Northwest Coast Basketry Teacher’s Guide

July 5, 2002
Silvia Koros
baskets with red and black designs on them

Tlingit baskets in the Burke's collection.
Photo: Andrew Waits

Basketry Types and Uses

Basketry has been practiced for thousands of years by Native peoples of North America. It is an art form that often combines both utilitarian and aesthetic qualities. Baskets are made for a variety of purposes, including food gathering and storage, furnishings, garments and ceremonial uses. Basketry can transmit important artistic knowledge and cultural traditions.

There are many different types of baskets, with countless variations on these types made by different tribes and individual artists. The following descriptions provide just a few examples of important types of basketry. 

Food Gathering, Storage and Preparation
Basketry played an important role in the gathering, storage and preparation of food. Baskets were (and, in some cases, still are) used to gather roots, berries, shellfish and other foods. Sturdy burden baskets capable of holding large and heavy loads were worn on the back and carried using a tumpline. Baskets made for gathering berries were often woven from flexible materials which allowed the basket to be folded and stored flat. Containers used to gather shellfish and other seafood used very open weaves, allowing for easy rinsing and water drainage.

Once gathered, food was often kept in storage baskets. These varied in size depending on the items being stored. Basketry covers made of cedar bark were used by some tribes to place over dishes or boxes filled with food.

The preparation of foods often relied on basketry. Berries and roots could be dried on woven mats spread out in the sun. Loosely woven basketry was used to strain oil from certain kinds of fish. Baskets were used for cooking in several ways. Shellfish could be steamed in openwork baskets. Closely woven, watertight containers were also used to cook foods. Red-hot rocks were placed in a water-filled basket, bringing the water to boil and cooking the contents. As the rocks cooled off, they were removed from the water with wooden tongs and replaced with newly heated rocks. As metal cooking vessels first introduced by European traders became commonplace, the use of basketry for cooking declined.

Furnishings and Garments
Furnishings made from basketry include mats, chests, trunks and cradles. Mats are made in a wide range of sizes and are woven with a variety of materials such as cedar bark, cattail leaves or tule. Mats have been used for canoe sails, house partitions and for padding on which to sleep and eat.

Garments are another important category of basketry. Rain capes can be made using shredded cedar bark or the flat leaves of cattail. Both of these materials shed water, providing excellent protection from the rain. Cedar bark can also be used for making aprons, skirts and hats. Hats provide protection from both sun and rain. For the most efficient barrier to rain, southern Northwest Coat hats are often constructed from two separate, woven layers. The inner and the outer hats are joined at the rims. Basketry hats made in a variety of techniques can be seen today at potlatches, powwows and other special events.

Ceremonial Uses
Ceremonies may feature basketry that displays crests or signifies prestige. (Crests are family emblems that are considered owned property.) Woven hats sometimes have crest designs painted on their exterior. On the northern Northwest Coast, twined basketry rings may be placed on the top of woven or carved wood crest hats. The basketry rings symbolize the high status of the wearer. In the Haida language, the word for basketry rings is sgil, meaning “wealth spirit.” These rings are sometimes called “potlatch rings,” referring to an interpretation that these rings represent the number of potlatches held by the owner. This explanation is an over-simplification, however, as important crest hats often have a set number of rings no matter how often they have been potlatched.

A few baskets are regarded so highly that they are considered crests themselves. Among the Chilkat Tlingit, for example, an enormous basket known as Kuhk-claw, or “Mother Basket,” was woven in the 1800s. Measuring almost three feet both in height and diameter, the basket was used to hold large quantities of food. Through its repeated use and display at potlatches, the basket earned the status of a crest. Today, this basket is both a source of pride and a precious heirloom for the family to which it belongs.

Baskets Made for Sale
Baskets made for sale are an important category of basketry and often comprise a large percentage of museum basketry collections. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the volume of baskets produced for sale to non-Native persons increased dramatically. Basketry became an important source of income for many families. This time period coincides with increased collecting efforts by private individuals and museums. Growing numbers of tourists came to the western United States and Canada, often seeking the opportunity to purchase a Native-made souvenir directly from the maker. Baskets, viewed as the perfect souvenir, were in high demand.

