Indian Basket Weaving

Indian Basket Weaving

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by Navajo School of Indian Basketry

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Basic techniques — preparation of the reed, splicing, introduction of color, shaping and finishing, more. Also descriptions of a great variety of weaves — Lazy Squaw, Mariposa, Taos, Shilo, others, each accompanied by specific instructions. 114 illustrations.See more details below


Basic techniques — preparation of the reed, splicing, introduction of color, shaping and finishing, more. Also descriptions of a great variety of weaves — Lazy Squaw, Mariposa, Taos, Shilo, others, each accompanied by specific instructions. 114 illustrations.

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Indian Basket Weaving

By Dover Publications

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15608-8




We have endeavored to make the following description of the Navajo weave, (and this will apply to any plain continuous coil basket,) so clear that anyone, after a careful reading, and a thorough inspection of the accompanying illustrations, should be able to commence and finish in a correct manner baskets of their own weaving and shaping.

If it were a practical thing to do, we should most assuredly advocate the use of genuine Indian materials. But it would be impossible to obtain these in sufficient quantities and we doubt very much if the delicate fingers of the ladies could or would endure the tax put upon them. So we will use the tough, but soft and flexible raphia in lieu of the kah-hoom, reeds instead of the bundles of split willow withes, and a needle to fill the office of the ever present bone awl of the Indian woman. And with these materials proceed to weave and shape our baskets in exactly the same manner as do our darker skinned sisters.




Coil the reed into convenient size, tying firmly two or three times, leaving about fifteen inches uncoiled. Cover with hot water five or six inches of the uncoiled end of the reed, leaving in this water one hour to soften. When pliable, remove from water and wipe dry.


Always thread the needle with the end of the raphia, which has been cut from the palm. One cannot fail to recognize the right end by its darker color and somewhat hardened appearance. If the needle is not properly threaded the raphia will wear into fine threads much more quickly than otherwise. Slightly dampening the raphia in folds of a wet cloth makes it whiter and easier to work.

In regard to needles, we would suggest that should the worker contemplate weaving a number of baskets, it would be better to buy a paper of each of Nos. 18, 20 and 21, both blunt and sharp. We prefer the blunt. It is necessary to have both coarse and fine needles for the different weaves.


Trim the reed with a sharp knife, one and one-half inches from the end, gradually sloping to a flat point, as in figure I, of the illustration. Holding the reed firmly in the left hand, draw it through the fingers of the right, shaping the end into a round coil. Have the needle threaded with raphia. Hold the reed firmly in the left hand, with the forefinger upon the end of the thread, about one and one-half inches from point, carefully winding round the reed down to the point, as illustrated in No. 2. With the right hand, using the forefinger and thumb to force the end of reed into the smallest possible coil, sew firmly through the center as in illustration No. 3. Be sure that the reed is thoroughly covered with raphia.

The Navajo weave is really the stitching upon a continuous coil, and as the coil progresses, each stitch or weave is passed between a stitch of the coil beneath.

This passing of the thread over and under the two reeds forms the figure eight, and has often been called "the figure eight" stitch. Our illustration shows a round basket.

This shows foundation for Klikitat overlay, Feathered or Beaded Baskets.

To commence an oval basket, follow directions for "preparing the reed" and after soaking in the hot water the required length of time, take out and wipe dry, measure off six or eight inches, (it will depend upon the individual taste of the worker,) and carefully bend the reed at point marked. This must be done slowly, so as not to break the reed. Do not be alarmed should it split; it can be covered by the weaving.

Hold in the left hand the two reeds which have been bent close together as per the cut for oval basket, keeping the short end underneath the long one, and the bent end toward your right hand; commence weaving by wrapping the threaded raphia twice around the upper reed, one inch from the bent end; hold this firmly by the forefinger of left hand, leaving two or three inches of the raphia, (not the needle end) to be carried along next the reed and under the weaving, to be cut off after it is firmly fastened, as per our instructions for splicing the thread.

Wrap the bent end four or five times with the raphia, enough to cover it smoothly. Now come up between the reeds, going from you over the long reed; again coming up between the reeds toward you. Now it is the under or short reed which will receive a stitch by coming up between the reeds toward you, and now again going over the long reed from you. So continue until the two reeds are covered and you are ready to curve the long reed around the short one. Draw your thread firmly and do not let your reeds spread apart, but hold them closely and firmly together; so much depends upon this. Continue weaving as per our instructions for the Navajo round coiled basket, forming the figure eight stitch.


