Appalachian Basket Making; Handing Down the Basket

By: Rachel Nash Law and Cynthia W. Taylor

ImageBasket making is an ancient craft that has been in existence long before the written word. Humans have always needed methods for storing and transporting their food and possessions and different types of baskets were developed utilizing natural materials native to each community and culture.

One of the most distinctive types of basket is the white oak baskets crafted by the Appalachian peoples and those living in the surrounding region. While the roots of the designs can be traced to Scots-Irish or Germanic origins, materials are uniquely North American and influences attributed to Native Americans noted.

Appalachian basket makers preferred white oak for their baskets because this tree produces a straight grain that splits easily into the staves and other construction items. There are two species of white oak preferred by basket makers. Quercus alba and Quercus michauxii. The Quercus michauxii is actually known as the ‘basket oak'. There were many superstitions about the proper time for cutting basket wood and each family had their own customs and traditions concerning cutting the trees.

This book isn't a ‘how-to' for beginners. It is an in-depth study into the culture and peoples who craft these wonderful works of art. Students of folk-life, historians and collectors will appreciate this detailed resource. However, there are detailed diagrams and descriptions of the various patterns and methods these artisans used.

Historically, basket makers were the poorest of the poor, using their craft to put food on the table. Many mountain grocery stores accepted baskets as barter for food and without this practice; many Appalachian families would have gone hungry. Today, the basket makers are considered artisans and their containers are highly sought after collectables.

The authors have mixed stories of basket making families with vintage black and white photos and detailed drawings of various weaves, handles, wrappings and designs. Each family or clan had their own signature style and being familiar with these, helps historians determine the location where the basket was made and sometimes its approximate age.

If you are a basket maker, the diagrams and illustrations will be valuable for expanding your skills. Historians will appreciate the detailed descriptions of regional styles and patterns. The color plates show off beautiful natural dyed designs. Craftspeople will find inspiration in the simple, but functional shapes.

This book is a wonderful historical account of a dying craft and way of life. Anyone wanting to create a complete library of traditional crafts should include this in their collection.

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