Place: Mendocino County, California
Media: Sedge roots, Hazel sticks, and clamshell disk beads
Dims: 11.5 x 18 diam. in. (29.2 x 45.7 diam. cm).
Date: c. 1890
Bruce Bernstein writes in 2021 about this piece: What a wondrously beautiful form, so perfectly woven and lovely to hold. It is hard to believe that this container was made for hard use; for storing foods, like shellfish, seaweed, and acorns. Gorgeous and functional, it is engineered to allow for air circulation so foods would not spoil unnecessarily and allow newly harvested sea plants and food to drain. The basket’s utility was further enhanced as a result of it being made of plant materials; wood that is made to expand and contract with the introduction and drying of water. As a storage container, it would be kept at home for smaller and more easily carried bags and baskets to be emptied into. This is a large container, and its round form makes it awkward to carry, especially if it was filled, making it heavy. Bay leaves were used to keep mice and insects from the stored acorns.
I had the very wonderful fortune of learning about baskets from Pomo basket weaver Mabel McKay (1907-1993). (Here is a nice tribute to her life by the Autry Museum). In numerous car rides and sitting with her while she demonstrated, she generously shared her life stories with me. Knowing about bay leaves were things from her life, what she lived and learned from her family growing up at a quite different time.
But mostly, Mabel shared with me about baskets. Not like sitting around and discussing stitch counts and why one is more beautiful than another. Nor did she need to talk about identifying baskets. She could, from across the room, tell you where something was from and, often, who made it.
Learning from Mabel required long, circuitous conversations. Mabel made clear that the two most important things about weaving baskets were the quality and preparation of the basket materials and being of good mind. She was an intuitive and spiritual person. She was straight out of Northern California healing and Indian Doctoring traditions. Simply put, having good thoughts and an uncluttered mind meant that no bad thoughts were woven into the basket. When someone wanted to buy one of Mabel’s baskets, she wrote down the person’s name in her book to ensure that the buyer did not have bad thoughts that might possibly be woven into the basket. She would pray on the potential buyer’s name, and if things were good, she would write and tell the buyer she was ready to make a basket for them.
Talking baskets with her meant talking about plants. This container is made from sedge for the wefts and hazel sticks for the warps. Hazel sticks are harvested in the spring or fall, while sedge roots are harvested in the fall and possibly in the warmer parts of the winter. Although Mabel, and just about every other weaver and basket scholar I have known, uses the terminology “sedge roots,” it is not the roots used to make baskets but rhizomes. The rhizomes are an underground portion of the plant that goes out laterally to sprout other sedge plants. An ideal sedge patch is sandy so it easier to dig but, more importantly, so that rhizomes could grow unimpeded resulting in long and straight “roots.” By cultivating sedge beds some plants were removed to allow others to grow and the soil might be loosened, helping to ensure an even color. Pomo basket weavers prize sedge roots.
The warp rods were cut from bushes that were tended like the rose bushes in a garden. By pruning and thinning you assure straight and new growth that is strong even hued. Looking more closely at this container, we can see the weaver’s knowledge and hard work in harvesting her materials as well as the careful way she prepared her raw materials.
In preparing plants to be incorporated into baskets, both the sedge and sticks have an outer bark that is removed. In the spring, the bark slips off the sticks but, in the fall, preparing the sticks might require scraping the bark off. Once stripped of outer bark, the sticks are tied in bundles and left to dry for a year or more. Once the sedge’s outer scaley bark is removed, the rhizomes are split lengthwise into either thirds or quarters depending on the root’s dimension. The split sedge is made into coils three to five inches thick and set out to age for a year or more. The patience in preparing the materials and allowing them to dry is one of a great weaver’s hallmarks. The container start-to-finish includes even diameter and hued wefts and warps. In a container such as this one, we are witness to a great weaver.
The container is made in two twining weaving techniques, diagonal twining and lattice twining. The majority of the basket is lattice twined. This technique uses whole sticks placed perpendicular and lashed together with an over and under with a stitch of split sedge. The whole sticks make a rigid body. At the start and on the rim is diagonal twining. Using diagonal twining, a basket’s start and finish strengthen the basket. The rim is ornamented with clamshell disk beads.
Working with Mabel was a rolling seminar, our conversations ebbing and flowing over weeks and sometimes years. No matter where and when it began, each conversation was added to and brought to a conclusion at some different place and time. Being the inquiring kind, no surprise, these conversations usually started with my question. Some of what she shared with me I am very pleased to have shared here.
Second photo from the top: Mabel holding her harvest of sedge roots at Dry Creek, Sonoma County, c. 1992
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011