Warps and Wefts: Adventures in Identifying Native American Basketry

Warps and Wefts: Adventures in Identifying Native American Basketry

Warps and Wefts: Adventures in Identifying Native American Basketry

Christa Barleben, Collections Cataloger

We all own baskets, right? If we are like my mother we have about six in each room of the house, each with their own purpose. But have you ever really looked at a basket and how it is constructed?

This summer the Eiteljorg Museum was able to host Bryn Potter, an expert in Native American baskets, to review our collection of over 500 Native American baskets. During Bryn’s three day stay, she was able to work with museum staff to better identify basket weaving techniques, the plant types used in the construction of the basket, and the types of dyes used create the beautiful colors we see in the basket designs.


(above) Bryn Potter reviewing a group of Native American Baskets

I fully admitted to Bryn on her first day with us, that I knew nothing about basket construction or weaving techniques (My love strays more towards beaded objects). She laughed and said I would when we were done. After three days surrounded by baskets, I came out having a new appreciation for every stitch and design in our basket collection.  Bryn passed along some very helpful tips during her time with us. I have listed a few below, that I found very interesting.

Rod or Grass?

Coiled baskets use plants such as willow rods and grasses, splints or roots to help form a bundle foundation. The foundation provides a support for the basket, which allows for the coils to be stitched together, forming the wall. Once the basket is finished, the foundation is often hidden. So how can you tell if you have a foundation based on rods or softer grass, roots or splints? The answer is texture. A basket based on a three-rod foundation will have a corrugated or a bumpy feeling to it, which is from the triangular shape the bundle of rods form when stitched together. A softer bundle will have a smoother surface to it, because the soft material doesn’t have the ridged shape the rods produce.


(left) Basket, Olla. Apache, Rod Foundation, 1920-1940

(right) Basket, Akimel O’odham, Bundle Foundation, ca. 1930

Hat or Bowl?

California groups, such as the Hupa and Yurok, weave dome-shaped basket caps that can be misidentified as food bowls when placed upside down. How can you tell the difference? Look for the zones in the design on the exterior of the basket. Basket caps have three-zone banding. There is one distinct zone around the crown or the top of the hat, one distinct zone around the center of the hat, and one distinct zone around the edge of the hat. If there aren’t three zones, then it is probably a bowl.


(left) Basket Cap, Hupa, ca. 1900

(right) Basket Bowl, Yurok, 1890-1920

Half Twist or Full Twist?

There are many different techniques used by weavers to create the beautiful designs that we see in their baskets.  One of the commonly used techniques is overlay or false embroidery. Overlay designs are commonly seen with twined baskets. Twining is a weaving technique in which two or more wefts. Weavers cross over each other between the warps. The color overlay design adds a third color on top of one of the wefts during the construction of the basket. When you can see the additional colored weft design on the exterior and the interior of the basket, it was produced using a full twist overlay. When the design can only been seen on the exterior of the basket, it was created using a half twist overlay.


(left) Basket, Shasta, Half Twist Overlay, 20th Century
(right) Basket (inside view), Klamath, Modoc, Full Twist Overlay, 1920-1940

And because this is a blog about Native American baskets, I have picked out one of my favorites in our collection.

Carrying Basket, Western Apache, ca. 1920