Basketry is one of the most ancient crafts older than pottery or the carving of stone and probably the origin of all the textile arts of the world. The process of interweaving twigs, seeds, or leaves for baskets and mat making it’s one of the most universal craftworks, ranking among the most ancient industries.
Authorities on the subject declare that there has never been a tribe in any part of the world that has not employed some mode of making baskets, and that all the weaves in use at the present day have their origin in baskets made by our savage ancestors. A craft of such antiquity is naturally of surpassing interest.
Basket making survives in many parts of the world today in forms, techniques, and materials similar to those used in past ages. While continuing as a living tradition, it has undergone a revival of interest among craftspeople, leading to new forms of expression. Just as weavers make pictures with tapestry, basket makers now use basketry techniques to create sculpture.
A thorough and steady training of twelve months is necessary to become proficient, and three years to acquire sufficient accuracy and speed (training the eye for shaping and the hand for regular and even weaving) to be able to fill correctly orders for special designs, and to reproduce models from specified measurements.
To be proficient in this task one must be persevering, accurate, neat, and capable of making the hand obey the mind.
Traditionally, basket makers gather and prepare their own materials. However, the increasing number of new basket makers, coupled with the scarcity of native woods, has meant that larger quantities of supplies must be imported to replace many of the natural materials that were once used.
An interesting fact about the age-old craft of basket making is that, while many other crafts have become mechanized, no one has ever invented a machine that can make baskets. They are still handmade. It’s not even an easy task to mass-produce baskets with the aid of molds, electric saws and sanders, and a multitude of “assembly line” processes. In fact, the earliest and most basic techniques of basket making are still alive and regulary used.
There are generally five types of basketry. “Coiled” basketry tends to use grasses and rushes. “Plaiting” uses materials that are wide and ribbon-like, such as palms or yucca. “Twining” uses materials from roots and tree bark. “Wicker” and “Splint” baskets use reed, cane, willow, oak and ash.
Although basket weaving is one of the widest spread crafts in the history of human civilization, it is hard to date accurately the age of the craft. The use of natural materials make baskets decay naturally and constantly. So without proper preservation (which was not available until two hundred years ago) much of the history of basket making has been lost.
Archeologists tell us that the oldest known baskets presently appear to be some unearthed in Faiyum in upper Egypt; radiocarbon dating tests have shown them to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old. Other Middle Eastern sites have produced baskets up to 7000 years old. The earliest dates for baskets are older than any yet established by archeologists for pottery.
Basket making has been called the mother of the pottery as evidence may be gathered from the early ceramic art of the more remote antiquity of the former craft. The potter used a basket mould long before the invention of his wheel, since pieces of pottery of the Neolithic Age have been discovered showing that the clay had been moulded round a basket structure.
This has given rise to the conjecture that the earliest water-vessels were baskets lined with plastic earth from which were copied the rude designs when our ancestors discovered the art of baking vessels made of clay. In many ancient sepulchers, urns have been found ornamented with basket-work patterns and Stone-Age pots of this description have been discovered.
Generally, references concerning basketry are few and scattered. Many publications on plaited crafts are out of print and kept in libraries or private collections that are not always accessible to the public. Often, experts in this field are working on their individual or institutional specialties without putting their work into an overall context. Taking these considerations into account, the primary objective of this section is to gather as much information as we can, trying to make sense of it in order to draw a map of basketry, its history, techniques and other interesting facts of this ancient craft.
BLANCHARD, M. M. (1914). The basketry book; twelve lessons in reed weaving. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons.
WRIGHT, D. (1992). The complete book of baskets and basketry. Newton Abbot, David & Charles.
BOBART, H. H. (1997). Basketwork through the ages. Cantenbury, The Basketmakers’ Association.
NOVELLINO, D. and ERTU, Z. F. (2006). “Baskets of the World” the Social Significance of Plaited Crafts. International Congress of Ethnobotany (ICEB 2005).
ERLDY, C. (2007). Basket weaving – History, viewed 9 September 2002, link.
Based on the Caherine Erldy classification of basketry types, in this section we will try to develop the main characteristics of each technique and we will give an example on how it is used traditionally in a specific community of artisans.
Plaited Baskets and mats are made with flexible material that are wide and ribbon-like such as rushes, palms, grasses and split rattans and bamboos. Plaited technique involves weaving wide materials, similar in shape to ribbons although at its most elaborate it can be closer to textile weaving than any other basketry technique.
In this craft both the stakes as well as the weaving materials are identical, which are then woven together at right angles. The plaiting can be either open or closed.