In commencing to use a new needleful of raphia, hold the reed in the left hand with the forefinger pressed firmly on the ends of both old and new thread and wind the new thread closely over the reed and the old thread. Then proceed to weave or stitch as before, covering both old and new thread. When sufficiently covered to hold firmly, cut off the ends of threads and continue weaving.


To introduce color, thread the needle with raphia of the color desired and proceed in the same manner as described in the preceding paragraph, carrying the natural raphia along the reed, covering both by weaving. In introducing the colors in the working out of different designs, do not cut the threads in changing from one to the other, but carry them along with, and next to the reed, and cover with weaving. In all Indian designs, stitches are not counted as is generally done in our following out of geometrical designs, but the design must be filled in solid and may take more or less of the stitches, according to size of thread. And it is well to take into consideration the fact that the coils of reed are covered twice. Unless one does remember this, they are apt to be puzzled at first when weaving in the design. For instance, you think your design finished, or all of a certain color has been woven in, and when the next row of weaving shows a mistake or perhaps has cut off the finishing points of a border, please do not be discouraged but remember that the reeds are covered twice.


Nearly all of the Indian designs are capable of geometrical division. A practical and easy way to arrive at this division is to place your commenced basket upon a paper, mark around it, cut out the circle, divide the paper by folding into the required divisions, marking these with pencil upon the basket.

Indian basketry differs from many other kinds of decorative work; one does not count stitches, but the idea is to fill space in a smooth, neat manner. If, for instance, you desired a band of little men for a "man basket," you would cut out of paper the required number, sizes and shapes, then proceed to weave those shapes upon your basket, using the pattern for a measurement, filling in the required spaces, regardless of the number of stitches needed.

This may seem somewhat difficult, but the worker will be surprised to find how easily it may be accomplished. It is optional with the worker as to the shape and size of the basket. One may have the flat, rose bowl or an absolutely straight-sided basket. After the worker has woven the desired size for the bottom, begin shaping, by placing the reed over the last woven coil according to shape desired. For instance, if an absolutely straight-sided basket is desired, place the reed directly over the last woven coil, and if a shallow basket, slightly raise the reed and continue to weave as before.


This is for a round basket. The oval or canoe-shaped basket is shaped in a different manner. While it is more difficult to manipulate than the round basket, we are confident that if the worker will carefully follow our directions, they will not experience any difficulty whatever in giving that peculiarly beautiful swell to their basket which makes the Indian canoe basket such a pleasure to the collector.

Please observe that the sides of a canoe basket seem to be much lower than the ends, giving one the impression that extra coils have been introduced. This is not so, but this effect is gained by shaping the ends only at first.

Take an eight-inch length oval, start and after one has woven around five times, about one and one-half inches from each end, begin to shape by slightly raising the coil up onto the coil underneath. Continue weaving, (leaving the middle sides perfectly flat) until you have woven, say six rows, before you shape the sides, almost directly over the under coil. This gives that beautifully rounded appearance. The worker may have a long, narrow canoe, or a broader short one. This is controlled by the width of bottom of basket at the time when the shaping commences.


To finish the edge of the basket, cut the reed to a small sloping point one and one-half inches long, and cover carefully. The last row of weaving will be stitching over and over the single reed. We would suggest that the last two rows be finished with colored raphia.


To splice the reed, trim the ends to be spliced to flat points, placing together in such a manner that the uniform size of the reed may be kept. We advise beginners to fasten the reeds together with either a bit of wire or with dark thread. Take a small sewing needle, perforate the two ends of the reeds twice, draw wire or thread through and wrap around both firmly, cutting ends off. Should reeds prove unmanageable when released from the coiled package, and it is desirable to straighten them, holding a wet cloth in the hand, and pulling the reeds through the cloth a few times will be all that is necessary.

A friend, or tribe, desiring to show great respect or confidence toward another, presents as a mark of esteem a specially-woven basket, following about the same spiral lines of design. These lines, coming from the small basket bottom, represent the confidence and love which flows from their hearts to the recipient, the bottom of the basket representing the heart. This is a very handsome specimen of a friendship basket, its antiquity giving an indescribably beautiful coloring.


