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Basketry Lecture

February 28, 2004

Elisa Kessler Caporale

Basket Examples Photo: Adina Obler

Elisa set up a table of samples much too numerous to write about individually; there were many different shapes and sizes and materials. As she went through the lecture, she described them in some detail, including the materials and where they came from. What was fascinating to hear was that baskets are basically what you make from what you have in your back yard and that you can make a basket out of almost anything. For instance, there was one basket that is like an art piece; copper tubing is used, not reed, to retain the basket shape. The advantage is that copper tubing does not have to be wetted and tied down to keep its shape. The tiniest basket that she had was woven out of silver!

Elisa lives in New Jersey now but she said that she feels very much at home here since she grew up nearby at 82nd Street and 2nd Avenue. Elisa began studying basketry in 1882 in Maine while she was living in Connecticut. She began teaching after taking many classes and joining many of the guilds. One problem that confronted her was that she would go home and make a basket that was e.g. a John McGuire basket. She was unhappy about that as this repeated itself many times, imitating the teacher's basket. Happily, she began to find her own way and her own interest which for a while was making ribbed baskets. Ribbed baskets are more difficult to start but easy to finish. In the other type of basket in which the materials used are of the same thickness, the weaving is easier but then the finishing is more difficult.

Baskets can be made out of anything, tin cans, soda cans, cardboard boxes... Elisa likes to use reed from Indonesia. Reed is a palm vine- the outside is cane used to make cane chairs and the inside is soft.

Elisa the said that we are now going to take a trip around the world as we look at these baskets on the table.

Our first stop in this trip around the world of baskets is in Japan. The Japanese use bamboo. We grow some here but it is a little different than the type grown in Japan. It can be cut very fine and makes beautiful baskets.

In Russia birch bark is used, it is hard and feels like leather and it is treated like leather. In Germany and England willow is used. The reed is inconsistent i.e. the thickness varies a great deal and then you work with it, the variation in thickness needs to be compensated. One advantage of willow is that it is very strong. Also, it is usually soaked for a few days and it will keep for a few days and can be used. Here in the U.S., in places where the Germans settled early on, you will find willow baskets still being made. Now we're going to Africa where shat seem like very limp grasses are woven into strong coiled baskets. In Egypt reed is used in making boats that do not get waterlogged. In Mexico you can find baskets made out of pine needles. Elisa showed us a set of six nesting baskets. In North Carolina pine needles can be as long as ten or twelve inches and they are also used in weaving baskets. There are so many different techniques used in weaving all these various baskets. In Louisiana the two sides are folded together which makes a basket in the shape of a narrow pocketbook. A basket from Panama that is coiled is also stitched but the stitches are invisible. Birch bark grown here is very fragile; it can be laced with elm root or porcupine quill. Indians in Maine and northern New York use Black Ash with braided sweet grass. Black Ash is also used on Nantucket Island. In Alaska fish skins are made into baskets.

You can take an old basket and make it into a brand new one; simply cover it with paper and weave over it.

As Elisa picked up each basket from the table, she described in some detail the materials of which it was made and the techniques used in fabricating that particular basket. Then they were passed around the room so we could touch them and look at them closely. Each one is very different.

As if all this was not enough, Elisa then did a hands-on workshop. This means that she came prepared with reed warps and beautifully dyed variegated reed to be used for the weft by each one of us who attended the lecture to make a lovely little basket to take home. As for instructions on how to make a basket, you'll have to take a class with Elisa or come around when she gives one of her wonderful lectures and workshops. Thank you, Elisa

-- Sara Briggs


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