1902 Encyclopedia > Basket


BASKET, a utensil made of twigs, rushes, or strips of wood, as well as of a variety of other materials, interwoven together, and used for holding or carrying any commodity. Modern ingenuity has applied many substances before unthought of to the construction of baskets, such as iron and even glass. But wicker-work being the oldest as well as the most universal invention, it alone will be treated of in the present article. The process of interweaving twigs, seeds, or leaves, is practised among the rudest nations of the world; and as it is one of the most universal of arts, so also does it rank among the most ancient industries, being probably the origin of all the textile arts of the world. A bundle of rushes spread out may be compared to the warp of a web, and the application of others across it to the woof, also an early discovery; for basket-work is literally a web of the coarsest materials. The ancient Britons appear to have excelled in the art of basket-making, and their baskets were highly prized in Borne as we learn from Martial (xiv. 99) :—

" Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis; Sed me jam mavult dicere Roma suam."

Among many uncivilized tribes at the present day baskets of a superior order are made and applied to various useful purposes. The North American Indians prepare strong water-tight " Wattape" baskets from the roots of a species of Abies, and these they frequently adorn with very pretty patterns made from the dyed quills of their native porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum. The Indians of South America weave baskets equally useful from the fronds of the Carnahuba and other palms. The Kaffres and Hottentots of South Africa are similarly skilful in using the Ilala reed and the roots of plants; while the tribes of central Africa and the Abyssinians display great adroitness in the art of basketrweaving.

Basket-making, however, has by no means been confined to the fabrication of those simple and useful utensils from which its name is derived. Of old, the shields of soldiers were fashioned of wicker-work, either plain or covered with hides; and the like has been witnessed among modern savages. In Britain the shields of the ancient warriors, and also their huts, even up to the so-called palaces of the Saxon monarchs, were made of wicker-work; and their boats of the same material, covered with the skins of animals, attracted the notice of the Romans. Herodotus mentions boats of this kind on the Tigris and Euphrates, but with this difference, that the former seem to have been of the ordinary figure of a boat, whereas the latter were round and were covered with bitumen. Boats of this shape, about 71 feet in diameter, are used at the present day on these rivers ; and boats of analogous construction are employed in crossing the rivers of India which have not a rapid current. Nothing can be more expeditious or more simple than the fabrication and materials of these vessels, if they merit that name. One may be made by six men in as many hours,—only two substances, hides and bamboo, almost always accessible, being used. Window screens, perambulators, chairs, etc, are now largely made of basket-work, and tie light pony basket carriages in general use are the representatives of the Continental Holstein waggon of the early part of the century, which was a two-horse bas-ket carriage of considerable size. In Berlin and Kiel there now exist large factories of "Korb Möbel," devoted to the manufacture of basket-work chairs, tables, stands, frames, screens, <fcc., and the use of this description of furniture is very general in Continental houses.

The materials which are actually employed in the con-struction of basket-work are numerous and varied, and to the principal of these allusion will be made below. As it is, however, from various species of willow that the largest supply of basket-making materials is produced, we shall first confine our attention to this source. Willows for basket-work are extensively grown in Holland, Belgium, France, and Germany, whence large quantities are exported to Great Britain and even to the United States. The willows of France are highly esteemed by basket-makers as firm, clean rods; and the Dutch produce are lowest in value, being soft and pithy. No Continental rods equal those of English growth for their tough and leathery texture, and the finest of all basket-making willows are now cultivated in large quantities in the valleys of the Thames and the Trent. It was only in the early part of this century that any considerable attention was given in Britain to the cultivation of willows suitable for basket-making; and the industry was first stimulated by premiums offered by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures. Mr Phillips of Ely was one of the most successful early cultivators of willows, and to his exertions we owe the introduction of a valuable willow, the Brown Norfolk, Salix triandra. Mr Phillips's observations and experiments largely contributed to place the willow cultivation on a satisfactory commercial basis, and a similar service was rendered in Scotland by Mr Sheriffs; but the systematic maintenance of willow holts has not been con-tinued in Scotland. One of the most sucessful growers of willows at the present day is Mr William Scaling of Basford, Notts, who cultivates a salictum of about 100 acres in extent. Mr Scaling has the advantage of being a practical basket-maker, and the facts which follow regarding the growth and varieties of basket-willows are chiefly gleaned from his pamphlets on willow cultivation.

