Woven Baskets: A Living Tradition

I noticed that there is a Lost Trades Fair in Kyneton, Victoria in March. Amongst the crafts featured is basket weaving. I had not realized that this craft was in danger of disappearing. I can remember a time when mum would order handmade wicker baskets from a craftsperson to be used for food hampers that were raffled at our school’s fetes. After doing a Google search, it seems that these traditional basket makers are no longer around in Melbourne (or very hard to find) and most available cane or willow wicker baskets seem to be imported from overseas where such materials are common and still used by craftspeople. Nowadays it appears that many Australian basket weavers are now using local materials and traditional Indigenous techniques. Hand woven baskets are useful and wonderful to collect.

Basket weaving is a skilled craft undertaken since the Neolithic period. Most cultures have some form of basket weaving tradition. These hand-woven articles are really useful for storing all kinds of materials and tools. If they are beautiful that’s even better and the colours and textures of baskets are also very inspiring.

In Australia Indigenous weavers make wonderful baskets. Sometimes these are the only items of women’s work that have survived from past centuries. Luckily this knowledge is being passed on to future generations and to non-indigenous women at local cultural centres. The materials used are more sustainable because they are found where the weavers live. Here is a video of a workshop that took place in Victoria.

Many indigenous fibre artists have made some incredible artworks using their basket weaving techniques.  I wish I had an example. Their work is influencing other non-indigenous craftspeople and basket weavers who are now incorporating indigenous techniques and using local materials to create their own original designs. Here is a link to some of the magnificent basket work you can see on The Basket Weavers of Victoria website (link).

Ellie and I have a collection of traditional and decorative baskets, some bought in stores specializing in handwork from other cultures, some found in charity stores, others inherited from relatives. They are a terrific form of craftwork to collect that you can use while you are working or can be filled with all kinds of things to organize your space. We also have some interesting fibre objects that show the ingenuity of weaving with plant materials.

If we see an old wicker or willow basket in a charity shop, we snap it up and have kept those that came from family. Our collection includes a large bread basket; shopping baskets; large round baskets; a huge wood basket; a picnic basket; laundry and dog baskets and various small baskets, all of which we use. Modern storage baskets are also useful and as they are not made of plastic, better for the environment.

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Baskets are usually made from plant materials that are readily available to the weaver. The following Asian baskets are made from split bamboo. The largest one with a lid is really old and come from a relative who used it for her needlework. It is an example of Chinese basketry work which I use to store craft materials. The other shallow round basket is Japanese and was found at an op shop. Also made from bamboo using a delicate, open lattice pattern. I have seen similar baskets attached to ivory figures in  antique Japanese carvings. Judging by what I have seen on Google it is probably from the mid twentieth century. I use this basket for holding weaving threads so that it does not become damaged.

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The small oval bamboo basket was a gift from our grandmother. A local craftsperson glued the shells to the lid and lacquered the surface. We have several of these baskets in varying sizes and they are great for storing small items. I don’t think that they were very expensive baskets and would be good for decorating in all manner of ways.

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We have several African shallow baskets that are perfect for holding tapestry bobbins while you are working. These are all from Zimbabwe and we bought them at local store that sells African wares. The medium-sized basket is a binga basket made by the ba Tonga people. It has the characteristic herringbone edge. The smallest one is a tightly woven Ukhomane basket with a checkered rim. The largest basket, which is a type used to sort and clean maize and is similar in design to the Ukhomane but has a herringbone rim so seems to be a combination of the two styles. What I like about these are the abstract patterns and earthy colours and are not too dissimilar to the look a woven tapestry. They are a pleasure to use. African baskets are available online.

Another op shop find is a large old picnic style basket with folding handles from the Philippines. It is great for storage in the studio with an inner tray for smaller items. It is unusual and I could not see a similar one on Google. My guess would be that it’s from the 1960s or 70s.

A very small, lidded basket that was inherited is a bit of a mystery. It was a gift from a relative who was an intrepid female traveller in the early 20th century. It looks like it could be African but is also might be woven from pandanus palm like some of the work of Australian Aborigines, but it is hard to be sure. Apparently she was quite a character. We have a photo of this relative seated in a canoe on the Zambezi River where she visited Victoria Falls. She may have found the basket while on this trip.

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Other woven items include a Zimbabwean Gudza (fertility) doll that I received as a gift and a woven cup that Ellie found at an op shop. The latter looks African and is very decorative rather than functional. We also have a lovely woven figure holding a basket. It could be woven from some kind of palm leaves, reeds or banana fibre. We don’t know its origins but it is still a testimony to the weaver’s skill. I have placed the figure with some bird’s nests from our garden, examples of the first woven baskets.

Basket weaving techniques can be used for all kind of objects like this woven football that is used in the kickball game of Sepak Takraw, in Malaysia and Thailand. We have three in the studio and they are beautiful, sculptural objects.

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Textures of baskets can influence and inspire tapestry weaving. Here is one of my samplers with areas of raffia and natural string fibres that show this influence.

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Baskets and objects woven using similar techniques show the diversity of the weaver’s craft in different cultures and make an interesting collection. It is wonderful to see that there are still craftspeople rediscovering ancient methods and using them in a sustainable manner. Whether they are old or beautiful, all baskets are great to use.

Kat.

This song and video of Buffy Sainte Marie’s Changing Woman weaves magic. (You Tube took down the wonderful psychedelic video I had before but here is the song).

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