How to Weave Baskets from Pine Needles
Traditional Interior Salish Baskets
Copyright © 2012-2014 Janis Goad. All Rights Reserved.
For thousands of years, the Secwepemc, one of the Salish First Nations people of interior British Columbia, have been weaving beautiful baskets and plates from pine needles.These woven baskets were prized for household use, for storage, and for trade. Traditionally the clumps of needles were sewn together with thread from the inside of cedar bark or from animal sinew, but today you can make these craft baskets with long needles from pine trees and with raffia or sturdy thread.
Thompson Rivers University, like all of the City of Kamloops, is built on Secwepemc territory. At a recent workshop there, participants had the opportunity to learn one of the traditional skills of weaving a basket from the local long pine needles that are common in the area.
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What You Need to Weave Baskets from Pine Needles
You will need:
- a supply of long pine needles, such as Ponderosa or red pine. These needles are about as long as a hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger. Long needles mean the basket will be more stable, with fewer loose ends. If the needles are fresh and green, they are more flexible to work with; they will dry and brown as the basket ages. If the needles are gathered from the ground, they will be brown and dry already, and will be brittle to work with; in that case, soak the dry needles overnight in water, then wrap them with a damp towel and keep them in a plastic bag while you are working with them. If you leave your work for a few days, take the needles out of the damp cloth and let them dry again so they don't mold.
- a sewing needle with a large eye to make threading easier
- thread. Traditionally, Salish basket makers used sinew or cedar root for sewing, but today we used sinew-like thread from Michael's craft supplies store. Other basket makers use raffia, or dental floss. If you are using raffia, keep it moist by wrapping it in moist towels like the pine needles, so it is flexible for sewing.
Shaping the Coil for Your Pine Needle Basket
Start the basket by taking a group of about seven needles. The Ponderosa pine have needles in groups of three, so the coil has about 21 individual needles in it. Remove the dark end of bark that holds the cluster of needles together, to make the finished basket smoother. The needles will still hold together with the pale membrane that lies under the bark.
Coil the membrane end of the needles into a small circle, and wrap the coil with thread by putting the needle into the centre of the circle and around the outside. Make about 16 stitches evenly spaced around the starting circle. Hold the coil so the tail of unwoven needles points away from your sewing hand, since you will be wrapping in new needles as you turn and wrap the coil. With practice, the stitches at the start of the basket will be spread evenly around the coil, but even if at first your stitches are uneven, as the rows of your basket progress, you will be able to even them out.
Some basket makers work with a single overhand stitch and a thread of sinew. Each row of stitches is placed in line with the rows before, so the lines of stitches spiral out from the centre as the basket develops. Other basket makers work with a double stitch and a thread of raffia. Each stitch is made in pairs, with the first of the pair threading into the leading stitch of the pair in the coil below. This will create a pattern of v-stitches that curve in one direction from the centre of the basket radiating out. As each thread becomes too short to work with, sew it in through several rows of coil to hold it firmly, then cut off the end with sharp, pointed embroidery scissors. Rethread the needle, and continue, going back later to sew the end of the new thread in through previous layers of coil in the same way. This will give the finished basket a neat surface both inside and outside.
Weaving the Sides and Lid on a Pine Needle Basket
Continue working your basket until the base is as large as you want it. Traditional shapes include flat, shallow baskets like plates for serving food or drying seeds, and taller cylindrical baskets with lids for storage.
When you are ready to weave the sides, press the coil on top of the coil below, instead of outside it. Continue with the same pattern of stitches you have been using, so the pattern is visible across the bottom of the basket and up the sides. Once the basket is as high as you want it, sew the last part of the coil inside the lip of the basket so it is out of sight. Sew the end of your thread into the first few rows of coil so it is held firmly and won't unsew, then cut the end.
Lids for the baskets are woven the same way, by starting a new coil and making a flatter basket that matches the diameter of the bottom basket. Some lids have lips on the inside to hold the lid securely on the basket. To do this, weave your lid wider than the base, so there is an overhang. Then sew another coil of needles inside the lid. To measure the placement for the lip so the lid fits the basket snugly, place the lid on the basket, and press a ring of dress maker's pins through the lid in line with the inside of the basket rim. Then when you sew the coil of needles to the lid around the outside of the marker pins, the lip will sit at the inside edge of the basket bottom rim.
Adding Lid Grips and Decorations to the Pine Needle Basket
Handles for lids can be folded coils of needles sewn to the outside, or small pine cones, stones or carved wood or bone. Experiment with decorating the basket with designs of coloured thread or grass, or sewing beads or small shells in designs that satisfy you.
Basketry is an art form, with each piece a unique expression of the spirit of the weaver. Using materials from the natural environment, these traditional Salish baskets woven from pine needles are not only practical and long-lasting, but beautiful.