Bare-Handed Basket

by Norm Kidder



Back in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology issue #21 (pg 37), Alice Tulloch posed a lithic challenge. Her "Figure 2" showed twiner sized stems harvested by pulling them from the main stem of willow or redbud. These showed a characteristic lump where they were torn from the branch (and a tail of bark). Her challenge had to do with harvesting material too large to break off this way, but too small in diameter to cut with a stone saw or axe efficiently. Solutions to her challenge were offered by myself in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology #22 and by Goode Jones in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology #23. The image of the pulled off stems with their lumpy ends stayed with me.

The technique I had learned for adding in whole shoot twiners seemed to have been created with those end lumps in mind - you wrap the tapering end of the spent twiner around the large end of the replacement. Cut ends have minimal taper and pull out easily until worked in to the pattern. A technique for adding ribs into close twined Paiute baskets involved fattening the base of the rib by chewing on it, thus making it more secure. Both of these techniques were suggestive that they had originated with pulled off stems.

As I am always looking to find the most basic and efficient way to do skills, and having tried harvesting with stone flakes, I decided this winter to explore basketry using no tools other than my hands - bare-handed basketry. I had three areas of interest: relative speed and efficiency of harvest; relative ease and strength as twiners; relative ease and strength as ribs.


When harvesting whole shoot willow with a knife, flake or pruners, I have long been bothered by finding I needed three hands to be efficient - one to hold the willow tree, one to hold the tool and one to hold the cut shoots. Without the tool, I had only to hold and pull off shoots until my hand was full. I found it worked best to start at the top of the main stem and work downward. My speed of gathering seemed to be much faster than with tools (I'll need to run several time trials to determine this with accuracy). The down side was that I was limited in what I could collect this way, as end growth and growth beyond a stem gall could not be easily harvested by hand. There was also the matter of wear and tear on my hand, but practice reduced this to a minimum (speed and angle of pull). The final part of my harvesting cycle involves copicing (cutting back) the willow plants to promote better new growth. Historical records indicate this was done by burning (see Tulloch, Bulletin of Primitive Technology #21). As burning is not an option where I collect, I will have to continue to use metal tools to accomplish this task.


As I imagined, using my hand harvested twiners made great sense given the method I use to add them in. Indeed, they are nearly impossible to pull out, unlike cut shoots. One disadvantage I did find was that some of the stems tapered at the base to a diameter which was a bit too thick, but if not too severe, I could still use them by inserting them deeper into the piece. This left more pieces to snag things on the inside of the basket, and the lumpy ends also made a coarser inside texture, but as these baskets are for coarse work, such as collecting firewood and acorns, this did not seem to be a significant drawback. This also gets back to the harvesting of only ideal material, requiring a large resource base as would have been available in pre-historic times.


The technique for adding ribs into a coarse twined basket was sufficiently variable to accommodate the pull harvested shoots by extending them on the inside of the basket past one row of twining. The same limitations applied concerning the selection of ideal size material unless trimming were to be done. Trimming would also be required to use the add in method of inserting the new ribs into the work by paralleling an existing rib, a technique which produces a smoother appearance.

Basketry with hands only collected and prepared materials seems quick and efficient as long as there is no shortage of material from which to harvest. Some add in techniques found in western North America suggest that they originated with hand harvested material. Hand harvesting is much faster and easier than harvesting with stone flakes, either hand held or hafted. Once harvested the material could be trimmed if necessary for a particular type basket whether hand or blade harvested.

On the personal side, I found the same feeling of primal connection creating a basket with no tools as I had the first time I made fire in the field from collected sticks and simple stone tools. This sense of freedom from technology, replacing dependence on gear with dependence on the environment and your own knowledge and skill seems to be as close as we can come to experiencing our ancestors sense of self. I also plan to continue using hand harvesting if for no other reason than it's faster (although I'll still have my pruners handy).



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