This technique can be found for many uses: fish traps fans, snow shoes, hats, hair ornaments, chair seats as well as baskets. One of the oldest known pieces has been found in the Swiss Lake Dwellings archeological discoveries of the Stone Age. But since those times plaits have grown in complexity and variety. We could even say that it would be very hard to find a new plait that has not been used before in the past. Old patterns survive by being passed from generation to genetarion.
Plaited baskets and mats are made all over the world but particularly in hot and humid climates. Making them requires high manual dexterity and most of the complex ones are made by the simplest people making exquisite hand work pieces.
The Eperara-Siapidara case:
To give and example of this type of basketry, we are going to focus on a community in particular that we know very well. We are talking about the Eperara Siapidara indigenous ethnic group. This colombian community of the Cauca region in the Pacific coast now faces problems such as the lost of their forests due to bad managment of the timber harvest and illicit coca plantations. In the last years some communities have been also displaced from their land by the guerrilla war. This is the case of our artisans, which made possible the launching of our very first collection of PET Lamp, applying plaited technique in their traditional way —with total freedom to use their own colours and ancient patterns—and using the local “paja tetera” palm tree waved with the plastic bottle stripes to create basket based lampshades in different shapes.
The Eperara Siapidara are heirs of a deep knowledge of their enviroment and of a rich handicrafts tradition. Traditionally in their journeys through jungles and forests, they gather fibers as the tetera (Stromanthe jacquinii) or the chocolatillo (Casearia aculeata) to weave baskets, used to transport food, as well as clothes and other objects. They make baskets for sale and for domestic use which are reinforced to withstand daily use. Special baskets are made also for ceremonial use, for offering to ancestral goods food and to harvest and preserve medicinal plants.
As in many other societies, historically, Eperara Siapidara basket weaving is associated with women. The little girl is introduced to this ancient craft since very early age and will ellaborate baskets at any age during their whole life. The Eperara artisan is always working on her weaving.
Nowadays the Eperara women makes baskets for selling that allow them to have a little income for basic necessities, but a lot of young women cease to weave when they are employed in the cities for house keeping .
Despite this, weaving with natural fibers is not only a femenine task. Men also weave with palm fibers among other natural fibers the roof of the houses and also weaving together palm mats they make the walls in their own traditional construction method.
When a little girl is close to five years old, an Eperara Siapidara adult woman starts to make the first attempts or test baskets with her. When finishing this first piece of basketry the ending tips of “paja tetera” remnants are cut off with a knife and the remains fall inside the basket. The older woman then takes the basket and place it on the little girl’s head as a hat. If when removing the basket from the head some pieces of fiber remain on the little girl’s hair is a sign that she is going to become basket knowledgeable. On the contrary if the pieces fall and there are none on her hair she won’t be, even if they teach her constantly, they believe that she won’t have the memory or sensitivity for it.
The designs of Eperara are natural. The indigenous already have this culture of weaving, it is something traditional and part of their ancient knowledge. Even though every Eperara community has their own characteristic patterns the base of the weaving is always the same for baskets. The Eperara artisan applies some logic principles: the weaving begins at the centre with a basic lattice, interlacing each stripe and alternating color, one by one until completing the five points that give shape to the weave. From this point the square with four corners that determine the use and size of the basket along with the geometric shape that is wished for the basket to be (cylindrical, rectangular, conical or tubular) is configured.
As in many indigenous tribes, weaving for the Eperara is very connected with mathematical operations, natural science, geometry, social sciences and space dimensions which makes each basket a piece enriched with the cultural knowledge of this ethnic group. Some of the different patterns that the Eperara use –which are part of the intangible cultural heritage of this ethnic group– are: the petaca or anaconda, the spider, the shrimp, the frog, the crab, the monkey, the scorpion, the fish, the bird house, the butterfly, the little worm, among others.
Basketry is a cultural practice in the natural enviroment of daily life of the eperara ethnic group. With this ancient craft they make baskets to carry food or to be used for domestic work. The creation and production is traditional hand crafted work made with natural fibers that reinforce and endure indigenous culture. It is also connected with the spiritual world and traditional medicine. There are rituals for the apprentice to obtain the dexterity required as weaver. In the baskets they also collect medicinal plants of sacred character and they make baskets exclusively for ceremonial use. Making the baskets the artisans communicate with each other and observing each other’s work they teach and learn weaving.
WRIGHT, D. (1992). The complete book of baskets and basketry. Newton Abbot, David & Charles.
MOCHO MEJÍA, J. (2014). Saberes: cestería tradicional del pueblo eperara siapidara. Convenio Cultural Inmaterial desde la perspectiva local. Bogotá: Ministerio de Cutura & Tropenbos Internacional Colombia.
BERMUDEZ, C. (2011). Investigación sobre Bagaje Simbólico y Cultural de las Artesanías. Informe de Avance: Junio 8 de 2011. Artesanías de Colombia