Basket-making Basics, basketry for beginners

Basketry: possibly the oldest of human crafts.  It is time-honored, it is revered, it is respected, and still, it has the power to excite and involve us today.  Our ancestors fashioned their baskets out of whatever natural materials they found at hand: trees, bushes, vines, and grasses all went into the making of their baskets.  Do you want to try your hand at this ancient art practiced the world over? Read further for some basket-making basics.

Baskets made work and play possible in villages and towns; these handmade appliances were used to carry everything from food to water.  By using resources found in their homeland, the ancients let Mother Nature know of their respect for her.  Vital connections were thus strengthened.  When you fashion a basket, you embrace the past of all humankind and you encourage its future.  You are letting the forces-that-be know that you won’t give up on the beauty of nature.  You will be writing your name in Mother Nature’s book of life.  I guarantee it’s worth the effort.

Unfortunately, the amazing natural materials that our ancestors used in styling their baskets decayed with age; the very thing that makes baskets so endearing and special is the reason not many baskets from the days of yore survive.  But don’t worry, most of those very same materials are available to you today, so we can continue to carry on the grand tradition of weaving a basket.

Baskets have served humankind in uncountable ways.  They were used to transport carrier pigeons during both of the World Wars.  Planes dropped baskets of much-needed supplies to troops in the field, and during the Industrial Revolution, factories used baskets in deliveries of important supplies and tools.

Old-timers and ancients made baskets from many kinds of materials, including oak, hickory, and willow.  Today, we basket-weavers can make our baskets from the natural materials around us, or from reeds and vines bought at the store.  These sturdy, pliable materials come in lots of different shapes and sizes to meet all of our basket-making needs; we’re only limited by our imagination.

What kind of basket do you want to make?   Let the style you choose determine the kind of material you use; your options are almost limitless.  Most of all, let your personality and imagination flow into your basket, whatever material and style you choose.

Today, basket reed, also called rattan, has largely replaced the vines and grasses used long ago; willow, oak, and cattails are not used nearly as often.  But you, as a basketmaker can still fashion your baskets of these natural materials, it just takes a bit more work and skill.  Lots of people today choose to make their baskets from kits bought online or at hobby stores.  Basketmakers today are even fashioning baskets out of unusual materials like plastic and yarn.

The main parts of a basket are the base, the walls, and the rim.  You can, of course, add a handle, a lid, and other embellishments, like variations in design and different “ear” styles.  An ear is a form of lashing used on ribbed baskets.  The lashing covers the intersecting points of the frame, securing them in place.  You can fashion an ear as a three-, four-, or five-point lashing; some basket ears are very elegant and add greatly to the design of your basket.  One four-point lashing is called the braided, or woven, God’s eye; another is called the bow knot.

How Baskets are Named

Down through the centuries, the names of baskets have gone through many changes.  Mostly, they were—and still are—named for their intended use, the people who made them, where they were made, and/or what the basket resembled.  Baskets in the mountainous regions of the southeastern United States had a gizzard-shaped bottom for holding eggs, so they were called “egg baskets”.

In some areas of the world, potatoes were gathered in round baskets with handles on one or both sides.  These became very popular and known as potato baskets since they served that purpose so well.  Flowers seemed to go best in a shallow basket with a tall handle, hence the name “flower basket”.  Sometimes, basket names caught on and lasted through the generations, sometimes not.  When you create your basket, name it what you will; it’s your creation.

Basket Terminology

Stakes: Pieces of the woven mat, or base, which are upsett and become the upright elements of your basket.

Spokes: The skeleton of your basket, they are the same as a stake but laid circularly as spokes in a wheel.

Weaver: The reed that is used as the weft that moves over and under the stakes, spokes, or ribs (warp).

Ear: Weaving or lashing done at the intersection point of the rim and handle that holds the two pieces securely together.  Ribs can be inserted into an ear.  An ear can also be loops that join a swing handle to a basket.

Hoop: A ring or piece of wood shaped into a circle, machine- or handmade, that is used in ribbed baskets.

Lasher or Lacer: The piece of reed that wraps around and secures all the rim pieces together.

Rib: The round or oval pieces that extend from one side of the basket to the other and form the basic skeleton.

Upsett or Upskate: To bend the stakes up and over upon themselves, toward the base, creating a crease in the base of the stake.

Basket-making Tools and Supplies

  • Reed cutters or pruning shears for cutting reeds and vines
  • Utility knife or box cutter
  • Awl, or a sharp pointed tool like an icepick, to manipulate reeds
  • Clothespins to hold parts of your basket together while you work
  • Pencils
  • Pencil sharpener to sharpen ends of round reeds 
  • Bread ties
  • Cable clips
  • Yardstick
  • Ruler 

Three Types of Basket Weaves

The Basic Weave: This type of weave starts with a sturdy base from which to work.  This can be cut from a single piece of wood, but is usually woven using the same materials as the rest of your basket.  The basic weave is done by weaving with rigid stakes or spokes, and weavers.  The weavers wrap around the stakes in an over-one-under-one pattern.  You can change the pattern by changing the number of over and under weavers.