Responding to this new market, Native women began increasing the number of baskets they made, as well as experimenting with new basketry forms and design motifs. Basketry tea cozies and teacups, small “trinket” baskets and bottles covered with fine twining are but a few of the imaginative new basketry forms created during this time period.

Basketry Today
While it is an ancient art, basketry is a tradition that continues to thrive today. In the past, basket making was the domain of women. Today, both men and women practice basketry, although it remains a predominantly female art. Contemporary weavers, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, often achieve positions of great respect in their communities.

Basketry also continues to provide significant income for skilled weavers. No longer viewed solely as ethnographic specimens or souvenir art, Native-made basketry has entered the realm of fine art. Basket makers today sell their wares at powwows, art galleries and museum shops. In creating their art, Native weavers continue a living tradition that strengthens the link between past and present.

 

Materials

Sources
Materials used in basketry vary, depending upon the type of basket being made, its intended function, the tastes of the maker and the materials available. A basket used for heavy loads would use stiff, sturdy material such as cedar withe or cedar root. A container made to fold flat requires flexible material such as spruce root. A basket made for sale and not intended for actual use can use especially fine, thin or delicate materials in its construction.

Some of the more common materials used in basketry include cedar bark, cedar root, spruce root, cattail leaves and tule. Elements used for decoration include maidenhair fern stems, horsetail root, red cherry bark and a variety of grasses. These materials vary widely in color and appearance. Some have a matte surface, while others, such as red cherry bark, appear shiny.

Gathering and Processing the Materials
Most raw materials used in weaving are harvested or gathered at specific times of the year. This ensures that the materials are collected when they are best suited for weaving. Weavers understand the growing cycles of the natural materials they use and recognize when a tree or plant is ready for harvesting. Often, special prayers are said or songs are sung by the weaver while she gathers and processes her materials.

Most materials are collected in the spring or early summer. This includes grasses, which must be picked at just the right time. If it is too early in the season, certain grasses are too soft or narrow for weaving. Other kinds, such as reed canary grass, need to be harvested before the plant blooms. Catherine Pascal, a Mount Currie (Salish) weaver, describes the process of collecting and preparing this grass:

“We pick it along the highway up the valley before it blooms. After it blooms, it’s no good. Then we steam it or put it in boiling water and leave it on the line for a whole week. Then we cut it up all in bundles and put it away till we use it (Steltzer 109).”

horsetail, swamp grass and bulrush illustrations

Different plants used in basketry
Illustration: Silvia Koros

The bark of both red and yellow cedar is gathered when the tree sap is running, normally between April and July. The sap allows the bark to be pulled off easily from the tree. To obtain a long, even length of bark, the weaver makes a horizontal cut into the tree several feet from the ground then pulls the bark away from the tree. As the strip travels up the trunk, the weaver backs away from the tree. The strip, usually a few inches wide, is removed from the tree with a twisting motion. As long as only one or two strips are taken from the same tree, the removal of the bark will not harm the tree.

Once removed, the outer cedar bark is removed from the inner bark by folding and peeling the bark by hand. Stubborn spots on the bark may require the use of a knife. The inner bark is used for basketry. It is washed, dried and gathered into bundles where it can be stored for later weaving projects.

Cedar bark bundle

Illustration: Silvia Koros

Spruce or cedar root can be gathered at any time of the year, although cedar root is often collected in the spring, at the same time when the bark is harvested. Roots growing along a beach or sandy riverbank are easiest to collect. The most preferable roots are long, straight and even. Roots are carefully pulled from the ground by hand or with the help of a digging implement. This task requires patience and physical strength. Usually only one root is removed from each tree to not to harm the trees.

