uprights out of vines instead of willow rods. Vines are hardly ever completely straight, though, so for a relatively tight weave and a more balanced shape, use straight, pliable, young willow rods for the spokes and the upright stakes. If you’ll be using vines for this purpose, use the thickest ones you have.
If you want the basket to have a handle, set aside a particularly beautiful, interesting, or gnarly vine. Two vines that have grown intertwined can be especially beautiful. The handle vine must be long enough to complete the arc and go deep enough into the basket siding to get a good hold. For a working basket, you’ll need a thick handle with a relatively low arc for strength. For the basket pictured here, I chose a delicate vine with twirling shoots, and I set it in place with a higher, slightly exaggerated arc for decorative effect.
Weaving a Basket
When you’re ready to start weaving, gather your tools and materials on a flat work surface.
Step 1 Making and Tying the Slath
You’ll want your spokes to be slightly longer than the intended width of your basket base. In the basket pictured in this article, the spokes are 10 inches long.
Separate the spokes into two groups of three. Make a split in the center of three of the spokes. Make a slanting cut (called a “slype”) on one end of each of the remaining three spokes. Slide the slyped spokes through the split spokes (Photo 1A). This will create the center of the basket’s base, or the “slath.”
Next, select two of your thinnest weavers and insert their tips through the split spokes of the slath. Thin, creeping plants, such as ivy or periwinkle, are a good choice for this step. With an over-under pattern (one weaver goes under a set of three spokes while the other goes over the same set), weave these vines around the slath in a clockwise direction, making two rounds (Photo 1B).
After two rounds, open out the slath spokes. To do so, gradually start easing the spokes apart as you continue to weave around the slath, going over and under one spoke at a time instead of three. Try to make the spokes equidistant. This is often the most challenging part. Go slow.
When you reach the end of the first pair of weavers, add two new weavers, securing the ends of both the old and the new weavers by tucking them in to the weave.
Continue weaving until the base reaches your desired size, adding new weavers as needed (Photo 1C). Use pruners to trim off the ends of the weavers, and then tuck the ends into the weaving. Trim the ends of the base spokes so they stick out about 1 inch past the weave.
Step 2 Staking Up
Next, you’ll add the uprights. The upright rods should be as even and straight as possible. Make sure they’re thinner than the base spokes but thicker than the weaver vines. For this basket, the uprights are about 2 feet long.
Slype each upright on one end. Slide the slyped end of the uprights into the base so there’s one upright on each side of the 12 spokes (Photo 2A). Because there’s an uneven number of uprights, one of the spokes will have only one upright next to it. This is necessary for weaving an over-under pattern (Photo 2B).
Kink the uprights by gently pressing a sharp knife across each rod, as close to the rim of the base as possible, and gently bending the rods 90 degrees upward. Gather all the kinked rods with a string, and then tie them together at the top (Photo 2C). Now, you can start working on the siding.
Step 3 Waling
You’ll secure the siding with a weave called “waling,” which is an extremely strong weave. Select three medium-weight vines and slype them on one end. Insert the slyped end of one vine into the base directly left of an upright, so it’s between the upright and the spoke. Move to the next upright to the right and repeat with the second vine. Move again to the upright directly to the right and repeat with the third vine, placing each of the three vines directly between an upright and a spoke.
These vines will be your weavers.
Pass the leftmost weaver in front of the two uprights directly to the right, then behind the next upright, and then to the front again. Then, take the second weaver, which is now leftmost, and complete the same pattern. Repeat with the third weaver (Photo 3). Begin again with the first weaver and continue this pattern, working to the right until you’ve gone around the basket twice. Tuck in the weaver ends.
Step 4 Siding
Continue building the basket upward with the simple over-under pattern (Photo 4). Weave the vines in and out of the uprights, one weaver at a time. Add more weavers as needed, tucking in and clipping the ends as you go. If you find yourself needing a third hand, use clothespins or clamps to hold weavers while you work. (These tools are also helpful for keeping things in place if you need to step away from your basket for a while.) If gaps form because the vines are oddly shaped, use a short weaver to fill in a gap. If the weave is particularly tight, use needle-nose pliers to gently pull a weaver through.
The basket siding is the place where you can play with different textures and colors in the vines, creating contrasts or interesting effects. For example, you can incorporate pussy willows or grasses with seed heads.
Step 5 Border
Once you’ve woven the basket to your desired height, untie the uprights and gently kink them down (Photo 5A). Finish the basket with a simple trac border. To do so, select one of the uprights and bend it down to the right. Pass it behind the upright on its right, then in front of the next upright, and then angle it down into the inside of the basket so it’s out of the way. Do the same thing with the next upright, and then continue in the same way around the basket, always moving to the right (Photo 5B). When you reach the last upright, tuck it in underneath the kink of the first upright. Trim each upright using the pruners.
Step 6 Handle
Gently curve the handle vine into shape. If necessary, tie it with string to hold it in a “U” and leave it to dry.
Slype both ends of the handle. Insert one end into one side of the basket between two uprights, as far as it’ll go. (A bodkin or screwdriver can help slide it into place.) Repeat with the other end on the opposite side of the basket (Photo 6). Drill a small hole through each side of the handle, in between woven rows, and then slide a small peg whittled out of a thin stick or willow rod into the hole. This will secure the handle.
Your wildcrafted basket is now complete! It’ll make an excellent vessel for bringing in eggs, collecting berries, gathering natural treasures, holding knitting supplies, or any of the countless other uses you can dream up.
Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart is a regenerative designer, writer, and urban homesteader living in Asheville, North Carolina. She writes about gardening, foraging, and traditional skills at www.MakeGatherGrow.com and on Instagram.