Basketmaking: A Skill Learned With the Hands


Colonial Williamsburg basketmaker Richard Carr talks about the necessity of basketmaking in the 18th century, and why it has become a rare skill in modern times.

Learn more: "The basketmaker"


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Richard Carr, and at Colonial Williamsburg he’s a basketmaker. Somehow I can't feature in the labor department list of things to do, basketmaker ranks right up there.

Richard Carr: No, it probably doesn't. But in the 18th century, it was a very important skill. Most of the people that lived here in the colony of Virginia would know how to make baskets, simply because they needed the baskets and could not afford to buy them. Most of the people here are "lower sorts" farm families; they've got to have the baskets to carry stuff out there on the farm. If it's not liquid, they're going to carry it from one place to another, probably in baskets that they have made. Things have changed....

Lloyd: ...when it is explained, it sounds so simple and so logical, but at the moment, you just don't think of basketmaking as a necessary skill. Well, I guess it's not, at the moment.      

Richard:  No, it isn't. It's been replaced by plastic in all sorts of forms. You can go to the store and get any number of things to carry stuff, in fact, most of us probably have more plastic grocery bags under our kitchen sink than we can use in a couple of lifetimes.

Lloyd:  (Laughs.)

Richard: But in the 18th century, of course, you had to make what you needed. So it's's one of those skills from the 18th century was a life skill, it's now gone into a much more of a hobby skill. People making baskets because it's one of those things like canning, like sewing your own clothes. People really don't need to do that for the most part anymore, but if you got into Appalachia, right up through the end of the 20th century, you're probably finding people making baskets because they need them.

Lloyd: Somewhere, up in the mountains, I have recently been driving and went past a huge basketmaking operation. Now I think it's probably mostly for tourists to buy things, but, the skill is still there -- somebody's got it. Actually, I'm not very good on history, but basketmaking goes back before the 18th century, doesn't it?

Richard: It certainly does. It undoubtedly goes back before recorded history. There are some people, scholars, who will make the case, we'll never know for sure, but will make the case that basketmaking may very well be one of mankind's first crafts. It's been around for a long time.
Lloyd: What would you make baskets out of? Obviously some sort of wood shaving....

Richard: There are hundreds of materials.

Lloyd: Oh, really?  

Richard:  White oak is what we use here. In the middle Atlantic region of this country, white oak is the common wood that's used for making baskets. But here in the middle Atlantic region we also have all these rivers and estuaries, places where various kinds of sea grasses, swamps, swamp grasses, river cane...that sort of thing grows. And those are all good basket materials. The Native Americans were using many of those materials along with vines and twigs that they could get out of the forest to make baskets. They really didn't start making the split white oat baskets until they got iron tools. That's one of those things that arrived with the Europeans.

But hundreds and hundreds of materials...and of course if you get out of our region, if you get into the northern part of the country, we're using ash as the wood to make baskets. Again, there are other materials. In the Deep South, hickory. If you get out of our country into other countries of the world, they're using bamboo, rattan, just hundreds of materials.

People are going to use whatever they've got at hand to make workbaskets. The reason they're making workbaskets is because they've got to have the tool and they can't afford to buy it. In the third world, making baskets is still a skill that is commonly practiced. In fact, many of the baskets that you see in places like K-Mart and Wal-Mart, at very low prices, are baskets that are made in the third world.

Lloyd: Also made in China, so far as I can tell.

Richard: You know, it's kind of an interesting thing that you should mention "made in China," because in the 18th century, the most expensive baskets in the stores would have been those baskets made in China, made in the Far East. Goods were exotic. Goods from that area of the world were exotic, like tea and porcelains, exotic alloys of metal, silks, and those Chinese baskets.

Lloyd:  Is that because of the shipping cost, or just because it was exotic, because it was from there?

