Ellen Goyette runs what amounts to a basket museum in a side room of the big barn, the majority of which is now used as a cultural art center. Baskets, it seems, were made out of anything and everything.
"Some of these are made of pine straw," she said. "The Indians taught us how to make those. I think they were probably more for decorative rather than functional purposes, but to make them they did a thing called coiling and it's one of the ancient arts."
A horsehair basket was derived from the dearly departed pony Toby, and it was also created using coiling. Some Charleston-style baskets recall the Gullah tradition that is still insanely popular in that region.
"The men would go over to Gullah in South Carolina and harvest the sweet grass. They'd bring it back to the ladies who would take pine needles again and entwine them and make their own baskets. They brought their method from Africa and no other basket maker is going to go into their territory and start making them. I think that's very respectful."
She has some examples of basketry woven around bottles to protect wine, medicines, olive oil and such from sunlight. Victorians would submerge these bottles filled with beverages in the spring water so they got cold and then the basket would act as insulation to the hands. "They'd hang it in the cargo ship on the boat and if it dropped it wouldn't break. It was the original cozy."
A feather basket would have been used when it was molting time, as a means to capture goose feathers. It has an up-and-down lid tethered to the handle, and she said twice a year the boys on the farm would gather up the geese and bring them to the ladies. They'd put them under their arms, pluck the goose's down and slip their harvest under a basket lid that promptly slammed shut. Every feather counted.
Basket reeds were sometimes made from hardwoods such as maple or poplar. She demonstrates a shaving horse used to strip wood down into pliable layers, nothing so workable as the vines and grasses that were also common basket-making materials.
"If you go out into the woods and pull a vine of any sort, put it around your wrist and it doesn't break, you can use it. They used grapevine and wisteria, and if you put honeysuckle in water for four to six hours you can strip the leaves easily. Cane was in all Nantucket baskets, and you'll also find sea grass, yarn, philodendron leaf and flax linen."
A hen basket with a wooden egg in it demonstrates how you can entice a chicken to lay an egg AND put it right in your basket. You can even use stones shaped like eggs, put them in the basket, add a hen, and she will get the idea this is where she's supposed to lay her eggs. "If you want to transport a chicken, wrap up her legs and with the high walls of this basket she won't be able to flap her wings."
The enormous baskets were for picking cotton. The pickers wore burlap bags that could carry 75 pounds, and when the bag was full they'd go to the foreman and he would weigh them and give them little slips of paper. At the end of the day they would tally it up, and also at the end of the day they'd slide a pole through the basket's handles and give two very strong men the job of carrying it from both sides.
An egg basket was made to balance on the hip or hang around on the neck of a horse. The antler basket uses deer antlers as handles. "Deer shed their antlers in March," she said. The elbow basket, which looks like a woven upper arm, elbow and lower arm, was made to hold cooking utensils.
Terms: Basket Maker