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The Craft of Basket Weaving

The Craft of Basket WeavingIntroduction to Basket Weaving

Basket making traditionally conjures up images of dull, uninspiring brown baskets, but the reality could not be more different; Gorgeous colours, exciting designs, modern styling and innovative materials have transformed the prospects of this craft.

Origins of Basketry

Basketry is one of the oldest and most widespread crafts, and also one of the most versatile. So many things can be made with it and most things have been, including huts in Africa, shoes in China and fencing in England.  

The materials from which baskets were made originally depended simply on what was available locally. Any hedgerow can be combed for twigs or stems. In Scandinavia tree bark was traditionally the most common material so the designs used broad strips and were more rigid than those of African baskets, which were made from the softer grasses of the Savannah.

Wicker Works

In England, basketry is associated with willow (wicker). This has always been popular because it can be harvested annually and grows on waterlogged land, unsuitable for other crops. East Anglia and the Somerset levels are traditionally basket making areas where willow is still grown, though there are far fewer varieties today.  

The shape of the willow itself accounts for the design of many baskets. It tapers from the root – or butt – to the tip and has a natural curve, the inside of which is called a belly; the outside is the back. A skilled basket maker always works with the natural tension of a willow rod – if you go against it – it snaps.  

Willow is harvested in winter when the sap is down. If it is to be used ‘ brown’, with the bark still on, then it will be left to dry. Willow to be stripped and used ‘white’ is left soaking in water until summer when it starts to put out shoots. Then the bark is stripped. The familiar golden brown of much wicker work is known to craftspeople as ‘buff’. It comes from boiling the willow before it is stripped.  

The Craft of Basket WeavingBasic techniques of Basketry

A recent innovation in basket making is the use of non traditional materials. Cardboard can be decorated and cut into strips. Coloured polypropylene tape is usually found wrapped around a package but is recognizable and highly decorative when woven. It is even possible to buy cane like, coloured plastic.  

Modern basket makers have even started to dye traditional materials. As cane is the spongy core of the palm, it is very absorbent and therefore ideally suited to dyeing. Fabric dye is fine for use with cane and relatively easy to apply. The resulting coloured cane produces fantastic results when woven.  

Basket making divides roughly into five main techniques: frame, stake and strand, coiling, soft twining and plaiting. The frame basket is the oldest found in Britain and is thought to have originated in Ireland. It is made from hoops of thick willow that create a framework, with the weaving worked over and around the hoops.  

The most commonly used method in Europe and America, however, is called stake and strand. Uprights, or stakes, are woven through with thinner strands. It is a basic technique as simple as weaving cloth or knitting and is capable of producing as many interesting variations. The essential weave is called randing, and involves going over and under each stake in turn.  

Unlike frame baskets, stake and strand work is worked from the bottom to top. This means the craftsman must have a clear idea of the finished shape before starting. Unlike knitting it is hard to unpick. The maker begins with the base which is round, square or oval according to the desired end result. A good project to begin with is a simple round bowl in cane, about 9 inches across.  

There is also open work, where the stakes are open and secured only with decorative ‘fitching’ weaves. This is also known by the French term ‘azure’ work.  

Although the materials are mostly cheap and the tools needed are few, it can take many months of practice to produce a good basket. Half the skill is understanding the material you are working with.  

One reason that old country baskets were so successful is that basket makers traditionally grew, harvested and worked through the entire weaving process with their own crops of willow.

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