Weave a pine needle basket by coiling needles from the forest floor to create a Native American art form. (See the pine needle basket photos and diagrams in the image gallery.)
Patience and pine needles are the main ingredients for this natural and versatile basket. Add handles and slices of black walnut for the center, and you have a basket made from Mother Earth’s bounty that will last for generations to come. Pine needle basketry, conceived by Native Americans in Pre-Columbian times, is now a viable part of our American cultural heritage. Employing ancient coiling techniques and long-leaf pine needles, this art form has remained virtually the same for thousands of years. Yet it has evolved into the 21st century, bringing with its connections to our past a contemporary need to preserve our natural resources and appreciate our planet’s gifts to mankind. What better way to keep tuned to Mother Nature, than to gather fragrant pine needles from her forest floor and weave a pine needle basket of such natural beauty, purity, and resilience.
The basket shown has 10 coils in the bottom and six coils in the side walls.
A Word About Pine Needles
All pine needles are not created equal! Needles from the long-leaf pine tree are almost always used in basket making. The average length of the long leaf needles is 6 inches to 15 inches. The short-leaf pines produce a needle that may be up to 6 inches long, but these needles are quite skinny. However, if this is what you have available in your “backyard,” you may use them; it will only take more time and patience.
Preparing the Needles
Place pine needles in an old baking pan, one long enough to accommodate the length of the needles. Cover with boiling water, and allow to soak for 30 minutes. Pour off water and wrap needles in a towel.
The next step is to remove the caps from the pine needles. Do this by pulling them off with your fingers, or scraping the shaft of each needle with the dull edge of your scissors or butter knife. Try to leave each needle intact, as a whole needle will fill the gauge faster.
Begin with three whole pine needles, tie on 1 1/2 yards of thread, just under the caps of needles. Use a double-overhand knot. (This is simply a “tie your shoe” knot, except you loop the thread on the right through twice). Trim off short thread and caps of pine needles as close to knot as possible.
Place pine-needle bundle on top edge of nut, always keeping loose needles to the left. At this point, you will be wrapping the thread around the pine needles and nuts, so you must keep the thread taut at all times. A clothes pin will help you hold the thread tight as you go around the nut. Once you’ve made the first row around the nut, you will be stitching the next row of needles to this first row so the thread will hold itself. Be patient, the first coil is the hardest part; it gets easier as you progress with your basket. (SEE DIAGRAM 1)
Check the holes in the nut slice with the sewing needle. If the holes are too small for the needle to pass through, and you don’t have a small drill bit to make the hole larger, simply move the pine-needle bundle over to the first large hole to begin. Insert the threaded sewing needle from the back of the work, coming out the front side of the work. Overlap both the pine-needle bundle and nut with thread. Continue to the next small hole and then to the larger chambers of the nut. Keeping your stitches 1/4 inch apart, place three or four stitches in each of the large holes in the nut. As you come back to the beginning, hide the knot by separating the bundle of needles and tucking the knot into the middle coil. Take one or two additional stitches, following the now established stitching pattern. Insert sewing needle, again from back to front, close to the previous stitch, at the top of underneath coil, catching a few of the pine needles in bottom coil. Rotate your work toward your body so you can see where you’re stitching. Go in on the right side of previous stitch (from the back) and come out on the left side of same stitch on the front of work. This will make a straight stitching pattern on the inside of the basket.
Adding a gauge here will help beginners keep the coils uniform. Keep the gauge full at all times, by inserting one pine needle at a time, in the middle of coil, usually every three stitches.
Mark the starting point with a piece of tape. This will act as a reference throughout the project. Continue around nut center with additional coils, following the stitching pattern and always adding extra pine needles to the gauge.
When your thread is about 4 inches long, you must add a new length to it. Tie on new thread using the double overhand knot. This knot may be positioned on the outer edge of coil, to be covered by the following coil, or pulled into previous coil when you take the next stitch.
Adding Extra Stitches
When your stitches seem too far a apart (more than 1/4 inch) add extra stitches between the existing ones.
Forming the Side Walls of the Pine Needle Basket
Once you have completed the bottom of your basket, you will continue as before with the first coil of the side wall. Note the starting point. Stitch approximately six more stitches past this point. Pull the coil up on top of the last bottom coil. Don’t try to do this gradually, just sit it on top of the last coil and continue to stitch as before. As you sew the next three rows of the sides, keep the coils sloping gently outward. On the third row, stop just as you come around to the starting point and add a length of tape across the center of the basket bottom and side walls. This will help position the nut handles evenly on both sides of the basket. Now, continue to stitch the coil to within approximately 1 inch of tape.