After they are gathered, the roots are bundled and heated over a fire. After heating, the roots are unbundled and pulled through a split wooden stick which removes the outer bark. The roots are then split one or more times, rebundled and stored until needed.

If properly prepared and stored, materials can be kept for years before use. Although stored dry, materials are soaked in water before they are used in weaving. This makes them pliable and easier to use. While the basket maker is working, the weaving materials and the object being made are constantly moistened to keep them flexible.

Spruce root bundle

Illustration: Silvia Koros

Dyeing Materials
Grasses as well as roots, bark and stems are sometimes dyed before they are used in weaving. There are a number of natural dye sources that provide a wide palette of colors.

  • Red can be obtained from wild cranberries, nettle, hemlock bark, alder bark, alder wood and sea urchin juice.
  • Lichen, wolf moss and Oregon grape root provide yellow.
  • Salal berries are a source for dark blue color, while copper oxides provide a green-blue pigment.
  • Purple hues can be obtained from huckleberries and blueberries.
  • Willow bark supplies brown tints.
  • Charcoal and sulfur-spring mud are two sources of black pigment. Soaking material such as hemlock bark or cherry bark in water with iron material (such as iron nails) also produces a black color.

The material might be soaked for up to a full year to achieve the desired color.

Aniline dyes, introduced by European traders in the late 1860s, provided brighter colors and a wider color range than most natural dyes. Many weavers switched to commercial pigments when they became available, producing baskets with vibrantly colored designs. Today, some weavers choose to use commercial pigments for dyeing weaving materials, while many others prefer to use natural sources for dyes.

The Decline of Natural Materials
One problem facing many contemporary weavers is the decline of certain raw materials used in basketry making. This scarcity is due in large part to the destruction of natural habitat where raw materials are found. Clear-cut logging removes old growth cedars which supply the best tree roots. Wetland areas, a rich source for many weaving materials, have been subject to pollutants and draining which kill off or reduce the plant life. The introduction of invasive, exotic plant species has also negatively affected many indigenous plants. Additionally, some of the best gathering places for basketry materials have restrictions on their use. Weavers may be unable to collect or harvest the materials they need in such places.

 

Weaving Techniques

There are three main weaving techniques: coiling, plaiting and twining. Basketry of the Northwest Coast uses numerous variations of these methods. The following descriptions are not intended to cover every variation, but give a general understanding of these basic techniques.

Coiling
Coiling is a technique that involves sewing. A foundation material (such as split root bundles) is coiled upwards and stitched into place. A pointed tool called an awl is used to pierce a hole in each coil. The sewing element (such as the shiny outer surface of a split cedar root) is then threaded through the hole and sews that coil down to the coil below it.

Coiled baskets can be woven so tightly that they hold water. In the past, coiled baskets were also used for cooking.

On the Northwest Coast, Salish weavers are well known for their coiled baskets. They are often decorated with geometric motifs. A special technique known as imbrication is used to decorate coiled basketry. Imbrication involves folding the decorative element (such as horsetail root or bear grass) under each sewing stitch on the outer surface of the basket. Imbrication folds on a basket resemble rows of corn kernels.

Coiling diagrams and awl

Coiling
Illustration: Silvia Koros

Plaiting
Plaiting, also known as checker weave, is a straightforward technique in which the weft crosses over and under one warp at a time. When a plaited object is flat, such as with a mat, it can be difficult to distinguish the weft from the warp.

When the weft passes over or under more than one warp at a time, it results in a decorative pattern known as twilling. Plaiting can also be done a diagonal, or bias, weave.

Many twined baskets start with a plaited bottom. The weft and warp of the plaited bottom can be split into smaller pieces and become the warp of the basket sides.

Plaiting techniques

Plaiting
Illustration: Silvia Koros

Twining
Twining is a technique in which two wefts cross over each other between warps. There are numerous variations of twining, including variances in the number of wefts, the number of warps crossed by the wefts and the angle of the warps. Each of these variations changes the surface appearance of the object.

