Aside from vine woven and various bark baskets, grasses were a widespread resource for our ancestors to make containers with. They were also very useful for a variety of things, from fire-making to shelter-building, and even foraging.Some grasses, like maize, rice, and ancient forms of wheat, were instrumental in the development of human-kind with the introduction of agriculture some 10,000 years ago in the Middle East (among the earliest known wheat cultivation sites is at Iraq ed-Dubb, or Cave of the Bear, in modern-day Jordan – radiocarbon dating of the site is 9600 BC). Others, such as bamboo, have a plethora of uses and make jungle living possible.
The evolutionary history of grasses is quite impressive – the oldest grass fossils date back to the late Paelocene, approximately 58,000,000 years ago. These were early proto-bamboos with broad leaves. Today, grasses cover almost every continent in the world, prevailing in extreme environments such as polar regions, mountain summits, and dry deserts. They are, without a doubt, the most highly adaptable plants in the world, with thousands of different known species.
But as far as basketry, grasses can be woven in a manner so as to be nearly watertight. And with their widespread and local abundance, you can make a basket however large you wish. The best times for collecting grasses is late autumn and very early spring, when “everything is dead”. You can also gather them during winter if snow-pack isn’t a concern. Metal cutting tools aren’t necessary for this project. Everything can be done with simple stone flakes.
Below is a sample of some local grasses in Connecticut.
I really don’t know exactly what kind these are, nor does it matter for our purposes. Ideally for basket-making, the grass should be fairly tall with long stems. As you can see, these stems are all dead (new shoots sprout up from the same root systems). You can weave a basket using green stems, but that is best only for temporary use, as the stems and any leaves attached will shrink as they dry. Dried grass works best for a long-term use basket.
**Obviously, be careful not to accidentally grab fist-fulls of plants that can cause dermatitis, such as poison ivy**
The preparation involved here is fairly minimal. All you have to do it grab a bunch of stems in your hand and pull hard to one side. The stems should break-off from the root stocks without any need for cutting. Don’t worry if the stems are different lengths; that doesn’t matter, nor will it affect the basket. You don’t need to remove the leaves from the stems themselves – it is actually better to leave them on, as they will add a little extra substance to the coils.
Collect as many bundles as you think you will need for the size of basket you want to create. The next thing to do is to sort out any undesirable plants from your bundles, such as Carolina Nightshade/ Horse Nettle stalks, dogbanes, milkweeds, etc. This isn’t necessary except for aesthetics. If you end up with a leftover bundle or two after your basket is completed, scatter or leave them so that they act as a mulch for the new shoots.
Now then, we will need another plant to provide the weavers so that we can wrap each coil and interlock them. I personally like to find uses for invasive plants, so I chose Japanese Honeysuckle.
Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica, is a very widespread invasive that was first introduced in Long Island as an ornamental in 1806. This plant grows quite aggressively, tending to out-compete native cousins like L. dioica, Wild Honeysuckle. But, Japanese Honeysuckle can provide very long and flexible vines, which is perfect for all sorts of weaving projects.
Make sure to collect bits that don’t have any off-shooting vines. We want as straight and long vines as we can get. These are easily cut with even a small stone flake.
If you are using a different source for your weavers, you will have to experiment with their flexibility to determine if it is best to take off the bark or to lightly pound the fibres into more flexible weavers. With Japanese Honeysuckle, I have found that lightly pounding them between two smooth rocks will soften the fibres and take off the flaky, outer bark. Do only one vine at a time, since they can dry out too quickly and become rather brittle. If you need, have some water on hand or use saliva to re-hydrate the fibres.
Something else you will probably need is a sort of awl to poke through each coil of grass so that you can interlock them with the weaver. A piece of bone can work well. Always remember to make to find/make the tool to do the job…it makes everything go much smoother. I opted to use a Black Walnut twig to make my awl.
The reason for using walnut is that the twigs are somewhat hollow with minimal pith to remove. Shaping can be easily done with a stone flake, as shown above.
Now we are ready to begin! 🙂
Start by grabbing a small bunch of dried grass stems, no thicker than 1/2 inch. Take your weaver and lay about 4 inches/10 cm of it on the grass, with the longer end pointing in the opposite direction from the grass stems. Now grab onto the part where the weaver and grass stems overlap, and carefully wrap the weaver over itself (using the other, longer end) and the stems with some tension. Wrap about 4 or 5 times. Curl the wrapped part of the grass onto itself, making a small “O”. Take the long end of the weaver, keeping the tension, and thread it through the “O”. Apply a bit more tension to tighten the “O”, and then start to wrap the grass stems again.
Now then, the strongest and tightest weave you can do is to wrap once around the grass stems, and then to wrap over the stems again and thread it through the lower coil. This forms what is generally called a “squaw stitch/weave”. The more you wrap around the stems without interlocking to the below coil, the less strength the basket will have. A pattern of 4 wraps around the stems and 1 interlocking wrap won’t be nearly as strong as a squaw stitch. Of course, this doesn’t really matter if the purpose of your basket is to be a foraging container. But try to keep the pattern the same so that there is equal strength and tension throughout the basket.
Use the awl to help interlock the coils as shown below.
Pull the weaver through and maintain the tautness. Tension is key in making these sorts of baskets. And like most outdoor projects, remember to take your time.
Keep the diameter of the coils the same by adding in more bits of grass when you start to run out in the coil.
And when you want to start making the walls of the basket, gently twist the unwrapped grass to where you want it, and wrap with the weaver.
Sooner or later, you will gradually run-out of weaver length, so another will have to spliced in. There are two methods for doing this. The first is to leave the last two inches/5 cm of your starting weaver parallel to the unwrapped grass, and then to take a new weaver and form a clove hitch over this as close to the last wrap as possible. Then wrap the new weaver around the grass stems and old weaver, interlocking with the coil below. Then keep going with the pattern you were doing before. The alternative is to end the old weaver on a clove hitch, and then to carefully insert one end of the new weaver through this and into the wrapped grass no less than 2 inches/5 cm (under at least 2 wraps), and then to continue the pattern as before.
This photo shows the latter method.
Once you are close to the finished shape, don’t add any more grass to the coil, and wrap the last few inches of grass so that they interlock into the coil below, ending with a clove hitch. Take the tail end of the weaver and pass it through at least two wraps on the below coil, and cut the excess off.
The end result should look something like this…
I added in a temporary handle using an extra weaver, interlocking the ends into the coils.
This basket will serve as a foraging container, one that can be used to collect berries without worry that the smaller fruits will be lost through cracks and crevices, a disadvantage with open-weave vine baskets, unless an inner lining of large leaves is used. Basket weaving is a fine way to spend a late autumn or an early spring day. Don’t be surprised if you are approached by the subtle wildlife animals. By keeping silent except for the rustle of grasses, you may be gifted with a memorable wildlife encounter :).