Baskets of Atlantic Canada

According to Potawatomi Indian myth, there is an old woman sitting in the moon who spends all her time weaving a basket. When she finishes, the world will end. Fortunately for us, there is also a little dog in the moon who periodically jumps up and spoils the old woman's work, forcing her to start all over again.

While the weaving of a basket may not determine the fate of the world, baskets do tell a story. In fact, the traditional baskets of the Maritimes are a lesson in history, geography, botany, culture, and creativity.

Native Traditions

When the frost bleaches it, the salt-water grass that grows along Labrador's coast turns delicate shades of white, pink, green and purple. The Inuit pick this grass blade by blade and dry it to make baskets. No one knows how long they have done this, but basket fragments dating back to the 16th century have been found. Moravian missionaries who came to Labrador in 1771 mentioned the baskets in their diaries and exported them throughout the 19th century.

Sea-grass baskets are made by sewing bunches of grass into a continuous coil, using split blades of grass as the thread. The only tool used is a needle. If the baskets are sewn tightly enough, they are waterproof. Historically, the Inuit also made hot mats, containers, wall shelves, gun cases, cradles, toys, hats and barrels in the same manner.

Grass-sewing was a dying tradition when, in the late 1970s, the staff of Them Days magazine researched the craft and encouraged people to return to grass-sewing. It worked. Today Labrador grasswork is recognized as an art form throughout Canada.

The Mi'kmaq have also been making baskets for centuries. Fragments found at a New Brunswick archeological site date back 2500 years. The style of baskets made today dates back to at least the 1700s, when they were produced for the European market.

Mi'kmaq workbaskets (potato, apple, egg, etc.) are woven from ash splints by "plaiting"-interweaving crosswise and lengthwise splints at right angles. The time-consuming process begins with cutting of a tree. The logs are quartered, the heartwood removed, and the wood squared and pounded or shaved to separate it into the long flexible strips needed for weaving.

The basket bottom is woven first and the splints bent up to make the sides. Sweetgrass or dyed splints are sometimes added for decoration. The top rim of the basket is finished with a hoop laced into place with an ash splint. Handles or a cover may be added. For decorative baskets, the Mi'kmaq use a projecting twisted weave to make patterns such as diamond, porcupine and periwinkle.

Several dozen Mi'kmaq still make baskets in the Atlantic Provinces. A number of young people, recognizing the importance of cultural traditions, are learning the craft.

The European Influence

Early European settlers in Atlantic Canada brought the tradition of weaving willow, or "wicker," baskets. Because willow is not plentiful in this area, they substituted other materials, primarily witherod, commonly found along the edges of fields and swamps in Nova Scotia. A member of the honeysuckle family, it grows quickly. The long straight pliable young shoots of these plants-the "withe"-are easily bent and shaped for weaving baskets.

 The witherod weaver makes a round bottom from long, thin pieces of withe woven around heavier sticks. Additional withes inserted in the bottom make the framework for the sides, which are interwoven with withe. Most Nova Scotia witherod baskets are woven using the "twining" technique, in which two or more strands of crosswise, or filler, withes are twisted in half-turns between each upright strand. The basket is finished by weaving the long pieces that make up the framework in and out to make a rim.  

Clam baskets and eel traps are variations of withe baskets. Witherod eel traps are conical-shaped pots with an inner chamber that traps the eels once they are inside. Few fishermen still weave eel traps. 

By the 1980s, most withe baskets made in Nova Scotia were found in Lunenberg County and along Halifax County's Eastern Shore. However, inspired by books and classes offered in the area, new generations are learning to weave with witherod.

Spruce root baskets came to Newfoundland's west coast, northern New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia's French Shore with early French settlers. Historically used for harvesting potatoes, these baskets are made with a framework of wooden ribs and handles (usually young cherry) and a filler of spruce root. In the spring, when sap is running, spruce roots are dug up from the end rather than the base of the tree. Not all the roots are harvested so the tree is not harmed.

The rinds are peeled off and the roots split to the desired width and length. The outside, curved surface of the pieces becomes the rounded outside of the basket, while the flat edge becomes the inside.

In St. Louis, PEI, the Gaudet family was making baskets as early as 1844. The Chaisson family carried on the tradition in the early 1900s, travelling from St. Louis to Summerside with potato baskets on their backs to sell along the way. In 1987, Jimmy Chaisson taught the craft to Ann McIssac of the Culture Crafts Cooperative in Richmond, who has been making the baskets and teaching classes since.

Like Mi'kmaq baskets, these baskets are made of ash splint. The process starts with finding the proper log, which is cut into workable lengths, split down the centre using an axe and maul, then cut into sticks of about 1 inch width. Each stick is pounded with an axe to loosen the grain and separate it into splints. Traditionally, the basket-weaver sits on the floor and shapes the baskets with her hands. The maple handle is double notched to fit snugly around the hoop and the pieces bound to the basket by ash splints.

From The South

Black families who came to Nova Scotia from the southern United States in the late 1700s brought their traditional basket made of red maple. The maple sapling is cut and the wood halved and quartered with knives and split along the growth lines. Heavier pieces are used for handles, rims and ribs, then a knife is used to separate the wood into thinner ribbons for weaving. The handle and rim are bound together using a cross unique to this type of basket. Ribs are inserted into the cross to make the framework, and the thin maple splints are woven between the ribs.

Women have been selling their baskets at the Halifax Farmers Market since the early 1800s. Today only two, Nancy Lucas and Clara Clayton-Gough, are known to be still making the baskets in the Halifax area. 

Weaving New Traditions

Basketry techniques haven't changed much in 25,000 years, but the materials used continue to evolve. Many Maritimers continue to make traditional baskets while others explore new directions. Joleen Gordon, Ann McIssac and Jane Whitten are just three of the area's contemporary basketmakers creating their own traditions.

Gordon, who lives in Dartmouth, NS, began experimenting with contemporary basketry in the early 1980s. "In traditional basketry, you know the materials, the function and the form," she says. "In contemporary work, the exploration takes over."

She became intrigued with coiled basketry after taking a class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She continues to explore this basketry form, receiving local and international recognition for her work.

McIssac, of Richmond, PEI, uses traditional basket construction methods as a springboard for experimenting with different natural materials and shapes. "I've made baskets of wild cherry bark, maple bark, cedar, sea kelp, cured seal skin, and even one of banana peel," she says. "I see an interesting material, and I figure out how to make it work."

Whitten's fascination with the seaweed along the shore of Petite Riviere, NS, piqued her interest in basketry. She experimented with many traditional techniques to find those that would work with seaweed. Now she makes baskets of materials as varied as swizzle sticks, street-sweeper brush bristles, electrical wire, and old Venetian blinds in addition to seaweed.

The next time you pick up a basket in an art or craft gallery or antique shop, examine it closely. There's a story woven into every one.

Note: If you'd like to try your hand at basketweaving, contact the crafts council in your province, or the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild at (902) 469-2798 for names of basket-makers or classes in your area.