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Catherine Erdly (


Basketry is the weaving of unspun vegetable fibers, usually to form a container. Baskets have been made from any wood, vine, leaf, or fiber that could be formed into a desirable shape.

Archeologists tell us that 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.

Our ancestors, no matter who or where they were, made baskets. 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.

Basket making survives in many parts of the world today in forms, techniques, and materials similar to those used in past ages. While continuing as a living tradition, it has undergone a revival of interest among craftspeople, leading to new forms of expression. Just as weavers make pictures with tapestry, basket makers now use basketry techniques to create sculpture.

Traditionally, basket makers gather and prepare their own materials. Until you have grasped the medium, you may prefer to purchase your materials. Rattan core, know to most of us as reed, has been used in this country to some extent for many years. However, the increasing number of new basket makers, coupled with the scarcity of native woods, has meant that larger quantities of supplies must be imported to replace many of the natural materials that were once used. Flat reed has replaced oak, ash and hickory splits. Round reed has replaced oak, willow and other vine-like materials that were used for ribbed or twined baskets; it has even replaced natural materials that once served as the "core" of coiled baskets. So, the kind or size of reed chosen today depends on the type of basket to be made.

There are generally five types of basketry. "Coiled" basketry tends to use grasses and rushes. "Plaiting" uses materials that are wide and ribbon-like, such as palms or yucca. "Twining" uses materials from roots and tree bark. "Wicker" and "Splint" baskets use reed, cane, willow, oak and ash.

There is always some controversy about the origins of the names of baskets. In times past, baskets were usually named for their uses, the location in which they were made, the people who made them or occasionally objects that the basket resembled. The Shaker Cat-Head basket, for instance, is so called because the basket resembles a cat's head when it is held upside down, and because it was made in Shaker communities. Although a square "market type" basket called a Kentucky Egg Basket can be found, the most universally known egg basket is the "flat-" or "twined-bottomed" basket associated with the mountain areas of the southeastern United States. It was probably used for gathering eggs because the eggs didn't roll in the gizzard-shaped bottom. Evidently, more people gathered potatoes in a round, side-handled basket than any other; hence the potato basket. Sometime along the way, someone realized that a shallow basket with a tall handle was perfect for gathering flowers, so today we have a flower or provender basket. The oriole basket only looks like an oriole's nest -- it is not meant for birds. When it comes to basket names, either a particular name "caught on" and lasted through the ages or it didn't, and was called something different by everyone that used it.

An interesting fact about the age-old craft of basket making is that, while many other crafts have become mechanized, no one has ever invented a machine that can make baskets. They are still handmade, even in Taiwan. It's not even an easy task to mass-produce baskets with the aid of molds, electric saws and sanders, and a multitude of "assembly line" processes. In fact, no one has ever improved upon the earliest and most basic techniques of basket making.

Today, basket makers range from the purist who still fells the trees to make the traditional utilitarian baskets, to the artist-basketmaker, whose interest is primarily aesthetic and who uses and and every material imaginable. Typically, beginning basket makers experiment with many techniques and eventually settle on one or two preferred styles or methods.