On July 26, 2010, Karen Lewis presented “Native American Basketry: Transitional Basketry in Michigan.”

According to Karen, basketry is the oldest known craft to man.  Basket fragments dating back 10,000 years have been found in North America, although not in Northern Michigan because of the moist climate.   Because clay bowls were often formed inside baskets, basket-making has been referred to as the mother of pottery.

Baskets were made by women for food gathering, preparation, and storage, as well as for ceremonial purposes.  In some tribes, men made the baskets they used for hunting and fishing.    The special dye formulas used were closely-guarded family secrets, often lost when basket-makers died.  It is known, however, that black walnuts produced brown dyes and yarrow was used to obtain yellow dyes.  Basket-makers generally did not put their names on the baskets they made, in deference to the “Great Spirit” guiding their hands, and therefore responsible for their talent.

Northern Michigan Native Americans didn’t weave baskets initially; they used birch bark for their needs.  Later, coiled baskets were called the white man’s kettle.  At the turn of the twentieth century, baskets came to be produced for sale to settlers rather than for the use by the basket-makers and their families.  The term Transitional Basketry is used to describe this shift.

Karen shared over 200 basket items from her collection with the audience:  Sewing baskets made from sweet grass and black ash, open embroidery baskets, train baskets with glass, pin cushions, shopping baskets, purses, clothes hampers, thimble and scissors holders, strawberry baskets, and kindling baskets, among others.  She encouraged the audience to share their collections and she commented on each one.

Karen advised using a camel hair brush to gently clean baskets, and cautioned displaying or storing them near excessive heat or dryness.  During the depression crepe paper was sometimes used as a dye, so she advised everyone against washing their baskets.  A few of the baskets in Karen’s collection are shown here.