Basket-making — A long-lasting tradition
by Ruth Baker
Oct 02, 2011 | 1368 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With modern machinery, cheap sacks and bags of cloth, plastic and fabric, basketry has become a lost art except by a few older craftsmen. There have been people who say they trace their craft to Moses in the bulrush of the Bible. His mother placed him in a basket in the river to preserve his life from Pharaoh’s wrath. This is said with “tongue in cheek” humor. However, it was in America among the natives when colonist arrived.

The Indians favored split reed, willow, and grasses for their baskets, fish traps, and utilitarian uses. The Anglo-Americans liked straight grained hardwood for baskets, mainly white oak and hickory. When we look at South Carolina and Georgia, we find more of the coiled grass, and ribbed oak egg baskets.

On a trip to South Carolina, we visited an open market where Sea Islanders made their baskets as a tourist attraction. They used vines, grasses, and mainly reeds. I had my camera ready and asked one lady if I might take her picture and she said, “No, No. No pictures unless you buy basket.” I passed her place and found a more cooperative weaver and got my picture and bought my basket when I saw the one I wanted.

Crafts have been revived in the South by many trends of open-air markets, extended yard sales across several states, the foxfire projects, and theme parks restoring historical settings and the old crafts.

At one time baskets were used for holding cotton and transporting vegetables from the fields to market or home to can. In those days, a large cotton basket sold for 75 cents each. The price has changed dramatically with Ebay and others having them on auction. Today, the baskets are sold for their decorative qualities rather than utilitarian purposes. They may be found in a den filed with magazines or books, or on a table full of leaves, flowers, pinecones, or melons in season and many other uses. You may find one in the bathroom with towels or on the front porch or deck with peanuts on the vine or many other colorful objects.

It seems that basket weaving was a craft handed down for generations. Every area had a man capable of putting a new “bottom” in an oak chair or a back and bottom in the old antique rocking chairs. Uncle Dock Romine is remembered by the older generations who grew up in the Townley/Holly Grove community. He could be seen shuffling down the road with coils of oak splints just the right width for a basket or to put a new bottom in a chair.

Leonard Bagwell, who lived across the Fayette line off 69 South was a late bloomer in the basket craft. I visited him many times and asked my questions about the process he went through to have the finished product. He was always kind and answered all my questions.

“First, you go into the woods and choose a straight small to medium-sized oak tree. Eight inches in diameter is the most perfect. His work place was two cross-wood pieces to lay the log across. A cut was made to take away the bark edge and the old two-handled knife came out to start a slice. He pulled the narrow strip with the grain of the wood. The first layers close to the bark had a little more color. Sometimes this was saved for a decorative edge or handle. The coils were dropped into a tub with cold water to keep pliable until used. A basket was woven across the bottom and the long strips were dangling like an open flower petals. These were woven round and round and the basket took shape.” Cotton baskets had an opening on each side with the rim of the basket giving a secure handhold to carry. Smaller baskets had the curved carrying handle.

The Bagwells had large acres of land and he had a ready source of supplies. When I found him and bought one of every basket he made at the time, I wrote a story about him. He told me he had six days a week work from then on with the orders that came pouring in from as far away as Birmingham. Many trips for a visit were made a close friendship was formed with he and his wife.

One day the sad call from his wife that he had died. His wife later followed him, but I still have a row of baskets over one side of my kitchen that I see every day and am reminded of his craftsmanship. I use one or two to carry my books to book signings. Where once I put pine kindling near the stove or fireplace in a basket, now they sit in prominent places as a reminder of those patient, strong hands that made something beautiful which lives on as a monument to his life.