Traditional examples of basketry can be found in nearly every place in the world that has been inhabited by humans. Basketry, a form of weaving, has been used to make sandals, mats, huts, fish nets, fences for animals, beehives, hats, filters for beer or wine, strainers, rafts, and all forms of storage containers by folks all over the world.
Some of the most ancient evidence of basketry can be found in dry caves sites in the now western United States. The arid environmental conditions have allowed for the preservation of materials that would have long degraded in a wetter place. Coiled and twined basketry have been discovered in sites that are approximately 11,000 years old. Additionally, pottery shards with the impression of basketry pressed onto the surface, dating to at least 8,000 years old have been found in caves in present-day Kenya in eastern Africa. This ancient craft tradition carries a social, spiritual and utilitarian function that continues to be important today.
Coiled basketry was made by enslaved Africans and African Americans in North America. Often known as sweetgrass baskets, coiled baskets were made from natural materials available in the region from North Carolina to Florida and used by enslaved workers for agricultural and household purposes. The Gullah Geechee people, who are descendants of West Africans who were brought to North America as slaves, have continued this unique craft tradition. One common form are the wide winnowing baskets, or fanners. These are used to separate rice grains from husks. Grains are tossed in the air or poured from one basket to another while the wind blows away the chaff. These baskets look similar to coiled baskets made in such West African countries as Senegal and Angola which are also used to process grains and cover food.
Ancient and modern basketry has been made from a variety of materials and techniques. Indigenous people of North America have and continue to use willow, sweetgrass, and pine needles to produce coiled baskets. Navajo coiled baskets are known to be so tightly woven that they can be used as water jugs. The symbols and colors of Navajo basketry are also noteworthy in that they convey cultural meaning and spiritual significance.
The coiled Navajo Ceremonial Basket, also called the Navajo Wedding Basket, is an example of the spiritual significance of basketry. The design of the basket is viewed as a map that charts the course of one’s life. At the center of the coil is a spot called the sipapu, where the Diné or Navajo people emerged from the previous world into this one through a reed. Light-colored inner coils represent birth. As the coils spiral outward there are black motifs that represent life’s struggles. Coils made with red fibers symbolize marriage, the mixing of blood to create a family. Coiling out from here there are more dark motifs interspersed with light colors that represent increasing wisdom and enlightenment as we grow older. The outer rim of the coiled basket is light-colored which represents the return to the spirit world. Other interpretations of the basket’s symbology suggest that all of the light colors represent dawn, all the red stands for the sun’s rays and all the black symbolize clouds. A particular feature of the design includes a light line the runs from the center of the basket to the outer rim representing a constant pathway to the light that is present throughout our lives. When the basket is used during ceremonies, this line always points east, the place of the rising sun. Some weavers believe that a pathway must always be included in their designs because it encourages a flow of creativity.
All over the world indigenous groups have produced baskets for utilitarian, decorative, and spiritual purposes using a wide variety of innovative materials and techniques. Mastery over this craft has the potential to raise one’s social status, especially for many women artisans throughout Africa such as the Tonga artisans in Zambia who use ritual while actually weaving the basket into being. Learning and making this craft holds the potential for connecting us to our ancient human roots. Using our hands, hearts, and minds, making a woven vessel becomes a container for our creative curiosity. Learn more about making your own Coiled Basketry here.