24 August 2014

Something about Hell in a Hand Basket

First three baskets.
For a long time I’ve wanted to be a crafty person.  I find myself drawn to people who are creative – writers, poets, knitters, quilters, weavers, spinners, jewelers, painters, and photographers.  There is something inspiring about creating something new from a few supplies with time, vision, and skill.  I’ve envied these types of people and have dabbled a bit in some of these crafts, but was always disappointed in most of my results.  To be honest, I always wanted my first or second attempt at whatever to be worthy of a cover photo on Martha Stewart Living.  Of course, none of my attempts were worthy and they shouldn’t have been, given the scant amount of time I’d invested.

I wasn’t thinking about crafts this spring, while hiking near Granite Mountain Wilderness, but I began to notice tufts of green pine needles scattered along the trail.  Many of our pines here are long-needled ponderosas, which are desirable for basketry.  The clumps of pine needles I was noticing were tips of branches cut off by tree squirrels, most likely Abert’s squirrels, according to my wildlife biologist dad.  The squirrels like to eat the new growth; biologists can determine the number of squirrels in an area, usually one squirrel per tree where these clippings fall.  I gathered a few clumps, thinking I’d try my hand at making a pine needle basket.  When I returned home, I did what my daughters do when they want to know how to do something new:  a YouTube search.

I watched several videos, soaked the pine needles in hot water, and gathered a few more supplies.  Most pine needle baskets are typically coiled with some type of fiber to stitch and hold the coils together.  I set out to make my first basket, which was definitely not worthy of a magazine cover, but stayed together.  My stitching reflects my fear that the basket would not hold itself together, but I like the look of the pale yellow raffia with the pale green needles.

For my second basket, I gathered dry needles and used a nice weight of hemp cord, which was much easier to work with than the raffia.  I tried to have more faith in the strength and integrity of the materials to keep their shape without overstitching.  I’ve made a total of four baskets now with my focus lately being on making the stitching more regular and attractive.  I can see improvement with each basket.
Second basket, in process.

Second basket, finished.

Third attempt.  This hemp cord was too stiff, too difficult to work with.

My stitching has improved!

Fourth basket.

Making baskets, once all the simple preparations have been taken care of, is a repetitive and meditative task.  The baskets form rather organically, the shape and size determined as each coil is stitched [read:  there is no pattern to confuse me].  It’s inexpensive and requires little beyond a large needle.  The process is quick – the last two baskets I made took about two evenings a piece.  I like being a part of a centuries-old local tradition of pine needle basketry.  Native peoples in this area have been making baskets using plant materials including ponderosa pine needles, yucca fibers, and bear grass.  As I work on a basket and inhale the scent of pine, I think of the basket makers of the past, throughout the continents.  Nearly every culture has some basket making tradition utilizing local materials to create a utilitarian and perhaps beautiful product.  I’m making connections across the globe, throughout the ages, and to the natural world around me, and while my projects aren’t cover girls, I’m enjoying the process.  For once, the process is the thing. 

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