Color designs on twined basketry can be achieved with false embroidery or overlay. Both these techniques add a third, colored weft to the usual two wefts. False embroidery is only incorporated into the outside wefts, making the design visible only on the outer surface of the object. False embroidery slants in an opposite direction to the rest of the twining. The name of this technique is based on the definition of true embroidery, in which decorative material is added to the surface of an object after it has been completed. False embroidery is added to the surface of basketry during its making.

Overlay differs from false embroidery in that overlay’s extra weft is woven into both the outside and inside wefts of the object. Depending on the overlay twining technique used, the design may or may not be visible on the inside surface. Unlike false embroidery, overlay slants in the same direction as the rest of the twining.

Twining diagrams

Twining
Illustration: Silvia Koros

Designs and Decorations

Not all basketry is adorned. Clam baskets and baskets used for cooking, for example, are usually undecorated. Many other types of basketry, however, have designs or motifs. Designs can be added with imbrication, false embroidery or overlay. Designs may also be painted on the exterior surface of an object after it is completed. Additionally, variations in the weave can create patterns and raised textures which form designs.

The designs often give clues as to who made the basket. Certain motifs are associated with particular tribes or geographic areas. For more information, see these maps of Washington State and the Northwest Coast.

The form of the basket may also reveal clues about its maker. Below are a few examples of basketry styles which are associated with specific peoples.

 

Wasco/Wishxam
Wasco and Wishxam peoples are from the Columbia River area of Washington and Oregon.

Wasco/Wishxam basketry is known for stylized human faces and figures which represent ancestors or the “old ones.” (“Wishxam” is pronounced “wish-ram,” with the “r” at the back of the throat, like a French rolled “r.”) The manner in which the figures are depicted is sometimes called “x-ray style” due to their skeletal appearance. The ancient roots of this design style can be seen in a precontact pictograph of a being known as Tsagaglalal (pronounced “tsa-ga-gla-lal” and meaning “She-Who-Watches”), located near the Dalles along the Columbia River. Tsagaglalal’s large eyes are similar to those in the faces on Wasco/Wishxam basketry.

The most familiar form of Wasco/Wishxam basketry is a flexible, cylindrical, twined container known as a Sally bag. Although there are numerous interpretations explaining the origin of this name, there is not one definitive explanation. In the Wishxam language, this basket is called akw’alkt.

Wasco round bag

Wasco round bag. Burke Museum cat. no. #2-1868.

Sally bag

Wasco Sally bag. Burke Museum cat. no. #2000-122/1

Wasco round bag

Wasco round bag. Burke Museum cat. no. #2-1875.

Twana
Speakers of the Twana language are the Twana, Skokomish and Quilcene peoples. They come from western Washington state.

Twana weavers are best known for producing soft twined baskets which feature a horizontal band of animals woven just below the rim. The animals may include birds, wolves and dogs. Although they appear very similar, images of dogs and wolves can be distinguished from each other by the position of their tails: dog tails point upwards, while wolf tails point downwards.

Large zigzags may also feature prominently in Twana weaving. This is not a pattern unique to Twana weavers, however; many other basket makers, including Klickitat, Nisqually and Cowlitz weavers, also use large zigzag elements in their designs.

Skokomish basket

Skokomish basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #1-488.

Skokomish basket

Skokomish basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #1-1185.

Skokomish basket

Skokomish basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #1989-98/23.

Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth
The home of the Makah people is the northwestern tip of Washington state. Nuu-chah-nulth (pronounced “new-CHA-newlth”) peoples are from the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Both groups share linguistic ties and cultural practices, including the tradition of whaling.

Reflective of their whaling heritage, Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth basketry often includes images of whales and canoes filled with whalers. These images originally appeared on whaler’s hats, but later were incorporated into twined baskets, mats and basketry-covered bottles made for sale. Whales are sometimes shown being chased or harpooned by a canoe-full of hunters. While most of these images show the traditional style of boat used by whalers, some baskets include images of steamboats or other modern watercraft aiding in the hunt.