The genus Salix, to which all willows and osiers belong, is extremely complex in its botanical characters, and the species and varieties, as systematically arranged, are very numerous. Those cultivated for basket-making Mr Scaling divides into four classes. The first class, which alone get the name of willows among basket-makers, includes the rods of six or seven different species, all of which Mr Scaling classes with Salix fragilis. The " willows " yield inferior basket-rod3, having a tendency to throw out side-shoots which makes the rods " rough." The second class comprises the osiers, including about forty varieties used by basket-makers all grouped around the osier, Salix vitninalis, and these form the staple of basket-making materials. In the third class, which are known in the trade as " Spaniards" or Spanish willows, are included about thirty varieties which are classed under Salix amygdaiina. The " Spaniards " comprise some of the most useful basket-willows, the wood being more dense and elastic than is the case with osiers. The fourth class com-prise the bitter willows, of which Salix purpurea is taken as the type, and the rods they yield are known as " whip-cord," " swallow tail," or " one-yard." These are the finest of all willows for basket-making, and owing to their bitterness they are not attacked by rabbits and hares, which frequently do much damage to all other varieties.

It was long supposed that willows flourish nowhere but with abundance of water. Undoubtedly the osier class thrive well with a considerable degree of humidity, but a dry well-drained soil is best suited for all hard-wooded varieties. For the laying out of a willow holt, Mr Scaling recommends that the land should be well drained, cleared and tilled to a depth of about one foot. Willows are propa-gated solely from cuttings, which retain their vitality long, and strike with great facility. The cuttings are made about 9 inches long, and two or three may be obtained from a single rod. They should be planted in rows from 16 to 18 inches apart, the plants in each row being placed at intervals of from 8 to 12 inches according to the size of the willow under cultivation; and the entire length of the cutting should be pushed into the ground The planting may be done at any time from late autumn to early spring during the period of plant rest, when the ground is free from frost. At the end of each year the shoots are to be cut down close to the ground, manure is laid on between the rows and ploughed in, and the soil should be kept as open and free from weeds as arable land. The produce of the first year will, as a rule, be of little value; nevertheless, in Mr Scaling's opinion, it is of consequence that the rods should be cut down. The second year's crop should yield a good return; in the third year the plants are at their best, and for the ten following years they should exhibit undiminished productiveness, after which they gradually decline in strength. The entire cost of a salictum per acre Mr Scaling estimates, for the first year, at £33, 12s., and the return at £8,12s. The outlay for the next two years he gives as £7, 5s. and £6, 15s., but the crops of these years should yield £17 and £22, just covering the cost of planting, which is the ordinary calculation of growers.

The rods intended for basket-making are either taken entire, cut from the root, split asunder, or stripped of their bark, according to the work to be produced; but in all cases they are previously soaked in water, and indeed sometimes boiled. The stripping is performed by drawing the willows through a bifurcated iron implement called a brake, which removes the bark, and the willows are then cleaned, as far as necessary, by manual operation with a knife. When they are boiled previous to peeling a very nice light brown colour is developed in the wood by the action of the tannin contained in the bark, and rods thus prepared are much more durable than those peeled white. Next they are exposed to the sun and air, and afterwards placed in a dry situation. But it is not the less necessary to preserve willows with their bark in the same manner; for nothing can be more injurious than the humidity inherent in the plant; and previous to use they must be soaked some days in water also. The barked or white osier is then divided into bundles or faggots according to size ; the larger being reserved to form the strong work in the skeleton of the basket, and the smaller for weaving the bottom and sides. Should the latter be applied to ordinary work, they are taken whole; but for implements of slight and finer texture, each osier is divided into splits and skains of different degrees of size. Splits are osiers cleft into four parts, by means of an implement employed for that purpose called a cleaver, which is a wedge-shaped tool inserted at the point or top end of the rod and run down through its entire length. These are next drawn through an implement resembling the common spoke-shave, keeping the grain of the split next the iron or stock of the shave, while the pith is presented to the steel edge of the instrument, which is set in an oblique direction to the wood: and in order to bring the split into a shape still more regular, it is passed through anotherimplement called an upright, consisting of a flat piece of steel, each end of which is fashioned into a cutting edge, like that of an ordinary chisel. The flat, is bent round, so that the two edges approach each other at a greater or less interval by means of regulating screws, and the whole is fixed into a handle. By passing the splits between the two edges they are reduced to skains, the thickness of which is determined by the interval between the edges of the tool.

The implements required by a basket-maker are few imd simple. They consist, besides the preceding, of knives, bodkins, leads for keeping the work steady while in process ; and where the willows are worked as rods a heavy piece of iron called a beater is employed to beat them close as they are woven in. On the Continent, where fancy baskets are made, blocks are required on which the webs of wicker-work are set to particular shapes.

