The Art of Bending Stems

Pomo Gift Basket

Basketmaking is an underappreciated artform and the baskets made by many California Indian women rank among some of the best in the world. This is an ancient tradition which has survived into the modern era. The bending of stems continues to be a vibrant and important part of the continuity of tradition among Native California people. Some of the greatest basketweavers of the recent past include Datsolalee, Elsie Allen, Elizabeth Hickox, and Lucy Telles. There are many others whose names are now lost but a strong resurgence in traditional practice ensures this is a tradition that will continue.

Elsie Allen weaving.

Tobacco basket by Elizabeth Hickox

 Weaving a basket is a complex process. There is a great deal of planning and preparation before beginning. Collecting and processing the plant material can involve a variety of rituals, prayers, and songs. Sometimes the act of locating and harvesting the proper reeds, stems, needles, grasses, and other plants is a challenge. Vegetal dyes are often made from local plants and used to color the raw medium. Designs are woven into the composition as a piece is created rather than painted or applied to the finished surface. The pattern of each basket has to be planned very carefully, if even a single strip is out-of-place the pattern can be ruined.

Datsolalee and her degikup baskets.

Datsolalee was also known by her anglo name of Louisa Keyser. A member of the Washoe tribe, she broke away from traditional forms of basketry, altering the shape and refining a stitching technique to create a form that came to be called degikup.  This degikup was a large basket which curved inwards toward the top rim and featured an expanded design covering most of the basket surface. Her work was influential in creating a “curio” style of basketry that appealed to collectors. She was a very talented basket weaver, completing over 250 baskets in her lifetime. 

 Lucy Telles was a superb weaver who shared her love of basketmaking with many and whose work continues to fascinate admirers. Of mixed Miwok and Paiute heritage, she found economic success in selling her baskets to tourists in and around Yosemite Park. Her work modified traditional Miwok shapes and instead of restricting decoration to the typical geometric patterns, she incorporated large and often stylized pictorial elements. The use of black and red dyes on a single basket was also a change from the older forms. She taught many others to weave and influenced an entire generation of basketmakers.

Lucy Telles, her grandson inside one of her baskets.

If you are interested in learning more about Native baskets and basketmakers, I recommend starting with these books:
There are many other beautiful weaving traditions from tribes across the continent, look around and you’ll find the people are still here and they are still weaving. If you are interested in learning how baskets are made using the proper methods and materials of tradition, start with the California Indian Basketweavers Association. CIBA has been teaching interested folks about keeping the tradition alive for many years now.
What traditions matter to you?

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  1. #1 by Marcia on July 13, 2012 - 1:15 pm

    Love the history on this craft, Leslie, and the pictures here are beautiful. I’m always drawn to handmade goods wherever I find them. The oldest crafts of basket weaving, pottery, quilting, doll-making, woodcraft, etc are my favorites. In Charleston, SC, I found Indian women making baskets in the craft market. Their fingers moved so fast – fascinating to watch. Handmade goods are a tradition I’ll always support and seek out.

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 14, 2012 - 1:31 pm

      I miss the old time art markets that used to spring up at crossroads in the country. I still find one here and there, but the tourist road traffic isn’t strong enough anymore to support the effort. Too bad, there were so many wonderful items that I never saw anywhere else. I just have to look a bit harder these days. Glad to know I’m not the only one out there who still thinks hand-made is best.

  2. #3 by Patricia Sands on July 15, 2012 - 5:51 am

    I’m with you there too! I love to browse through old-time markets with crafts such as these that are as much about a true expression of artistry as anything. I’ve never watched someone creating baskets like these but you have inspired me to see what Google has to offer. Thanks for the history and for sharing this information that we all should work toward preserving.

    • #4 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 16, 2012 - 4:33 am

      Thanks for visiting, Patricia! I remember going to art festivals in tiny towns in the midwest when I was young. My grandmother always found the most amazing hand-thrown pottery and woodcarvings. Some of those dishes are still being used, hauled out for family occasions and potlucks, which makes for nice memories. I’d sure like to see that re-energized in the small-town marketplace.

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