The whaler’s hat is a distinctive form of basketry found among Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples. A sign of high rank and prestige, it can be easily recognized by its conical shape topped by an onion-shaped knob. Drawings made in the 1700s by European explorers show Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth chiefs wearing this style of hat.

whaler's hat

Nuu-chah-nulth, Hesquiat Band whaler's hat. Burke Museum cat. no. #2011-123/9.

Lidded basket

Nuu-chah-nulth, Makah lidded basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #1-98.

whaler's hat

Makah whaler's hat. Burke Museum cat. no. #2014-49/3.

Haida
The Haida are from the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. The Kaigani Haida live in southeastern Alaska.

Haida weavers have long used simple, solid, horizontal bands to adorn their twined spruce root basketry. The basket shape is usually cylindrical.

Haida artists weave these baskets upside down. The basket can be supported on a stake with a wooden form inside. This style of weaving results in the jog (see glossary) going up to the right.

Haida berry basket

Haida berry basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #1700.

Haida lidded basket

Haida lidded basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #25.0/203.

Kaigani Haida basket

Kaigani Haida basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #1-1522.

Tlingit
The Tlingit are from southeastern Alaska.

Tlingit basketry is known for geometric designs which appear in horizontal bands around the body of the basket. These designs often have descriptive names such as “leaves of the fireweed” or “mouthtrack of the woodworm.”

Most Tlingit basketry is twined from finely split spruce root and decorated with false embroidery using grasses or fern stems. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Tlingit weavers were praised in many tourist guidebooks as the most skillful basket makers on the Northwest Coast.

Unlike Haida weavers, Tlingit women weave their baskets ride-side up, resulting in a jog which goes down to the right.

Tlingit basket

Tlingit basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #2.5E523.

Tlingit basket

Tlingit basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #25.0/12.

Tlingit berry basket

Tlingit berry basket. Burke Museum cat. no. #1-431.

Activities

Weave a plaited basket

  1. Download the plaited basket template.
  2. Cut all the way around the outside edges of the “X” shape.
  3. Turn the “X” over and fold (but try not to crease!) one flap along the line that is made with dots and dashes.
  4. Cut along the three solid lines toward the center rectangle. Stop when you come to the first solid line. Do this for all four flaps. Unfold the flaps. Now you have the “warps” for your basket.
  5. Turn the paper over again and fold and crease along the broken lines. Leave the flaps so they point up toward the ceiling. Can you see the beginnings of a basket? Good!
  6. Take a long, thin strip of a paper (called the “weft”) and weave it all the way around the basket, passing first over and then under each warp. If you crease the weft at the corners, it will help you form the basket shape. Tape or glue the weft’s ends together where they meet, and cut any long ends off with your scissors.
  7. Repeat Step 6 with your other two paper strips, alternating where you go over and under the warp.
  8. Show off your basket to your friends!

 

Design your own basket
Download the blank basket page and create your own designs on it! Below are some examples of symbols from different tribes you can use for inspiration.

Cowlitz checkerboard pattern
Klickitat design
Makah design
Tlingit design
Twana design
Wasco/Wishxam design

Glossary

awl: A pointed tool used in making coiled baskets. The awl pierces a hole in each coil to allow the sewing element to be threaded through and sewn down to the coil below. Traditionally made of bone, today awls are often made from metal.

burden basket: A type of basket worn on the back and used for carrying large or heavy loads.

chevron: A geometric design element shaped like the letter “V.”

coiling: A basketry technique in which a foundation material (such as split root bundles) is coiled upwards and sewn into place.

crest: A family emblem which is considered owned property. Crests are used by central and northern Northwest Coast peoples and appear on totem poles, masks, button blankets and other forms of art.

false embroidery: A technique used to decorate twined baskets in which a third, colored weft element is incorporated into the outer wefts. These designs are not visible on the inside of the object. False embroidery slants in an opposite direction to the rest of the twining.