Twining: Also known as pairing, is the method used in wickerwork, and it’s one of the more advanced basket-making techniques.  It involves two pieces of round reed being twisted around a rigid spoke.  The twining method involves weaving two materials in different directions.   When basket makers twine, they put one reed behind the spoke and one in front of the spoke, with a twist in between.  Twining makes beautiful baskets and was probably used thousands of years ago to make animal traps and fishing nets.

Coiling: In this type of basket weaving, coils of reeds or grasses, or even pine needles are stitched together one atop another.  You need softer basket making materials in order to be able to build the walls of this type of basket.  Coiling will produce a very tight and rigid basket, and is a favorite technique of the Native Americans of the Southwest.  Plant fibers like willow twigs, sweet grass, and pine needles all make uniquely beautiful coiled baskets.  You will need strong string or fishing line to sew the coils together.

Basket Reeds

Basket-weaving reed comes in shapes of flat, flat oval, half-round oval, and round; you can buy it by the foot and also in one pound coils.  Flat reed will need to be soaked in warm water for as long as your pattern calls for, but don’t over-soak it or it gets mushy, and can become permanently discolored as well.  Soaking makes basket reed flexible enough to work with.  Round, flat oval, and half-round reed will need to be soaked a bit longer; your pattern will let you know how long to soak each type.  Remember never to store your reeds in plastic as it doesn’t breathe and will result in moldy reeds.

Be sure you let your reed dry out completely before you store it, as excess moisture will also cause mold.  If you do find yourself with moldy reed, just soak it again in a gallon of water with 1/4 cup bleach added.

Dyeing Your Reed

Use enamel, Pyrex, or stainless steel vessels to dye your reed as these types of pots won’t react with the dye.  You can also use plastic buckets or trashcans that have been thoroughly cleaned.  Soak the reed for about an hour and rinse it well.  Next, dissolve your dye in about a quart of boiling water, adding one tablespoon of salt per packet of dye.  Pour enough boiling water to cover the reed into your pot and then pour in your dye mixture.  Mix it well and then add your presoaked reed.  Don’t put too much reed in at once, otherwise, it won’t all get completely dyed.  Now let it soak from one hour to overnight, depending on how dark or light you want the color to be.

When you take the reed out, rinse it well with cold water and hang it do dry.  Again, make sure it is completely dry before you store it.  When you soak the dyed reed before making your basket, you should soak each color separately; expect the colors to bleed a little.

Making the Base of Your Baske

Making a base for your basket involves laying out your reeds or spokes, using whatever material you choose or whichever material you choose, in pieces parallel to one another.  Leave a bit of space between each one.  Now begin weaving reeds in a perpendicular direction to your first ones in an over-under pattern.  The piece you’ll use to do this is called your weaver.  These first reeds that you place are called the spokes and will form the skeleton of your basket.

Making the Basket Walls

Now you must bend the spokes extending from the base, upward to form the walls.  This bending action is called “upsetting”.  You are in effect, setting the spokes in an upright position.  These upsett reeds will serve as the upright elements of your basket.  You’ll weave the rest of your basket in an over-under pattern through these.

Making the Rim

To make the rim, take one of your longer reeds and wrap it around the top row of your basket.  Hold it in place with a clothespin or a cable clip.  Now weave the bottom end of this long reed into the top few rows inside the basket.  Bring the reed up and over the top row of your basket over and over again, working all around the circumference of the basket.  Secure the end of the reed inside the basket either with glue or by weaving it into the basket.

Handles and Hoops

The handles and hoops you can put on your baskets are as diverse as the baskets themselves.  The one guiding principle to know is that you should use the handle your basket pattern calls for; the overall look and functionality of your basket will be much better if the handle fits the basket style.  Some of the more popular handle styles are swing handles, round notched handles, “U” handles and “D” handles.  Always put the handle of your basket on the outside of the rim.  This will ensure that your handle is held firmly in place because the diameter of the handle hoop will be decreased.

A basket hoop, which is only used in a ribbed basket, can be circular, oval or square, depending on your pattern.  The purpose of the hoop is to form the foundation of your basket; you will weave ribs around the hoop to form the shape of your basket.

Determining the Size of Your Basket

Here are formulas you can use to give you the length measurements of your basket stakes that will form the base of your basket.

