Basketry from the museum’s collections is a rich resource for learning about native plants used in weaving as well as the traditional ecological knowledge of Oregon’s contemporary weavers and Tribal members.
The basket making process begins with the gathering and preparation of plants to create different weaving elements. Though they grow in the wild, many of these culturally important plants are modified through traditional practices that enhance their growth and productivity—practices such as burning, pruning, coppicing (cutting down to the ground), soil tilling, and the removal of competing vegetation and rocks. Low-intensity controlled fires, for example, encourage the new growth of desirable grasses and berries and help remove unwanted vegetation. The pruning and or burning of plants like hazel and willow encourages the growth of the long, straight shoots preferred by basket makers, while the removal of rocks and other obstructions from the soil produces straighter, finer roots.
Basket makers select plants based on the form and design they are looking to create. The inner bast fibers, or phloem, of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), milkweed (Asclepias), and dogbane (Apocynum), are commonly used for cordage warps in flexible, twined bags from the Columbia Plateau and in Klamath hats. Rigid baskets from Western Oregon are often made with hazel stick (Corylus) warps and spruce root (Picea) wefts. Designs are created by dyeing plant materials or porcupine quills with such substances as mud, ochre, wolf lichen (Letharia vulpine), berries, alder bark (Alnus), and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) is often used as an effective decorative material with its naturally bright white coloring, and maidenhair fern stems may be used for contrasting dark designs.
While contemporary weavers continue to use native plants such as sweetgrass sedge (Schoenoplectus pungens) and rush (Juncus), they also work with a variety of other materials. In fact, commercially made materials such as wool, raffia, linen, cotton, and synthetic aniline dyes began to appear in Native American basketry by the late 1800s, when such materials became readily available and were often repurposed from clothing, blankets, and string. The integration of new material with native plants during this time points to the artistic innovations of weavers and to changing sociopolitical landscapes. Access to native plant gathering areas was significantly reduced during the reservation era of the mid-1800s. These changes, coupled with increasing demand from the tourist market during the 1880s to 1930s, led many traditional weavers to introduce new materials into their designs and technology.
In Oregon basket making, commonly used native plants include wetland species such as tule (Schoenoplectus), cattail (Typha), sedge (Cyperacae), and reed or cane (Phragmites communis). Bark and root materials often come from western red cedar (Thuja plicata), cherry (Prunus), maple (Acer), and spruce. Hazel, cottonwood (Populus), and willow (Salix) provide rigid sticks, while dogbane, stinging nettle, and milkweed provide more flexible fiber. Bear grass, sea grass (Phyllospadix), rush, maidenhair fern (Adiantum), and Woodwardia fern (Woodwardia) also appear in the region’s traditional basketry. Explore the gallery to find examples of all of these plants woven into Oregon’s ethnographic basketry.
Images © UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Production of this gallery was generously supported by the MNCH Sandal Society.
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