For our fifth wedding anniversary, my mother gave my husband and me a small round basket made by the Wounaan Indians in Panama. “It’s your wood anniversary,” she explained. “This is made of black palm.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, lifting it from the box. Sure it was pretty, and I was mesmerized by the tight stair-step geometry of the brown and cream weave, but it looked too nice to be functional.
That night, I put the empty basket on the mantle beside our family pictures, shaking my head at my mom’s thoughtful but impractical gift. In the months that have followed, I have taken the basket down many times to hold it. I enjoy cupping its curved sides into my palms and fingering the intricately woven fibers. It took one woman one year to make this vessel, says the card that came with it. Each time I hold the basket, I think of that woman, I think of my mother, and I think of our fifth anniversary–guess that basket does hold a lot.
The fall and rise of the basket
Baskets used to be an integral part of homes all around the world. “They were used extensively in the kitchen and garden,” says Robin Taylor Daugherty, a nationally acclaimed basket weaver, instructor, and author of Splint Woven Basketry (Sterling Publications, 1999). “But baskets have been replaced by cardboard, wood, metal, paper, and plastic. The shopping bag used to be a shopping basket. The egg carton used to be an egg basket. The wastebasket is one kind of basket that has remained.” That is, at least in concept.
Though synthetic and disposable products have replaced many of the basket’s traditional uses, the natural basket still has a place in the modern home. “There is something of nature in these things,” says interior designer Marilyn Mastor of Mastor Design in Bellingham, Washington. “The more urbanized we become, the more we crave other ways to connect to the natural world.”
“So many of the materials we now use, such as laminate, are close to perfect,” she says. “Now we think of imperfections as almost healing–reminders that we can’t expect things to be perfect in an imperfect world. Natural fiber baskets lend a softening to the perfection.”
As Daugherty explains, natural baskets can’t be perfect. “You cannot machine-produce a basket,” she says. “It must be assembled by hand. If you buy a basket, someone made it.”
Where to get them
Baskets to sell or buy
Search under “baskets” for products made around the world–including fine collector’s items.
Many basket weavers are listed on this site.
This site for one of America’s largest producers also features ideas for using baskets to decorate, entertain, and organize
The site for the newly formed National Basket Organization, suited to basket makers and collectors
Born of function
Only in recent years have baskets been used for solely decorative purposes. “Traditional baskets always had a functional use,” says Eileen LaPorte, president of the 1,600-member Association of Michigan Basket Makers. “They were used to gather things from the woods or the fields and transport them. And baskets didn’t need to last for years–sometimes they just had to last the day.”
The function of a basket dictated its form–which is why baskets come in all shapes, sizes, and depths. “For instance, the traditional English flower-gathering basket is designed like a large paper plate with the opposing edges brought up toward each other,” Daugherty says. “That way you can lay the flowers flat.” An Amish apple-picking basket, woven in the German tradition, has two handles about three inches apart so that the picker can attach it to the waist with a belt or piece of rope. A berry-picking basket must be small. “If it’s too big, the berries will smash–which is fine, I suppose, if you’re making jam,” Daugherty says.
Weaving around the world
Almost every culture in the world has produced baskets of some kind using materials on hand. “In southern climes, they would take huge leaves, wrap them into a cone shape, stick the stem through the base to hold it together, and voilà, you had a basket,” Daugherty says.
In Europe, traditional baskets were made mostly with willow. Because it takes strong arms and hands to work with these branches, basket making was done predominantly by men. They formed guilds, each of which grew its own willows and created its own designs–and the competition between guilds was fierce.
In Asia, many baskets are made of rattan palm and in Japan, the gnarled Ikebana baskets are made of bamboo. Traditional African baskets are often made of grasses with leather handles, and Zulu tribeswomen weave baskets out of the kala palm, which swells when wet so that it can carry water (or beer–a popular Zulu libation).
Made in the USA
In the United States, baskets tend to be identified by region. “These days, many basket makers use commercial reed that grows in the Far East, and we buy it by the pound,” says LaPorte. “But traditionally, the Northwest is noted for cedar, the Northeast is noted for ash, in the South they use more oak, and in the West they use pine needles.” The Southwest is noted for using brush and yucca. The only part of the country without a native basket tradition is the Great Plains, where the indigenous peoples used parfleches–basically suitcases made from untanned hide.
There are certain regional styles as well. For instance, many Scottish immigrants settled in Appalachia. Though accustomed to weaving with willow in their homeland, they learned from the Native Americans to use black ash and oak, and gave a new twist to the traditional Scottish shoe basket produced in that area.
Nantucket is known for its wood-bottom baskets woven on a mold. Spokes fit into the grooved bottoms, and fine cane is used for weaving. “The story goes that the sailors used to do this on ships,” says Sharon Wright, a weaver who owned a basket store in Linden, Michigan, for fourteen years. “Basket weavers still decorate baskets with whalebone clasps and scrimshaw buttons for the handles.”
A warp in the tradition
According to Wright, the United States underwent a kind of basket renaissance in the early 1980s. “That’s when the country decorating trend was quite popular,” she says, “and baskets certainly went right along with that.”
The most popular baskets of the early 1980s were what LaPorte terms “basic functional market baskets”–a rectangular basket with a handle. Since then, American basketry has blossomed into incredible complexity and variety. “It seems now that anything goes,” LaPorte says. “Folks use recycled materials, cardboard, strapping tape, and even the kudzu vine that has proliferated through the Southeast–people are using anything that is around. Popular embellishments include beads, feathers, and waxed linen.”
The diversity of forms and materials begs the question, what is a basket? “It’s anything that contains space,” LaPorte says. “It’s hard to know where to draw the line.”
Why fill ‘er up?
Even utilitarian baskets can be beautiful. “Once you take the basket a step or two beyond basic, it is a piece of art,” La Porte says. And as art, the basket can stand on its own.
“If it’s a finely done piece, let it be the focal point,” says Mastor of Washington state’s Mastor Design. “People tend to think that if you see a container it should hold something–that’s only true if the contents are more important than the container itself. A finely done basket doesn’t need to be added to–that’s like gilding the lily.”
A single empty basket is like an invitation. “I have a small pine needle basket that I keep on a table, and I am fascinated by the way people always pick it up,” Mastor says. “Baskets are tactile, and people want to interact with them.”
That impulse must have been what my mother had in mind when she gave us that beautiful anniversary basket. It may look empty, but it’s become the perfect container for memories.