Based on the carbon dating performed on the oldest known basket, the practice of basket weaving has been used in cultures all over the world for at least 12,000 years. There are a multitude of uses for baskets, ranging from table top decorations to traps meant for catching fish, and they play a prominent role in some religious ceremonies. In fact, during WWI and WWII baskets were used to contain the food and supplies that were dropped down from aircraft to the troops. Baskets made for purely aesthetic reasons incorporate intricate patterns, striking colors, and often more flexible fibers. On the other hand, baskets intended for utilitarian purposes, like the gathering of food, are crafted using stiffer ribs and thicker fibers for increased durability.
While the oldest known basket is estimated to be approximately 12,000 years old, it is speculated that basketry has been practiced for much longer than that. Unfortunately, the natural fibers used to make baskets are difficult to preserve, which makes it hard to define exactly how old the craft is - if not impossible. Although Native American cultures are most predominantly referenced when the topic of basket weaving is discussed, the art of basketry has been practiced in many other cultures around the world, as well. For example, baskets have played an integral role in both China and Japan, where they are used for both aesthetic and utilitarian purposes, like fishing, funeral basketry, and food storage.
There are many types of natural fibers that can be used to weave a basket, like various kinds of tree bark. For example, grasses, bamboo, vines, oak, willow, reeds, and honeysuckle are all commonly used materials for weaving. When choosing a suitable material for basketry, the flexibility of the fibers is the most important aspect. If the material is too brittle, it will not be able to flex enough to be woven into tight coils and through small spaces. However, it is important to note that stiffer fibers are also used in some techniques to create a frame, or the ribs, for the basket.
The basic process of basket making involves carefully weaving strands of fiber over and under each other to create a round shape. A simple coil basket starts out as a thick piece of fiber that is shaped into a basic coil while a thinner, flexible fiber is woven around it. Wicker baskets are more difficult to master. They start out as a series of stakes, also known as spokes, which radiate from the bottom of the basket - these are used as the supporting frame. Then, a series of strands are woven over and under the spokes to create the sides of the basket.
Terms and Techniques
There are four different types of basketry methods: coiling, plaiting, twining, and wicker. Some of the terms that are specific to basket weaving include loops, twining, ribs, and spokes. It is common practice to lash the rim and wrap the handle of the basket to give the finished product a more polished look, and to protect the owner's hands from sharp protrusions. To start the upward weaving process in wicker basketry, many basket makers will "upsett" the spokes, which involves carefully bending them upwards from where they meet in the center.