geometric: (as in “geometric figures” or “geometric designs”) Design elements which feature geometric shapes such as squares, triangles, diamonds, chevrons or zigzags.

imbrication: A technique used to decorate coiled baskets in which the decorative material is folded under each sewing stitch on the outer surface of the basket. The design is not visible on the inside of the basket. Imbrication folds on a basket resemble rows of corn kernels.

jog: In twined and coiled baskets, a transition from one row of stitches to the next row. A jog can be up or down to the right or left, depending on how the basket was made (Haida basketry, for example, usually jogs up to the right; Tlingit baskets jog down to the right).

overlay: A technique used to decorate twined baskets in which an additional, colored weft is incorporated into the other wefts. The resulting design may or may not be visible on the inside of the object, depending on whether full- or half-twist overlay is used. Overlay design slants in the same direction as the rest of the twining.

pigment: Colors obtained from natural or commercial sources. Natural pigments can be obtained from berries, roots, bark or minerals. Commercial pigments often provide more vivid colors than those made from natural sources.

pitch: The lean of the wefts; the direction in which a stitch slants (up to the right, for example).

plaiting: A technique in which the weft strand crosses over and under one warp strand at a time. Also known as checker or checkerboard weave.

potlatch: An important Northwest Coast ceremony which involves public demonstration of inherited privileges. In return for witnessing these privileges, guests are feasted and given gifts by the host.

precontact: In First Nations history, the period of time prior to European contact.

Sally bag: Cylindrical, flexible, twined bags made by Wasco/Wishxam weavers.

start: The beginning weavings of a basketry object (starts can be seen on the bottom of baskets or the tops of hats).

tule: Also known as bulrush, this tall, thin plant is used in the construction of mats and bags.

tumpline: A carrying strap attached to a basket which allows the basket to be carried on a person’s back. The tumpline is worn across the forehead or chest.

twilling: A variation of plaiting or twining in which the weft crosses over more than one warp at a time. This variation in the weave results in diagonal decorative patterns.

twining: A basketry technique in which two horizontal strands (wefts) cross over each other between vertical strands (warps). There are a number of twining techniques, including three-strand, twilled and wrapped twining.

utilitarian: Made for a specific use, rather than made solely for aesthetic reasons.

warp: In twined weaving, warps are the vertical elements. In coiling, warp refers to the foundation of coils.

weft: The horizontal element which crosses over warps in twined weaving (also known as “woof”). In coiling, weft refers to the sewing element.

withe: The thin, strong and preferably long branches which hang down from the main branches of a tree such as cedar. Withes are used for making burden baskets, basket handles and rope.

woof: See weft.

 

Bibliography

Emmons, George T. “The Whale House of the Chilkat.” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. 19 (1): 1-33.

Harless, Susan E., ed. Native Arts of the Columbia Plateau: The Doris Swayze Bounds Collection. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.

Holm, Bill. Spirit and Ancestor. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

Jones, Megan Joan. Northwest Coast Basketry and Culture Change. Research Report No. 1. Seattle: Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum, 1968.

Laforet, Andrea. “Regional and Personal Style in Northwest Coast Basketry.” In The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Legacy. Frank W. Porter III, ed. NY: Greenwood Press, 1990: 281-297.

Marr, Carolyn. “Continuity and Change in Basketry of Western Washington.” In The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Legacy. Frank W. Porter III, ed. NY: Greenwood Press, 1990: 267-280.

Oberg, Kalervo. The Social Economy of the Tlingit. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

Schlick, Mary Dodds. Columbia River Basketry: Gift of the Ancestors, Gift of the Earth. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Steltzer, Ulli. Indian Artists at Work. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

Stewart, Hillary. Cedar. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.

Wright, Robin K., Ed. A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State. Seattle: University of Washington, 1991.

 

Originally published in 2001. Special thanks to Robin K. Wright, Susan Libonati-Barnes, Katie Bunn-Marcuse, Dawn Glinsmann and Deborah Swan for their comments, suggestions and information.

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