The shape of this basket is a graceful one e with rounding sides like a rose bowl. The design is effective and characteristic.


Design of conventionalized pine trees. The blocks in bottom of the basket represent low mountains with trees growing upon the sides.





To commence a round basket, proceed in the same manner as per our "general directions for a continuous-coil basket." By this, we mean preparing the reed, trimming of the reed, shaping into a coil, winding the raphia thread, and weaving until one coil of the reed is covered before beginning the "Lazy-squaw weave."

By examining the accompanying half-tone, you will see that it seems to be a long stitch and a short stitch, and it is here where an explanation of the name of the weave might be of interest.

If the squaw felt inclined to slight her weaving, she would wrap the single e "bam" (reed) two, three or four times before taking the much harder long stitch which held the "bams" together, and so would receive from the other squaws harsh criticism, as well as the contemptuous appellation, "lazy squaw."

To return to our lesson; we now have our little coil ready for the long and short stitch. We gain this by holding the commenced coil in the left hand, and wrapping the raphia thread toward you and around the reed once. Then over the reed again and down through the center of the coil. This gives the long stitch, while wrapping the reed once, gives the short one.

Continue weaving in this manner one short stitch and one long stitch, coming toward you until ready for the design.

Weave on until the flat placque or bottom is five and one-half inches in diameter, then proceed with the design.


A very simple and easy way in which to arrive at an exact division of the flat woven placque is to place it upon a piece of paper, mark around it with a pencil, cut out the outline and fold into the desired subdivisions. Replace upon the placque and mark upon it the divisions required for the design.

One can divide the sides in the same manner, being quite sure of the geometrical divisions, then mark the spaces either with a thread or pencil.


When the worker has decided upon the design and color to be used, we commence with the color, just as we weave with the natural raphia, splicing the thread in the same manner as we do in our "general directions" or first lesson.

Never cut off the different colors, but carry along under the weaving and next to the reed. Keep all colors threaded while being used in weaving, as it saves time.


Follow our "general directions" given for a continuous coil basket, being careful to see that all ends are covered neatly and firmly, and please do not forget that the "lazy-squaw" weave comes toward the worker, not from, as in the Navajo weave.


Follow the same directions given in our "general directions for a continuous coil basket."


One can follow the dictates of one's own judgment or use the directions given in our "general directions for a continuous coil basket." A solid row of color, or alternating blocks of color, make a desirable finish, as also the braided edge, which comes in a later chapter with the directions for weaving in shells and beads. The finished basket in the half tone which accompanies this lesson makes a very attractive waste-paper basket for the writing table or desk. It measures five and one-half inches across bottom, and stands six and one-half inches high, while the circumference of top, measures thirty-three inches. The colorings are very dainty. Materials used in its construction are as follows:

Number four reeds 5 ounces
Natural raphia 2 ½ ounces
Black raphia ¾ ounce
Orange ¾ ounce
Indian Red 1 ounce

Needles, number 18 blunt.

In weaving this basket, the raphia to be used is very coarse, but kept even. Many make the mistake of not keeping the fingers slightly moistened with water, while weaving. By so doing, the worker will find that the little fine fibers of the raphia will not wear up so readily and that the raphia seems to take on an almost polished surface, owing to some quality of the raphia which the moisture of the fingers seem to bring out.




The design follows out the markings of a badger, an 1 is woven in black and tan, with very small wampum decorations.




The canoe-shaped basket, whose illustrations form a part of this lesson, has the very characteristic Indian design of butterflies. Anyone could add to its beauty by weaving in the white Indian beads in the dark-brown points. In a later chapter we shall give full directions for the weaving of beads.


In setting up the basket, you will observe that it is oval shaped. But the workers may follow out their own individual ideas as to the shape, etc., making the "start" longer or shorter as fancy dictates.

First—Cut the end of the reed off squarely. Measure off six, eight or ten inches (whatever is desired) upon the reed.

Take the reed in both hands and at the point marked off, bend it very slowly and carefully into a bowl of hot water, holding there fully five minutes.


Excerpted from Indian Basket Weaving by Dover Publications. Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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