Richard: I think it's actually a bit of both, certainly. Shipping on a basket which doesn't weigh the 18th century shipping is generally paid for by the volume of the object, not by its weight. So, baskets take up a lot of space, so they would be expensive to ship. If you were very wealthy, you would want to have one of the baskets on your wife's arm to show that you could afford something like that.

Lloyd:  Yeah, I really think half of what happened in the 18th century was to show that you could afford something like that. You said hundreds of things...materials for basket making. Are some better than others for things? I would sort of think so, but I wouldn't know what they were.
Richard: I think you're right. Some materials are going to be more durable than others. That's one of the advantages of, in this area, the white oak over the swamp grasses, things of that sort. It's the durability. You really won't spend any more time making the oak baskets than you would, say out of the river cane, or something like that. You still have to collect and process the materials just as you have to cut down the white oak trees and split them into materials. Your baskets are probably going to last you three or four times longer. So, yes, there are some better materials. For example, if you're a Native American prior to the arrival of the European, you don't have the advantage of that durability, you can't access it because you don't have the tools.

Lloyd: I know when the forge was being built over on Duke of Gloucester Street, white oak was one of the building materials because it was so easy to split and make clapboard out of. Is that the same for baskets because it splits so straight and so nicely?

Richard:  Yes, very definitely. One of the other characteristics that's very important for making baskets is that while you can split it straight and you select trees that will split straight, trees that are very clear and straight in the trunk, it maintains its flexibility when it has been split, even when it's dry. So after we split out the white oak into the materials, they're very split it to what it feels right...because people in the 18th century probably couldn't read a ruler if they had one. It's a matter of getting it to the point that it feels right. It's probably anywhere from a 32nd to a 16th of an inch in thickness. It's going to depend a bit on the size basket that you're making. You give it time to dry and it stays flexible even when it's dry. 

Lloyd:  Now you said that whether you made it out of white oak or some river grasses, it would take you about the same amount of time. How long does it take to make a basket, and clearly it depends on what sort of basket you're talking about.

Richard:  Well, let's say a moderate size basket that you would use in the barn or in the field, the weaving time in that basket would be a matter of maybe a couple of hours of steady work, just to weave it up. But to give a good overall time on how long it takes to make a basket is difficult because when you make the materials, you're not going to make the materials for just that one basket...

Lloyd: Oh, okay.

Richard:'re going to be making all the materials you can get from maybe half a dozen of or so trunks of white oak trees. Now these are not big oak trees; they are oak trees with a diameter of maybe six or eight inches and a length that's going to depend on the tree--where the branches come on the tree, anywhere from five to ten-twelve feet long. You don't know how many materials you can get from those trees, nor do you know until you begin to split trees how well they are going to work. Sometimes they work very well if you get lots of materials and you get the materials very quickly. Other times you'll still get a lot of materials but it will be a lot more work. Sometimes after the first split you realize that you've got firewood.

Lloyd: (laughs)

Richard: So, you really can't give a good overall time on how long it takes to make a basket. The other point, though, is that for a farm family in the 18th century, where do they have to be? They're not going to miss a TV show. They have to do their farm work. This is an essential tool for them so they're going to work at the baskets as they can, in and among the other things that they have to do on the farm like taking care of the animals, feeding the family, repairing the house. They're going to work on those baskets until they get the job done.

Lloyd:  Okay, you can figure out the necessity for an 18th-century farm family to have the skill for weaving baskets. The 21st-century craftsman doesn't need that skill. So, how did you get interested in it?

Richard:  A couple of ways. One is I like working with my hands, I enjoy that. Second thing is that I was kind of teased into it because my wife made baskets for a short period of time here at Colonial Williamsburg. So I was sort of looking over her shoulder to see how she did it. And finally, probably one of the biggest factors was the person that I got to learn the skill from...a man by the name of Roy Black. He worked here for about 37 years. He's been retired now for about four. A marvelous person, in every sense of the word. An amazing maker of baskets. So the opportunity to work Roy was something that I appreciated more and more the longer I worked with him. So that's how I got started in it. I had been working at the Geddy Foundry, but that job was not a job that was able to be continued. This was another opportunity.

