Weaving a Pack Basket
Recently I had the spectacular opportunity to learn how to weave a Black Ash pack basket. There were a few variants in the weaving technique (regular loose plaiting at the base, hexagonal plaiting up the body, and a dash of weaving) but, all you really need to know is this: stars. If you can see the stars in the pattern and wear the big, beautiful, butterfly-light basket on your back…then it’s perfect (in my book at least).
It was long process. From start to finish the whole basket took four full days of work. By the end of it my fingers had bled at least once on the rough ash and I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing the open nets of an infinity of hexagons. Here is how it begins: Find the most perfectly beautiful and straight black ash in the woods and cut it down. (This lovely log was felled and painstakingly carted all the way from Minnesota). Then, pound the bark off with a lead pipe. Every inch of the whole length has to be struck…at least twice. Once the bark has been removed, you can start to excavate the layers. Each layer need to be pounded as well, and then tenderly peeled and split (if needs be). It’s a strangely cathartic and slightly exhausting activity. You must be careful to overlap each hit, peeling with equal strength and tenderness and then rotating the whole length as you go. A log like this is precious. It’s the accumulation of a serious bit of work and planning. Those who are in the possession of such logs often treat them as if they were their first-born.
We spent almost an entire day trimming the layers into straight pieces and then cutting them down into equal sized 1/4″ strips. Then we began. This open plaiting piece is the bottom. From there you weave an additional strip in and begin to turn the whole basket upwards.
You need to keep all of your splints wet enough so they’ll bend and twist deftly around one another. We periodically dunked our working baskets into large buckets of water. These few days out on the farm were so brutally hot, our dunking buckets often became makeshift mini-swimming holes. The hardest parts of the basket were the transitions: from plaiting, to weaving, to hexagonal plaiting. But, once you get the pattern, and your mind no longer has to thread each movement like a needle, you can just drift away. The whole time I was there, I barely thought about anything but the day, the slow formation of my stars, and the breezes that blessed our tent like rain in the desert. I can’t remember the last time I sat in one place, doing one thing, with one incredibly sweet group of friends for days on end. It was a revolutionary escape, and I loved it.
When i got to the rim, my hands started to bleed. It was intense and exacting. You want the rim to be as tight and straight as humanly possible, weaving in and out of splits that have been bent backwards upon themselves. This makes the basket strong as well as flexible. When you’re done weaving, you take pliers and tug each split down to cinch the whole rim upon itself. We all finished at different times, but took a break towards the end of the last day to snap a photo.
I think my favorite thing about baskets is how much character they exude. The process might be the same, but the products are so vastly different. Baskets are incredibly intimate portraits, not only of their individual makers, but of the moment, the mood, and the magic of intent.
I am still in wonder. Not only of these beautiful creations, but of the collective stories behind them. Hexagonal plaiting is a technique that has been used across the world for thousands of years. This specific design was exhumed from the tomes of time by our instructor, Zac, who reproduced the basket after a winter of mulling over a far-eastern antique pack that hung on the walls of his teacher’s house. Once upon a time these were woven by a people whose entire world revoled around the isolated hills in which they lived. Now, here they are– rewoven, resurrected and remembered. It’s an enchanting honor. Not only to be made privy to such knowledge, but to able to carry such a long and storied history with me into the future, upon my very back.