Basket Weaving

Tokelau - Scott #84 (1982)
Tokelau – Scott #84 (1982)

When I received this particular stamp in a mixture earlier this year, my first thought was of the old idiom about a major in “underwater basket weaving” indicating a decline in academic standards (Wikipedia actually cites a 1956 article in The American Philatelist as a possible origin of the phrase!).  Actually, the process of weaving or sewing pliable materials into two- or three dimensional artefacts, such as mats or containers. is quite a serious form of traditional handicraft amongst indigenous peoples throughout the world. Craftspeople and artists specialized in making baskets are usually referred to as basket makers and basket weavers. I would occasionally watch Navajo and other tribal weavers at the New Mexico State Fair when I live in Albuquerque (between 1994 and 2014).

Basketry is made from a variety of fibrous or pliable materials — anything that will bend and form a shape. Examples include pine straw, stems, animal hair, hide, grasses, thread, and fine wooden splints. The baskets were often traded for goods or used for religious ceremonies.

A basket woven by Mono Lake Paiute - Kucadikadi (Northern Paiute) and Southern Sierra Miwok (Yosemite Miwok) artisan Lucy Telles. In the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
A basket woven by Mono Lake Paiute – Kucadikadi (Northern Paiute) and Southern Sierra Miwok (Yosemite Miwok) artisan Lucy Telles. In the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

According to a website by Catherine Erdly, woven baskets are classified into four types:

  • “Coiled” basketry are made using grasses and rushes;
  • “Plaiting” basketry use materials that are wide and braidlike: palms, yucca or New Zealand flax;
  • “Twining” basketry use materials from roots and tree bark — twining actually refers to a weaving technique where two or more flexible weaving elements (“weavers”) cross each other as they weave through the stiffer radial spokes;
  • “Wicker” and “Splint” basketry use reed, cane, willow, oak, and ash.

The oldest known baskets presently appear to be some unearthed in Faiyum in upper Egypt; radiocarbon dating tests have shown them to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old. Other Middle Eastern sites have produced baskets up to 7000 years old. The earliest dates for baskets are older than any yet established by archeologists for pottery. In every civilization and every part of the world, basket making has been practiced. Needed as carrying vessels, baskets were probably replaced by clay pots, the clay having been pressed around a basket for molding.

During the Industrial Revolution, baskets were used in factories and for packing and deliveries. Wicker furniture became fashionable in Victorian society.

During the World Wars, thousands of baskets were used for transporting messenger pigeons. There were also observational balloon baskets, baskets for shell cases and airborne pannier baskets used for dropping supplies of ammunition and food to the troops. Baskets are still around today and have many purposes, including hot air ballooning.

Bending vines for basket construction in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, October 2009.
Bending vines for basket construction in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, October 2009.

Because vines have always been readily accessible and plentiful for weavers, they have been a common choice for basketry purposes. The runners are preferable to the vine’s stems because they tend to be straighter. Pliable materials like kudzu vine to more rigid, woody vines like bittersweet, grapevine, honeysuckle, wisteria and smokevine are good basket weaving materials. Although many vines are not uniform in shape and size, they can be manipulated and prepared in a way that makes them easily used in traditional and contemporary basketry. Most vines can be split and dried to store until use. Once vines are ready to be used, they can be soaked or boiled to increase pliability.

Weaving with rattan core (also known as reed) is one of the more popular techniques practiced today because it is easily available. It is pliable, and when woven correctly, it is very sturdy. Also, while traditional materials like oak, hickory, and willow might be hard to come by, reed is plentiful and can be cut into any size or shape that might be needed for a pattern. This includes flat reed, which is used for most square baskets; oval reed, which is used for many round baskets; and round reed, which is used to twine; another advantage is that reed can also be dyed easily to look like oak or hickory.

 Woman weaving baskets near Lake Ossa, west of Edea in Cameroon's Littoral Province. Photo taken on May 28, 2006.
Woman weaving baskets near Lake Ossa, west of Edea in Cameroon’s Littoral Province. Photo taken on May 28, 2006.

The type of baskets that reed is used for are most often referred to as “wicker” baskets, though another popular type of weaving known as “twining” is also a technique used in most wicker baskets. Wicker baskets are often used to store grain. Many types of plants can be used to create baskets: dog rose, honeysuckle, blackberry briars once the thorns have been scraped off and many other creepers. Willow was used for its flexibility and the ease with which it could be grown and harvested. Willow baskets were commonly referred to as wickerwork in England. Water hyacinth is currently also being used as a base material in some areas where the plant has become a serious pest. For example, a group in Ibadan led by Achenyo Idachaba have been creating handicrafts in Nigeria.

