Basketry is a living tradition with a long history in the Pacific Northwest. If you have a Native American basket, you may want to know who made it and how old it is.
Native American peoples have been practicing basketry in the Salish Sea area for thousands of years. While people have traditionally made baskets for storage, food gathering, ceremonial uses, and other functions, basketry is also an art form.
Today, Native American basketry is recognized as a form of fine art rather than just an ethnographic specimen or souvenir. It is also seen as a link between the past and the present. Many kinds of basketry have important roles in Native cultures to this day.
Read on to learn more about traditional basketry uses and weaving techniques in the Pacific Northwest.
Native American Basketry Usage
Northwest Coast Salish baby basket, late 19th century
Basketry does not just mean baskets. It also includes woven mats, trunks, chests, cradles, and many other woven pieces of furniture.
Many Native American peoples in the Salish Sea area have traditionally used cedar bark, cattail leaves, tule, and other materials to weave mats. These mats have been used to create padding for sleeping areas, house partitions, canoe sails, and more.
Basketry also includes many techniques for making clothing. Some tribes used shredded cedar bark or cattail leaves to make protective rain gear.
People have also traditionally used cedar bark to make other clothing items, like hats. You can sometimes see these woven hats today at potlatches and other community events.
Native American peoples across the Pacific Northwest historically used baskets to gather, prepare, and store foods like berries and shellfish. Some people still make and use traditional basketry in this way today, though not as much as in the past.
Baskets for carrying heavy loads are made with sturdy materials like cedar root. They are often designed to be worn on the back with a tumpline. Other baskets, such as those for gathering berries, are woven with more flexible materials like spruce root so they can be folded down. Baskets made for gathering shellfish typically have wide-open weaves for easy water drainage.
Basketry can also help with food preparation. People have used loosely woven basketry to strain out the oil from some types of fish, and openwork baskets to steam shellfish. They have also used woven mats as a place to dry berries and roots in the sun.
Some tribes historically used watertight, closely woven containers to cook foods. They heated rocks, then placed the red-hot rocks in a basket filled with water to make the water boil. They then cooked the food in the boiling water and removed the rocks as they cooled off. However, using basketry for cooking has declined since the introduction of metal cooking equipment.
Many Native American ceremonies feature basketry, including woven hats. This basketry often displays crests or designs that indicate the wearer’s status. Some basketry items have been used for decades, making them precious heirlooms for the families they belong to.
On the northern Northwest Coast, woven and carved wood crest hats sometimes have twined basketry rings placed on top that show the wearer’s status. These rings are called “potlatch rings”.
Some Native American basketry is made for sale to non-Native persons. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest made a great deal of baskets to sell, often to museums, tourists, and private collectors. Basketry is an important source of income for some families to this day.
As the demand for Native American basketry grew, Native women experimented with many new designs and forms. They began to produce basketry teacups, tea cozies, trinket-sized baskets, and bottles covered with twining.
Northwest Coast Makah lidded bowl, late 19th century
Baskets made for sale rather than actual use are often made with thinner and more delicate materials.
How Native American Baskets Are Made in the Pacific Northwest
In the past, women typically made baskets and other basketry items. However, people of all genders practice basketry today.
In the Pacific Northwest, people have used a wide variety of materials for basketry. Some of the more common materials are cedar, cedar root, spruce root, tule, and cattail leaves. The basketry is often decorated with shiny red cherry bark, horsetail roots, grasses, and maidenhead fern stems.
Typically, people will harvest or gather raw materials at specific times of the year when they are best suited for weaving. The weaver may say special prayers or sing as they gather and process the materials. They may need to steam, dry, cut, or use other techniques to make the materials usable.
Sometimes weavers use natural dyes to color their basketry materials. For example, red dyes can come from wild cranberries, alder bark and wood, sea urchin juice, nettles, and hemlock bark. Other natural materials can create yellow, green-blue, dark blue, purple, brown, or black pigments. Some weavers also use commercial pigments.
Unfortunately, many raw materials that have been traditionally used in basketry are less common today. Clear-cut logging, invasive plant species, and restrictions on area use have made it harder for weavers to find and collect some materials. Old-growth cedars are especially rare today.
There are three main weaving techniques in traditional basketry from the Pacific Northwest coast: plaiting, twining, and coiling. Most weaving variations are based on one of these methods.
Plaiting, AKA checker weave, is a fairly straightforward basketry technique. The weft crosses over and under a single warp at a time. If the weft passes over or under more than one warp at a time, it creates a decorative twilling pattern.
Plaited basket bottoms are often used for twined baskets. The warp and weft of the bottom are split into smaller pieces so they can become the warp for the basket sides.
Northwest Coast Makah lidded bowl, late 19th to early 20th century
In twining, two wefts cross over each other between warps. There are many variations on twining that create unique surface appearances.
In twined basketry, the weaver can add color by using an extra colored weft for overlay or false embroidery. False embroidery is only on the outside wefts, so it is only visible on the outside of the basket. Overlay is woven into both the inside and outside wefts, so it may be visible on both sides depending on the technique.
Tlingit twined bark tray, late 19th century
Salish weavers are well known for their beautiful coiled baskets, which are often decorated with geometric motifs. Coiled baskets can be woven tightly enough to hold water or work as cooking equipment.
In coiling, the weaver takes a foundation material like split root bundles, coils it up, and stitches it into place. They use an awl to pierce a hole in each coil, then thread something through the hole to sew each coil down to the coil below it.
Northwest Coast Salish berry basket, late 19th century
Weavers often use a technique called imbrication to decorate coiled basketry. In this technique, they fold a decorative element under a sewing stitch on the basket’s outer surface.
Want to Learn More About Your Native American Basketry?
Native American weavers make traditional baskets to this day to pass on cultural and aesthetic traditions. The basketry design can leave clues about who made it. Some forms and motifs are associated with specific tribes, uses, meanings, and geographic areas.
If you have a Native American basket and want to understand its history, Fruitcocktail Collectables can help. We offer expert appraisals for Pacific Northwest Native American basketry and more. Our accredited appraisers can help you understand the cultural and financial value of your basket.