An ordinary basket is made by preparing the requisite number of osiers, and preserving their length considerably greater than that of the finished work. They are ranged in pairs on the floor parallel to each other, at small intervals, in the direction of the longer dia-meter of the basket; and this may be called the woof,—for, as we have said, basketwork is literally a web. These parallel rods are then crossed at right angles by two of the largest osiers, with the thick ends towards the workman, who places his foot upon them; and being each woven alternately over and under the parallel pieces first laid down, they are by that means confined in their places. The whole now forms what is technically called the slath, which is the foundation of the basket. Next the long end of one of the two rods is taken and woven under and over the pairs of short ends all round the bottom, until the whole be woven in. The same is done with the other rod, and then additional long osiers are also woven in, until the bottom be of sufficient size, and the woof be occupied by them. Thus the bottom or foundation on which the superstructure is to be raised is finished ; and this latter part is accomplished by sharpening the large ends of as many long and stout osiers as may be necessary to form the ribs or skeleton. These are forced or plaited, " scallumed, " between the rods of the bottom Irom the edge towards the centre, and are turned up, "upset," in the direction of the sides ; then other rods are woven in and out between each of them, until the basket is raised to the intended height, or, more correctly speaking, the depth it is to receive. The edge or brim is finished by turning down the perpendicular ends of the ribs, now protruding and standing up, over each other, whereby the whole is firmly and compactly united. A handle is adapted to the work by forcing one or more rods called bale sticks, sharpened at the end and cut to the requisite length, down the weaving of the sides, close together; and they are pinned fast, or tied by means of the rods used in twisting over the bale rods, about two inches from the brim, in order that the handle, when completed, may be retained in its proper position. The osiers are then either bound or plaited in such fashion as pleases the taste of the artist. This is the most simple kind of basket, from which others differ only in finer materials and nicer execution ; but in these there is considerable scope for taste and fancy, and implements are produced of extreme neatness and ingenuity in construction. The skains are frequently smoked and dyed either of dull or brilliant colours, and by intermixing them judiciously, as also by varnishing over the colour, a very good effect u produced.

Prom the simplicity of this manufacture, a great many individuals, independent of professed basket-makers, are occupied in it; and it affords suitable employment to the blind in the several asylums and workshops established for their reception in this and other countries.

In addition to willows, a large variety of othsr materials is employed in the fabrication of wicker-work. Among the most important of these are splits of various species of bamboo, with which the J apanese and Chinese manufacture baskets of unequalled beauty and finish. The bamboo wicker-work with which the Japanese sometimes encase their delicate egg-shell porcelain is a marvellous example of manipulation, and they and the Chinese excel in the appli-cation of bamboo wicker-work to furniture. The "canes" or rattans of commerce, stems of species of Calamus and I>cemmorops are scarcely less important as a source of basket materials. In India " Cajan " baskets are extensively made from the fronds of the Palmyra palm, Borassus flabelliformis; and this manufacture has in recent years been established in the Black Forest of Germany, where it is now an important and characteristic staple. Among the other materials may be enumerated the odorous roots of the Khus-Khus grass, Anatherum muricatum, and the leaves of various species of screw pine, used in India and the East generally. The fronds of the palm of the Seychelles Islands, Lodoicea seychellarum, are used for very delicate basket-work in those islands. Strips of the New Zealand flax plant, Phormium tenax, are made into baskets in New Zealand. Esparto fibre is used in Spain and Algeria for rude fruit baskets. Various species of Maranta yield basket materials in the West Indies and South America; and the Tirite, a species of Calathea, is also similarly employed in Trinidad. Baskets are also frequently made from straw, from various sedges (Cyperus), and from shavings and splints of many kinds of wood.

In the basket trade special centres are recognized as the headquarters of various styles of work met in the markets. Thus Birmingham is recognized as the source of wicker perambulators; in Southport boiled willows are used, and the brown baskets for gardening and market purposes are produced, and at Castle Donnington, in Derbyshire, the flatskain work seen in fishing baskets, dec., is chiefly made. In the department of Aisne, France, the berceaunette or bassinet is very largely manufactured, and in Verdun much basket-work is specially prepared to suit the English market, in which the French manufacturers are able freely to compete. The Black Forest and other German manufacturers produce enormous quantities of light elegant baskets, which are largely exported. In Austria lacquered and varnished baskets are made in imitation of gold, silver, and steel, and Viennese card baskets, etc., are frequently ornamented with plaques of painted porcelain inserted in the centre.

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