Say you are making a staked basket that measures 10″ wide by 16″ long by 6″ deep.  To get a length measurement you add the base length of 16″ and each side depth of 6″ on each side, (or 12″), and then add 6″, (or 3″ on each side) to tuck in at the top.  So your formula would be 16″ plus 12″ (2 sides), plus 6″ (for tucking) = 34″.

To get the width measurement, add the base width of 10″ and each side-depth of 6″ and the same 6″ for tucking.  The formula is 10″ plus 12″ plus 6″ = 28″.

How to Shape, or Reshape, Your Basket

If, while weaving, your basket isn’t shaping up as you’d like, there is a very simple solution.  Just re-moisten the entire basket by misting it lightly with water.  Do this carefully so that you don’t get the handle of your basket too wet.  After re-moistening your basket, all you have to do is use your hands to remold it into the shape you want.

To hold the shape in place, you’ll need to place some kind of heavy object inside the basket to level it.  Let the basket sit this way until the reeds are completely dry and then continue weaving.

How to True the Base of Your Basket

You will true the base of your basket to make sure it’s even on all sides.  First, measure all four sides of the base and make any adjustments needed.  When you are sure all sides are the same length, use a pencil to mark the adjacent corners on all four sides of your basket base.  This way, when you start weaving, you’ll know when anything starts shifting because your corner marks will be out of alignment.

Sharpening Ribs for a Ribbed Basket

You may need to sharpen your basket ribs to make them fit better into the overall shape of your basket.  Ribs are the round or oval pieces that go from one side to the other of the basket and form its basic skeleton.  A pencil sharpener, either electric or the old-fashioned hand-crank kind, will work to sharpen the ribs.  However, your best bet is to use your utility knife or a special basket knife made for this purpose.

The Quality of Your Reed

There are a lot of different kinds of reed out there, and they aren’t all of the highest quality.  Poor-quality reed will shred and split and even break when you bend it in the making of your basket.  Reed can be thick or thin, depending on your basket’s intended use.  But if the reed you use is too splintery and brittle, your basket will never attain the heights of beauty and usefulness that it otherwise could have.

Flat reed has two sides; a smooth one and a rough, “hairy”, one.  You’ll want to construct your basket so that the smooth side is on the outside.  By bending a piece of reed over your finger into a U-shape, you can usually determine which side is which.  But don’t worry if you can’t tell the difference, that just means your reed is of excellent quality.  When shopping for reed, look for the reed that has a light, creamy color; this means it’s of superior quality.  The darker the reed, the poorer the quality.

Various Basket-weaving Materials

Kudzu: This vine is also known as Japanese Arrowroot, and is native to certain parts of Asia.  Kudzu is known as a very invasive species of vine, but is also highly prized as a basket weaving material due to its strength and pliability.  It can be used green or dried out and rehydrated.

Grapevine: This vine comes in many varieties.  You will find it growing wild in fields and you can also purchase it from hobby and craft stores.  Grapevine doesn’t typically need soaking as it stays pliable for weeks after it’s cut.

Wisteria: A woody, climbing vine with clusters of beautiful lavender colored blooms, wisteria is hardy and fast-growing.  It has long runners that are great for basket making.  Growing wild in many areas, it’s considered a nuisance plant by many.  For best results in your baskets, harvest wisteria in the wintertime.

Willow: Willow has long, slender branches that are very good for weaving baskets.  You should harvest it in the fall or early spring before any leaves appear on the branches.  The branches will be the most pliable at that time.

Seagrasses: These are long, narrow leaves that are very pliable for basket making.  You can get seagrass as a twisted, grass rope or a flat-surfaced reed.  It starts out green and will turn tan as it ages.

Baleen: Baleen is a substance that comes from inside the mouth of the bowhead whale; its purpose is to filter their food.  Alaskan natives have been using baleen to weave sturdy baskets for many years.

White-oak splits: Splits are a traditional material used in the mountains for caning chairs and making all sorts of baskets.  A White Oak sapling about 4-6 inches in diameter is chosen and a 6-9 foot section of the trunk is removed.  The trunk is then divided into quarters and then split into strips to use in making the basket.

Pine needles: Pine needles have long been used by Native Americans to make amazingly beautiful coiled baskets.  In areas of the country where pine trees grow, it’s a simple matter of making a trip outside to collect the needles off the forest floor.  They should be soaked in warm water to remove sticky tree sap, but they will stay pliable for a long time.

If you want to be daring, and if you like to recycle, try making an eco-friendly and durable basket from one of these:

  • Plastic bags
  • Plastic bottles
  • Yarn
  • Paper in just about all of its forms
  • Old blue jeans
  • Old T-shirts
  • Telephone wire
  • Plastic or cotton clothesline

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.