Baskets are a staple in every culture and play a pivotal role in daily life – to store foods, clothes, important items, knick-knacks and shopping too. Basket weaving skills have survived for centuries and highlights the stories and traditions of these age-old cultures. And, woven storage baskets can be considered pieces of art too, each with a unique and individual story to tell.
African basket making is dynamic, a way of life and an expression in every African country. Basket making is impacted quite heavily by societal changes and fashioned by economic and environmental factors. What we may not be aware of is that traditional weaves and basket shapes are determined by their end use too.
Materials Used to Make Baskets
Though basket making methods and techniques haven’t changed much over the years, the materials used to make them have changed – ilala palms, sisal fiber, bamboo, raffia, banana and fan palms, papyrus, plastic, wire and so on. Basket makers have resorted to using available materials like plastic to repurpose non-biodegradable materials and create something new and unique.
Baskets are not the only items made by traditional weavers. Sleeping mats, handbags, shopping baskets, wall hangings and even fish traps are made using traditional and available materials. There is no dearth of things or ways in which these materials can be used to make products whose environmental impact is low.
The process of African woven baskets includes the following steps:
- Coiling – thin strips of any material are wrapped around bunches of grass, coiled and then stitched to keep the coils in place and to strengthen the structure of the basket
- Plaiting or braiding
- Weaving methods which include chequerboard or cross patterns
It is interesting to see how a basket takes shape based on its end use – whether it is to store grains, to serve dry foods, be used as a tray, a bowl, a laundry hamper or fitted with a handle for shopping or to simply hung up on the wall.
African woven baskets are created with a lot of thought and care – fibers are carefully chosen and prepared so that they are plaint. Sisal especially must be stripped first and cleaned by hand before it can be fashioned into a basket. Designs are created with the use of different colours. Colours are based on natural sources like roots, bark, berries, leaves and even clay to name a few sources. As far as patterns go, there are so many to choose from, whether it is geometric shapes or decorative forms like flowers, stars etc. Designs are highlighted by applying contrasting colours and using natural fibers to produce amazing textures and effects.
What is not evident from the final product is that it takes a long time to weave a basket – just as long as it takes to prepare the fibers and deciding the final design. Baskets are reinforced for extra strength with leather/bark strips on the straps, under the base or walls of a basket. Baskets are also embellished with items like shells or beads to make them even more attractive. The final step in weaved storage baskets is covering them with clay or resins to ensure that they are waterproof.
What Sets African Baskets Apart?
Each country and community in Africa have “master weavers” who guide aspiring weavers to not only improve their skills but also with the basic prep work for a basket. Working with a master weaver helps to maintain consistency in weaving, transitions in patterns and designs, the spacing of the design, intricacy, and above all, making an even basket. Most master weavers are women.
There is a growing movement across the globe in promoting indigenous art forms and sustainable living for artisans. Basket weaving offers employment opportunities for African women and has helped many become the main breadwinner of their family. Several non-profit groups are working with co-operatives so that women in rural areas can practice their art form while earning a living. African baskets from each country are very different and vibrant from each other and lend themselves for décor and use in any part of a home while adding a splash of colour and style. These baskets are sturdy, utilitarian and made with sustainable materials.
No doubt, each basket tells a story and piques the interest of the buyer from another part of the world – about the person who made it, the significance of the colours used, meaning of designs and weaves, and what they are used for in their native country. Whether a basket is used to store rice or a laundry basket, each one is lovingly created using natural materials. So many art forms are dying as consumers become more inclined towards fast fashion. It may be time to go back and revive old traditions and provide a source of livelihood to those who need our support.