GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2006

Basket Making

While vacationing one summer in a rented house on a muggy canal somewhere in Florida with my in-laws almost 20 years ago, I stumbled on a little shop in the middle of nowhere selling basket-making supplies. It didn’t take much to pique my interest—it meant getting out of the house. So I wandered in.

The proprietor, JoAnn Page, showed me around the store decorated with baskets she had made. Some were solidly woven and some were open and airy. Some were brightly colored and others were natural earth tones. I lingered, looking for a reason to avoid going back to the vacation house, but the longer I stayed, the more intrigued I became by the realization that each of the baskets was different and that I had no idea where the weaving started or how a person would begin to make a basket. If I had been at home, I doubt I would have given these baskets a second glance, but against the backdrop of the vapid vacation, my curiosity caught fire.

JoAnn offered a beginner class in how to make a garlic basket, and I decided I had to learn. A garlic basket is shaped like a droopy athletic sock and allows air to circulate freely around your produce. The experienced weaver can dash off a garlic basket in less than half an hour. I took the class and spent about three hours on it, winding up with a respectable facsimile of the sample we were trying to duplicate.

After the class, my head was bursting with possibilities. We’d learned about twining, which means twisting round weaving materials. Then there is twill work, which is the familiar over-and-under of flat weavers over flat stakes that can result in intricate patterns and textures such as the beautiful quatrefoil. You can make a basket with or without a mold, depending on whether you want to shape it yourself or rely on a mold for consistency. Your basket can have a woven bottom or a solid wood one, like those of the Nantucket lightship baskets that are traditionally woven over a mold using fine bamboo cane. Basket-making materials range from waxed linen thread to twisted paper to cheap reed to brown ash to white oak to red cedar to birch bark to baleen, each with its own distinct characteristics.

Even though the Florida vacation ended, my interest in basket making did not. I signed up for basket-making classes in my hometown of Baltimore and learned about cathead bottoms and how to whittle handles. For a while I went on a jag making miniature shaker-style baskets on tiny molds. One year all the mothers and grandmothers in my family received gifts of velvet-topped basket-pincushions made by yours truly. I made myself several Nantucket purses and two backpacks (when I wear them, people stop me on the street and offer to buy them). And still, I am not finished with this hobby.

I belong to join the North Carolina Basketmaker’s Guild, an organization of some 600 weavers who sign up for classes in December and then converge each spring on a hotel in North Carolina where they weave in the ballrooms for four days and nights straight.

What is it that I love about making baskets? It’s a collaborative effort. When in class, you’re in a group of 20 other weavers, each learning to make the same basket. One person speeds ahead, weaving at warp speed, while others (like me) lag behind, making sure every last stake is perfectly trimmed and sanded before starting to weave. Eventually, someone will cry out, “oh, no!” and everyone’s head will crane around to see what happened. Broken stave? Skipped a spoke? Stake came out of the base? Will she have to start over? Everyone’s thinking the same thing—glad that wasn’t me—but in an instant, people are offering helpful advice to repair the problem or actually stopping their own weaving to make the repair so the unfortunate student can get back on track and catch up with the rest of the group. By the end of the class, each student has woven the same basket, but each one is different. Part of the fun is to compare baskets and think of new ways to do it better next time.

The collaborative mentality is not one I get to experience often in my work as a litigator. Nor have I observed it in other hobbies such as dancing, which can be more competitive and personal, or collecting, which emphasizes an individual’s specific collection, or in other forms of art, such as drawing or painting, where focus and effort become so intense that conversation and collaboration are frequently impossible. Basket making, on the other hand, requires just enough concentration to take your mind off your troubles, but not so much that you cannot keep up a running conversation while weaving. And there’s always the safety net of the weavers around you who will surely be able to fix whatever your problem is, the same way the collective wisdom of a jury comes to the right verdict.

 

Robin Page West is a principal in Cohan & West, P.C., in Baltimore, Maryland, where she maintains a complex civil litigation practice. She is also the author of Advising the Qui Tam Whistleblower and co-author of Letters for Litigators, both of which are published by the ABA. She can be reached at rpw@cohanwest.com.

 

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