To keep the last stitch from pulling loose as you include the nut, you must tighten it down with a locking stitch. (SEE DIAGRAM 2) Insert the sewing needle from the front of the work to overlap the stitch in the coil. Next, run the needle from the back of work, through the coil, to exit at the front of your work beneath where the nut will be attached. (SEE DIAGRAM 3) Place the nut on top of the coil where indicated by tape and stitch through its small holes. (SEE DIAGRAM 4) This time insert sewing needle from front to back. Once nut is stitched down, run the needle back through the coil, to exit at the front, just to the left of the locking stitch. (SEE DIAGRAM 5)
To simulate stitches on the needles that rise to meet the nut, wrap the thread around the coil, every 1/4 inches, then wrap-stitch the coil to the upper edge of the nut. Wrap the other side of the bundle to match the first side and continue stitching the bundle to the coil beneath. After both nut handles are added to the basket, continue with two additional rows of pine needles.
Tapering Down To End the Coil
As you stitch the last row of the basket, note the marked starting point, and stop adding extra needles. When gauge becomes loose, remove it but continue to stitch. You need to taper the coil down to a single layer of pine needles. As you approach the stopping point and feel there are too many needles in the coil, use the point of your scissors to go into the middle of the coil and cut away a few at a time. A good stopping point is on the curve of the handle, this will be less noticeable than on the outer rim of basket.
Back Stitching Around the Last Coil
As you take the last stitch, leave the needle and thread attached. Now stitch backward, to the right, crossing the thread over the last stitch, forming an “X” on top of the coil. Insert needle into the same hole as the stitch below, going in from the back of the work and coming out the same hole as underneath stitch on front of the work.
To end off thread, run sewing needle through the coil a few inches, cut, and tuck ends back into coil. Fold back the single layer of pine needles in the last coil and trim off excess close to stitch.
Adding Footer (Optional)
This is a new coil added to the bottom of the basket that gives your basket a finished look. Start footer coil the same way you started the beginning coil, with three pine needles, tied together, and trimmed close to knot. Place the footer coil on top of the last outside coil on the bottom of basket. Use the overlapping stitch, keeping the same 1/4 inch stitching pattern. Insert sewing needle underneath the last coil of bottom. As you come around the beginning of this coil, tuck the knot and trimmed ends into the middle coil. At this point, cut needles from middle of coil as before, ending with a single layer of pine needles. Back stitch around footer coil.
The Finished Touch
Before you add any finish to your basket, look it over carefully. Cut off any loose ends of thread or needles, tuck any white ends of needles or knots into the middle of coil.
Applying a thin coat of shellac will brighten, protect, and harden your basket. If your first basket seems a little out of shape, prop it up with bricks or any heavy objects after shellacking; once the finish has dried the basket will hold this shape. Apply shellac with a small 2 inch paint brush. Cover entire basket with a thin coat and allow to dry. Shellac is a natural product so you can clean the brush with household ammonia. Clear or orange shellac may be purchased at your local paint or hardware store.
Care of Your Pine Needle Basket
After years of use, if your basket seems dull and dusty, use a small damp brush to dean between the coils. Allow to dry. You can brighten your basket by applying a fresh coat of shellac.
Whenever you see a pine needle basket, use a pine needle basket, or talk about a pine needle basket, remember its humble beginnings. Appreciate its strength and endurance, enjoy its natural beauty and purity, and take pride in becoming a part of its legacy to our cultural history and the future. Pass it on . . .
Some information and illustrations in this article also appear in Pine Needle Basketry, From Forest Floor to Finished Project (Lark Books, 1996), by Judy Mofield Mallow. You can order Pine Needle Basketry through MOTHER’S Bookshelf. Or send check or money order for $18.95 to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Des Moines, IA. Please use product number MEB246 when ordering.
Pine Needle Basket Materials and Tools List
Long-leaf pine needles (approximately 1/2 lb. or 600 needles)
Slices of black walnut, 1/4 inches thick
Heavy-duty thread (nylon basket upholstery thread–used in basket shown–or waxed linen, artificial sinew, or raffia may be used)
Gauge (a tool made from metal or plastic, used to hold the coil together while you are sewing. Also helps keep each coil uniform size. Made from a 3/4 inch section of 3/8 inch copper tubing, flared on one end. You may substitute a 3/4 inch piece of soda straw (the large kind used for milk shakes).
Sharp, pointed scissors
Spring-type clothes pin
Sewing needle (sharp point, large eye)
(The materials used for this project are available from supply sources listed at the end of this article.)
Judy M. Mallow
Allen’s Basket Works
Ozark Basketry Supply
The Caning Shop
The Country Seat, Inc.