Basket making: ancient skills, traditional materials

Basket makers Tennessee USA
Baskets in the Tennessee mountains in 1931. Photo - Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Do you have any hand-made basketry in your home? From wicker chairs to straw hats, basket-making is an ancient craft that shows no signs of dying out, even though there may be fewer skilled makers than there used to be.

Basket-making stretches back for millennia:  a 7000-year-old basket is recorded here (pdf). There’s even evidence for basketry skills 25000 years ago (pdf). How many other crafts are equally ancient, and still hand-made today?

There can’t be many cultures (are there any?) where people haven’t woven grasses, reeds, leaves, canes, or twigs together to make useful and beautiful things. Until recently, turning vegetable material into containers or mats was a skill known and practised almost everywhere. And yet designs were very varied. An intimate understanding of local plants along with traditions built up over centuries meant every region had its own characteristic styles of – well, a lot of things – from bags, hats, fly-swats, and cradles to complete villages built on islands of woven reed in southern Iraq.

Beginnings of a bamboo basket in Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo by SriHarsha PVSS

Think of this stretching back for thousands of years. Even in very recent times, there were people in the western world continuing ancient basketry traditions. Now those of us who don’t have locally-produced basketry have a choice of imports from less industrialised countries . At the same time the developed world has basket-makers who are rediscovering the craft and re-awakening regional styles.  We don’t have to rely on baskets when industry offers us cheap, durable alternatives, but many of us like the look of “organic” woven containers  more than we like a plastic storage box.

Basketry, rope, brooms etc.

Basket making is closely related to rope and broom making, and may use the same plants and the same set of skills. Plaited rushes or grasses or “string” can create a flat braid suitable for making mats, or three-dimensional containers. This photo shows a Portuguese woman braiding a long flexible strip of this kind.

In this video a woman in the hills of central Italy shows us how it is/was done in her part of the world. If you like to live life at speed, be warned that the film evokes the slow, steady pace of this kind of work – no quick results here. (Click here if your browser doesn’t show the video on this page.)

weaving willow basketry
Willow weaving in progress at UK crafts fair. Photo by HomeThingsPast.

There’s a sense of connecting with prehistory watching this elderly lady demonstrating a process that begins with her cutting grasses. After twisting them into rope, people from her area would then plait and weave those cords into baskets: for example, donkey panniers for transport in a mountainous region.

She’s continuing a tradition handed down the generations, but there are many contemporary basket-makers who didn’t learn from their parents.  Practising it as an art which is also a journey into regional history is not uncommon: see, for example, this piece about baskets made of heather (erica) from the website where I first discovered the Italian film.

If you’re interested in making traditional things out of unprocessed plant materials, you may also like this page about broom-making.

Photos and video

Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here:
An Ethnography of Basketry in Central Western Italy from Archaeological Traces on Vimeo.
Tennessee baskets, Indian bamboo basketry, or see more picture info here


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