Craft History: Basketry

Basketry

Although basketmakers live throughout North Carolina, historically the greatest concentration of them lived in the Appalachian mountains. Because basketry is one of the oldest crafts in the world, most settlers to the New America were used to the baskets they bought in Europe, usually made of willow. Since North Carolina's climate is not conducive to willow trees, colonists either had to rely on trade or their own skills in making baskets. Since coastal residents lived close enough to the ports, they could import baskets from Europe. The Algonquin Indians in Onslow and Jacksonville probably made baskets from ash trees before the new settlers came. Appalachian settlers, however, were fairly isolated from trade routes and so relied on trade with the American Indians or their abilities to use the materials the land had to offer.

The Appalachian mountains were home to two groups of basketmakers: the American Indians and the Scottish, English and German settlers. As pottery differed between these two groups, so did baskets. Indians wove very decorative baskets out of rivercane. Usually they would weave or paint patterns on the basket representing tribal beliefs or symbols. They also dyed their baskets with bloodroot and other roots like yarrow. As the Cherokee moved further west into other states, their basketry techniques changed based on their needs. So Choctaw baskets, based on the Cherokee tradition, were made to carry medicine and may have been smaller than the Cherokee baskets, using a different type of weave and design.

The Appalachian settlers made baskets out of split white oak to use much as we use paper bags today. They would carry produce, wood, small livestock, eggs, and other everyday items back and forth from home to market, placing the basket outside when they were finished using them. Although some baskets were dyed with berries or potato stamped, most were not decorative since they were strictly utilitarian. During this same period, the Cherokees were weaving more colorful baskets to trade with the settlers, more for decoration than use. The Cherokees used a plaited technique, shown by Jimmie Kent on the program, while the settlers used both plaited and ribbed techniques. Both techniques are an over- under weave. At the turn of the 19th century, the Shakers began selling their baskets, woven over a wooden mold, to make money for their religious sect. These baskets were decorative only in their simplicity of design and were devoid of color.

African American influence is evident in South Carolina baskets. Sweet grass baskets found in the Charleston market today evolved from generations of slaves weaving Gullah baskets on the coastal rice plantations. Since North Carolina did not house as many slaves or have as many plantations, the African American influence was not as prevalent in pioneer North Carolina. Their influence derived from Scotland, England, and Germany, but the techniques were adapted to utilize the materials at hand.

Basketry is the oldest craft form known to man. Early potters would weave a basket, smear the inside with clay, then burn the basket away to fire the pot. Centuries later, they realized they could simply fire the pot without first weaving the basket. Sometimes baskets would suffice as a coffin, and the Bible records that Moses floated down the Nile in a basket.

Although thousand of basket styles exist, most are based on four techniques: ribbed, plaited, twined, and coiled. Because of the extensive time and effort necessary to weave intricate basket designs, unlike other craft forms, basketry is still done entirely by hand. Many basketmakers today replicate these early basket designs, creating utilitarian objects, while others are creating more sculptural forms transcending the fine line from master craft to fine art. Although over 1500 basketmakers live in North Carolina, only a few are full-time professional basketmakers actually earning a living from their craft.

Sources:
Billie Ruth Sudduth, professional basketmaker in the Appalachian mountains, NC. Click here to see her website.