Lloyd:  How long have you been at it now?

Richard: I've been making baskets for just over ten years. 

Lloyd:  Where do you get your wood? Where do you get this white oak that you can split because I was told that white oak was now--because it was so useful in its day--is now kind of rare.

Richard:  It is. We walk over considerable distance in the forest to find the trees that we're looking for. Not because white oaks are entirely that scarce, but we're looking for very straight and clear trees. We get them from right around here. Of course, Colonial Williamsburg owns a fair amount of woodlands in Williamsburg and around the surrounding counties, so we have access to those; we can go look there. But basketmaking has been going on here at Colonial Williamsburg now for well over 40 years, so those woods have pretty well been scoured for suitable trees. We're also not looking for trees that are ancient. We're not looking for the giant oak trees that would be good for lumber or for timbers. We're looking for trees that, relative to other oak trees, are fairly young. Six to eight inches in diameter may translate into something in the range of maybe 40 to 80 years old. It just depends on where the tree was and how it grew. It seems pretty old to me.

Lloyd:  (laughs) Yes, it seems pretty old to me, too. I hate to say it, but do you face any danger of running out?

Richard: I don't think so...not at long as there are squirrels.

Lloyd:  (laughs) Oh, okay.

Richard:  People will ask if we go out and plant a couple of trees for every one we cut down. We don't need to because, well, you've seen squirrels run across the street. They can never make up their mind which way to go. Despite what you may have heard as a kid, squirrels don't remember where they put every acorn when they bury them in the forest. So, there are lots of young oak trees coming up out there, young white oaks.

Lloyd: What do people ask when they come walking through the basketmaking shop?

Richard: The first thing that they ask is, "What kind of wood do you use?" They're always sort of surprised when we say white oak because white oak has the reputation of being a hard wood to work with. And it really isn't. It is a hard wood, it makes very durable objects, but it's not a hard wood to work with. It works very well. One of the other questions that comes along very quickly is, "Don't you get a lot of splinters?" Well, as a matter of fact, we don't get splinters at all from doing this because it is such a nice wood. And the way we're working with it. We split the white oak apart...when you pull the wood apart, the fibers that make up the grain of the wood feather out on the ends as you pull it apart. You're taking advantage of natural divisions of the wood. So there's nothing short and sharp as you would get with a saw to give you splinters.

Really, the first question is what kind of wood it is. Then, unfortunately, you get a lot of questions now about, "Do you actually make baskets?" Even though we might be sitting there making a basket there at that particular moment. I think it sort of shows that we've become removed in our society from the production of our goods. We don't see people making clothes, we don't see people making cloth, we don't see people making the materials that we use to build our houses. I think people sort of assume that like that package of chicken, that's chicken--they don't think about where it started. They really don't want to think about it, as far as that goes.

Lloyd: I hadn't thought about that, but of course you're obviously right. If you don't see it being done, you don't think about it. You are educating a whole new level of people to basketmaking, I suppose. Do people ever get interested while they're talking to you?

Richard: Oh, yes. We have a lot of people that are already interested in making baskets. It's still a very popular hobby skill. But we also have people who are going to go home and try their hand at it. We certainly wish them well. This is really a skill that you need to learn sitting at someone's side.

Lloyd: This is like an apprenticeship thing.

Richard: Very much. You have to learn by watching what the other person is doing and having a chance to say can I feel that piece of wood? Can I feel with my hands how thick that is that you're using right now? You can learn with your hands. It's easy to understand this whole process with your mind, but that's not what makes the baskets. You make the baskets with your hands and your hands have to learn the skill.

Lloyd: I'm going to do you an enormous favor now. I am never going to ask you to teach me.

Richard: (laughs) Why not?

Lloyd: (laughs) Because it sounds like something I couldn't learn.

Richard: (laughs)

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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