Bamboo is the prime material for making all sorts of baskets in East Asia, since it is the main material that is available and suitable for basketry. Other materials that may be used are rattan and hemp palm. In Japan, bamboo weaving is registered as a traditional Japanese craft (工芸 kōgei) with a range of fine and decorative arts.

Arctic and Subarctic tribes use sea grasses for basketry. At the dawn of the 20th century, Inupiaq men began weaving baskets from baleen, a substance derived from whale jaws, and incorporating walrus ivory and whale bone in basketry.

A kudzu basket made in the Appalachian Oriole style by basketmaker Matt Tommey. Photo taken on July 13, 2011.
A kudzu basket made in the Appalachian Oriole style by basketmaker Matt Tommey. Photo taken on July 13, 2011.

In New England, they weave baskets from swamp ash. The wood is peeled off a felled log in strips, following the growth rings of the tree. Maine and Great Lakes tribes use black ash splints. They also weave baskets from sweet grass, as do Canadian tribes. Birchbark is used throughout the Subarctic, by a wide range of tribes from Dene to Ojibwa to Mi’kmaq. Birchbark baskets are often embellished with dyed porcupine quills. Some of the more notable styles are Nantucket Baskets and Williamsburg Baskets. Nantucket Baskets are large and bulky,[citation needed] while Williamsburg Baskets can be any size, so long as the two sides of the basket bow out slightly and get larger as it is woven up.

Southeastern tribes, such as the Atakapa, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chitimacha, traditionally use split river cane for basketry. A particularly difficult technique for which these tribes are known is double-weave or double-wall basketry, in which each basketry is formed by an interior and exterior wall seamlessly woven together. Doubleweave, although rare, is still practiced today, for instance by Mike Dart of the Cherokee Nation.

Northwestern tribes use spruce root, cedar bark, and swampgrass. Ceremonial basketry hats are particularly valued by Northeast tribes and are worn today at potlatches. Traditionally, women wove basketry hats, and men painted designs on them. Delores Churchill is a Haida from Alaska who began weaving in a time when Haida basketry was in decline, but she and others have ensured it will continue by teaching the next generation.

A Seri basket of the haat hanóohcö style, Sonora, Mexico. Photo taken on June 19, 2007.
A Seri basket of the haat hanóohcö style, Sonora, Mexico. Photo taken on June 19, 2007.

In northwestern Mexico, the Seri people continue to “sew” baskets using splints of the limberbush plant, Jatropha cuneate.

The parts of a basket are the base, the side walls, and the rim. A basket may also have a lid, handle, or embellishments.

Most baskets begin with a base. The base can either be woven with reed or wooden. A wooden base can come in many shapes to make a wide variety of shapes of baskets. The “static” pieces of the work are laid down first. In a round basket, they are referred to as “spokes”; in other shapes, they are called “stakes” or “staves”. Then the “weavers” are used to fill in the sides of a basket.

A wide variety of patterns can be made by changing the size, color, or placement of a certain style of weave. To achieve a multi-colored effect, aboriginal artists first dye the twine and then weave the twines together in elaborate patterns.

Tokelau - Scott #81-84 (1982)
Tokelau – Scott #81-84 (1982)

The southern Pacific island country of Tokelau, a dependent territory of New Zealand,  released a set of four stamps on May 5, 1982, depicting local handicrafts (Scott #81-84). This was the first issue to be denominated in the Tokelauan currency of tala and sene rather than the previous dollars and cents. The ten-sene stamp pictures a young man wood carving, an old man bow-drilling into a seashell is shown on the 22-sene value, the 34-sene denomination features a young woman finishing a bowl while a middle-aged woman is portrayed basket weaving on today’s stamp, valued 60 sene. The stamps were designed by Maurice Conley of Waikanae and each includes a different textile pattern in the background. They were printed using lithography by the Dutch company Enschede, perforated 13½ x 13.

Weaving remains a popular traditional art form in Tokelau today. The most common materials used in these crafts are lau kie (pandanus leaf) and lau hulu (brown pandanus). The most common woven crafts include taulima (bracelets), pupu (water holders), tapili (fans) and ato (baskets). Pupu are made from a coconut shell and covered in a wrapping made from plaited coconut husk fibers, or sennit. The decorated fans known as tapili are made from sections of young coconut leaf and coconut leaf midrib.

Te To kie i Nukunonu – An introduction to Tokelau weaving – Preview from Creative New Zealand on Vimeo.

Flag of Tokelau
Flag of Tokelau
Badge of Tokelau

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