When I was growing up in the USA, people used “basket-weaving” as slang for insultingly easy busywork, like the college courses given to ringers on the football team. The implication was that weaving a basket requires no intelligence and has no purpose – the ultimate time-waster.
Few people today have ever woven a basket --- even the insult sounds antique, a relic of an age when schools taught practical crafts. Fewer people still have any idea how vital basketry was to human survival for tens of thousands of years, or how many things can be made from basketry beyond decorative containers.
For example: Animal traps. Armour. Beehives. Boats.
Cages. Chairs. Chicken coops. Coffins. Fences.
Hand tools. Hats. Huts. Sheds.
Tables. Wagons. Walls. Weirs.
You get the idea. Basketry has been used to make all these things at one time or another, and a few aficionados still make many of these things out of woven wood here in rural Ireland.
Because wood decomposes, we don’t dig up basket bits as often as we do arrow heads or sculptures, but they were probably much more commonplace and vital to our ancestors. Archaeologists have found basket pieces as old as 13,000 years ago, and woven impressions on ceramics – indicating fibres or baskets – from as much as 29,000 years ago. (1) We also know that humans reached Australia at least 40,000 years ago, and must have either woven a basket-and-hide boat, as the Irish did into the 20th century, or made a raft with the related technology of knots. For all we know, the technique could be as old as hominids; certainly some apes use primitive tools, and I know of no reason that Australopithecines could not have woven baskets.
Thus we know that at least some of our forebears practiced the craft while they still lived alongside mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, and might have slept in basket-framed huts, and kept predators out with basket fences. Some might have caught eels in basket traps, which they might have gathered while paddling rivers in a basket-frame boat. They might have begun their lives rocked to sleep in basket cribs and returned to the earth in basket coffins.
“The technology of basketry was central to daily living in every aboriginal society,” wrote Neil Sugihara, and baskets “were the single most essential possession in every family.” Early humans must have regularly cropped basketry plants as they would edible plants, and burned woodlands to encourage their growth, according to anthropologist M. K. Anderson. Anderson even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops – baskets might have created civilisation. (2) (3)
Let’s clarify some terms: basketry involves weaving thin sticks or wood strips in some way; if it used only plant fibres, it would be “cloth.” Baskets can be woven with any one of hundreds of plant species; here in Ireland writers spoke of using dogwood, privet, larch, blackthorn and chestnut branches; broom, jasmine and periwinkle twigs; elm, and linden shoots; ivy, clematis, honeysuckle and rose vines; rushes and other reeds, and straw. Perhaps the most popular, however, was willow -- highly pliable when steamed, lightweight and tough when dried, and growing so quickly that a new crop of branches up to two to three metres long can be harvested each year.
Weavers here in rural Ireland traditionally cut their willow from massive century-old stumps that had never been mature trees, but kept growing each year, fed by their roots and new shoots. The shoots were trimmed each winter and left to dry for several months, then steamed to make pliable again – the wood shrinks as it dries, so simply weaving the green shoots would result in a loose and rickety basket.
Baskets come in several types, classified by the way they are woven, like coiled, plaited, twined or wicker. Modern Westerners are unlikely to have seen most of these, although once I knew what “twining” was I realised I had seen it in home-made floor mats. In twining – an old Native American technique -- are wound around a stick, twisted, and wrapped around the next one, until a row of fibres going in one direction wrap a row of sticks going the other. The sticks would seem to limit this approach to flat surfaces, but bending and shaping the sticks allows twining to create a variety of containers and shapes.
Coiled baskets wind flexible wood strips or fibres in a spiral, starting in the middle and working outwards. The spiral pattern limits them to circular objects like bowls or hats, but that still leaves many uses. For thousands of years beehives were made this way, called skeps – it was only in the 19th century that humans discovered how to make modern beehives with slats that can be removed, allowing beekeepers to collect honey without destroying the hive. Straw hats are still made this way, using bits of straw that are plaited – braided – together and then sewn into a spiral. Victorian children earned money this way, and contemporary writers described gangs of teens loitering on street-corners gossiping while folding straw together, as teens today might stand around texting.
Wood and other fibres could also be plaited, with flexible materials criss-crossed like threads through cloth. The Irish flattened and plaited bulrushes for hundreds of years into mats and curtains; rushes were harvested each year, flattened and interwoven, and set to dry. Here too, the approach would seem to limit plaiting to flat surfaces, but as the rushes must be woven while green and flexible and harden as they dry, they can be plaited around a mould to create boxes, bags or many other shapes.
Wicker, however, probably remains the most versatile technique, weaving flexible but sturdy material like tree shoots around upright sticks that provide support. Wicker is the form used for fences, walls, furniture, animal traps and most containers – when I say “basket,” you’re probably picturing something fashioned wicker-style.
All of these techniques could be practiced today, and while that’s true of many traditional crafts, most of those require substantial training, infrastructure, and an investment of money and time. Basketry, however, requires only a few days of training to learn basic techniques, and can use materials that be harvested naturally from almost every biome on Earth. It can be practiced around a modern working schedule, and can beautiful, durable and sustainable tools and furnishings for all areas of life.
(1) Archeologické rozhledy, 2007, Baskets in Western America 8600 BP: American Antiquity 60(2), 1995, pp. 309-318.
(2) Fire in California's ecosystems, By Neil G. Sugihara, p. 42
(3) Anderson, M.K. – The fire, pruning and coppice management of temperate ecosystems for basketry material by Californian Indian tribes. Human Ecology 27(I) 79-113. 1999.
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