On an overcast Sunday in August, if you had beelined away from where the mighty Hudson kissed a sandy beach full of sunbathers, while children played, and swimmers ogled the show of cowboy jet skiers chopping and dashing at harsh angles on the water, you would have discovered a quieter world emerge. Higher up on a large swath of lawn, in an unassuming, tucked away spot beyond the barbecue area and raucous picnic party, boom boxes, and the parking area where cars and motorcycles weaved in and out, more music blaring, were a cluster of white tents where something of a different kind, and even time could be found. The journey to this strange oasis required a wee trek on foot, mere minutes, but with each step closer, each explorer soon tumbled back in time.
They kept arriving, barefoot, sandaled, from young children to elders, dark skinned, light, experienced crafters or those just beginning, with excitement or a look of trepidation in their gazes. Whatever apparent “differences,” they gathered with a common curiosity: to create something so ancient and for a long time indispensable, as well as far reaching across cultural divides: baskets.
There is Mirabai, standing at the welcome table with her infectious smile and sparkling eyes. “Welcome!” she greets each person warmly, hugging many friends and strangers who feel so inclined. On her table are many examples of homemade baskets made by Circle’s teachers, wonky and unique shapes that embody the kind of character that only homemade items are rife with. “Welcome!” she beams to another new face, and another, meaning it. New and old friends settled under one of the various tents, instinctively forming circles around the piles of yarn in a rainbow of colors, and piles of what looked like tall grasses. Mary Jane, Melissa, Poliana, and Mirabai (Circle’s core group of teachers) soon each directed a wide eyed group, explaining the process of weaving clearly.
“This is phragmites,” Melissa explained to those in our group. “It grows plentifully around here and is an invasive species. We want to use materials that are not scarce or endangered. These we picked right over there!” she said smiling, pointing to the swaying elegant grasses all around where the lawn met the wilder areas. “Baskets can be made with so many materials, often those discarded: corn husks, the leaves of irises once they’ve bloomed, old fabrics, cattails- but cattails are less plentiful and serve an incredible purpose in terms of purifying water systems. If anyone would like to harvest more of the phragmites, that would be great!” Many rose eagerly to go pick stalks that would soon be transformed into something else. “It’s great to choose materials that are from nature, that don’t impact the earth in a negative way at any point in the process,” she offered. “Choosing something invasive makes good sense.”
“Now place a bunch of leaves in your hands. We are ready to begin. Rub your palms vigorously to break down the fibers. When they separate, then you know they’re ready,” Melissa said, showing our group the strands, setting those in a pile, and then beginning the process again. Soon everyone settled in to work. “When you have a good sized pile like this, bunch some together so the ends line up. Choose the color yarn or thread you want to work with, line the thread up, and start twisting it around the end. Then you will fold the end into itself, twisting round and round some more. This will be the beginning of your basket, its center.”
I am part of the formation of Circle CreatIve too, but I am not an experienced crafter like my cohorts. I tentatively reached for the deep green fronds, rubbing my hands back and forth, back and forth, summoning something ancient from this simple gesture in the breaking down and binding together of strands that would soon form a spiral, round and round. When it’s time for sewing the woven strands, I can see my stitches are clumsy, imperfect. childlike, even, dare I say, beautiful.
With each gathering within Circle Creative Collective though, I have noticed a change in me. I can stare down my inner judge more easily, quietly banish it, while leaving a space for curiosity and fun to enter. I can feel again and again that judgement has no place here, only discovery, forgiveness, pure experience. I am learning to forgive my lack of dexterity, for I simply was not taught or given the opportunity. I forgive the women of my lineage especially, who did not realize the preciousness of these simple processes or consider them important enough to pass down.
