Basket Weaving is Cool, No REALLY!

Ok, all jokes about underwater basketweaving course, these are some cool and crafty applications.


Baskets have been replaced by plastic and other kinds of factory-made containers in almost every area of life, appearing today mainly as twee Easter decorations. Making them has become synonymous with wasting time – “basket-weaving” in the USA is slang for an easy lesson for slow students.

The craft of basketry, however, might be one of our species’ most important and diverse technologies, creating homes, boats, animal traps, armour, tools, cages, hats, chariots, weirs, beehives, shelters and furniture, as well as all manner of containers. Basket weaving makes use of fast-growing biodegradable materials — branches, twigs or shoots — that requires the forest to be cultivated rather than cleared. Basketry allows almost anyone, with little or no money and few tools, to create a large variety of useful goods in a way that is one hundred percent sustainable.

29,000 years of history

Virtually all human cultures have made baskets, and have apparently done so since we co-existed with ground sloths and sabre-toothed cats; for tens of thousands of years humans may have slept in basket-frame huts, kept predators out with basket fences, and caught fish in basket traps gathered while paddling along a river in a basket-frame boat. They might have carried their babies in basket papooses and gone to their graves in basket coffins.

The earliest piece of ancient basketry we have comes from 13,000 years ago, but impressions on ceramics from Central Europe indicate woven fibres — textiles or baskets –- up to 29,000 years ago. (1) We have clues that the technology might be far older than that; in theory, Neanderthals or some early hominid could have woven baskets.

“The technology of basketry was central to daily living in every aboriginal society,” wrote ecologist Neil Sugihara, and baskets “were the single most essential possession in every family”. (2) Early humans must have regularly cropped basketry plants as they would edible plants, and burned woodlands to encourage their growth, according to anthropologist M. K. Anderson. Anderson even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops. (3)

Main basket types

Baskets come in several main types. Coiled baskets appeared early, created by winding flexible plant fibres from a centre outward in a spiral and then sewing the structure together. Their spiral nature, however, limits them to circular objects; beehive containers, called skeps, were built this way for hundreds of years, and straw hats still are today.

The earliest American baskets were twined; fibre was wound around a row of rigid elements like sticks – wrapped around one, twisted, wrapped around the next one and twisted again. The sticks would seem to limit this approach to flat surfaces like mats, but bending and shaping the sticks allows twining to create a variety of containers and shapes.

Basketry bedBasketry high sleeper, by Coopérative Vannerie de Villaines.

Still others were plaited, with flexible materials criss-crossed like threads through cloth. The Irish flattened and plaited bulrushes for hundreds of years into mats and curtains. Here too, the approach would seem to limit plaiting to flat surfaces, but as the rushes must be woven while green and flexible and harden as they dry, they can be plaited around a mould to create boxes, bags or many other shapes.

Wicker, however, probably remains the most versatile technique, weaving flexible but sturdy material like tree shoots around upright sticks that provide support. Wicker is the form used for fences, walls, furniture, animal traps and many other advanced shapes, and when you picture a basket, you’re probably picturing wicker too. (4)

Hurdle fences

Once early humans mastered the technique of fashioning wicker, they began using it for a variety of purposes beyond carrying and preparing food, and shelter probably came next. Wattle fences were made with a row of upright poles with flexible wood cuttings woven between them, a basket wall. Unusually, they could be made in modular, lightweight pieces a metre or two high and a metre or two across – hurdles — and then uprooted, carried to a new location, and stamped into the ground where needed.

 The uprights, sometimes called zales or sails in Britain, were typically rounded at the end and placed in a wooden frame, sometimes called a gallows, to hold them in place. Then withies – slim cuttings of willow or hazel – were wound back and forth around the uprights. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

Hurdle fence 2Hurdle fence, source: Windrush Willow.

1 Comment on “Basket Weaving is Cool, No REALLY!

  1. Alesha on said:

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