For too long handmade crafts had been relegated to the work of women, peasants, and immigrants, and therefore disregarded, lost or shelved, along with all that important knowledge and access to incredible skills. The women in my mother’s line could check all those boxes (disrespected women, peasants, immigrants), as many in the group or whose relatives probably could, all those mighty, hardworking individuals who, within their creations was held so much more than mere stitches or functional details: knowledge, stories shared as they worked, pride, individual styles, and talents revealed in tidy or varied stitches or folds, and the sacredness of such meditative moments sitting with others or alone, working quietly, forming spirals, while everything else seems to fall away except the soft chatter and quiet concentration. All this, as the circles of baskets and friends are woven.
-Words by Jenny Wonderling, photos by Melissa Hewitt and Jenny Wonderling
P.S. Circle Creative Collective would also like to send a deep THANK YOU to the folks at Harambee of Kingston, NY for helping to promote and support this wonderful event. Alex, thanks for organizing the bounty of delicious free food bounty also, and serving it all up with such utter love!
For a brief history of baskets, read this excerpt from an informative blog on baskets and their history:
"The basket is one of humankind's oldest art forms, and it is certainly an ethnic and cultural icon filled with myth and motif, religion and symbolism, and decoration as well as usefulness. Basketry, in fact, encompasses a wide range of objects from nearly rigid, box-like carriers to mesh sacks. [—] Baskets are part of the heritage of nearly every native people, and types of construction differ as radically as other customs and crafts. Uses for baskets may be the most uniting feature. Dry food is gathered, stored, and served in baskets; liquids are also retained in baskets that have been waterproofed. Basket-making techniques are used for clothing, hats, and mats. Openwork baskets are made to function as filters (for tea in Japan) and as sieves and strainers. Their variety and clever construction also makes baskets desirable as decorations in primitive cultures as well as modern homes.
"'Baskets are the children of the gods and the basis of our earth," according to the ancient Mesopotamians. They believed that the world began when a wicker raft was placed on the oceans and soil was spread on the raft to make the land masses. Ancient Egyptian bakers used baskets to hold baked loaves of bread. The single, most famous basket may well have been the basket made of bulrushes and mud in which the baby Moses was floated to safety. All ancient civilizations produced baskets; the Romans cultivated willow for their baskets, and the Japanese and Chinese also counted basketry among their many handicrafts with ancient origins.
"The craft of basketry gave rise to pottery making because baskets were used as molds for some of the earliest pots. Consequently, the history of pottery and basketry, as unearthed and decoded by archaeologists, is irrevocably interwoven. Where the vegetable fibers have not survived, many pots that show the patterns of the baskets used to mold them have been found.
"The Native Americans may well have left the greatest legacy to the world of baskets. The Indians of Arizona and New Mexico made basket-molded pottery from 5000 to 1000 B.C. as part of the earliest basket heritage. Their baskets (many of which have survived in gravesites) are heralded as a pure art form and one that was created not only by a primitive people but also by women. Basketry extended into the making of many other materials the Indians used daily including fishing nets, animal and fish snares, cooking utensils that were so finely woven that they were waterproof, ceremonial costumes and baskets, and even plaques. In the Northwest, the Tlingit and Chilkat made twined baskets from the most delicate of fibers. In the Southwest, the Hopi, Apache, and other Pueblo tribes made coiled baskets with bold decorations and geometric patterns of both dyed and natural fibers.
"In the late 1800s, the basketry of Native Americans became popular as decorative objects with the disadvantage that there were fewer Indian craftspeople remaining to meet the demand. In 1898, after the Spanish American War, the Philippines, which also had a strong basket-making tradition, were governed by the United States. Rural dwellers grew their own basket-making materials and manufactured baskets for sale in the cities. The mutual need for baskets in the United States and the strengthening of the economy of the Philippines caused schools with classes in basket weaving to be established. The only books on the subject were about the baskets made by Native Americans, so the schools taught traditional Indian basketry to the Filipinos. Eventually, native Filipino weavers became the teachers as well, and both broad ranges of styles found a new homeland for manufacture and a ready market in the United States. The Philippine Islands remain a major basket-making center today. Basket weaving has never been found suitable to mechanization, but standardization of hand methods and concentrated production centers and facilities produce uniform, high-quality products…"
To read more of this informative article click here.