Updated: Jul 1
Did you know that basket weaving is more than weaving fibers together to make a container? Elder basket weavers have recounted that the biggest complaint new basket weavers have--both Indian and non-Indian alike--is that "They don't want to learn how to dig and prepare those roots. Yet they can't call themselves weavers until they learn how to do that."
The cultivation of basketry roots has always been a significant factor in the superior reputation of Pomo baskets. The basket weaver traditionally had to collect materials and prepare them to preserve the unique characteristics that made a good basket.
This is not to say that the basket's form, the fineness and evenness of stitch, symmetry, design and technique were not important to its expert creation. After all, those are the attributes that made Pomo baskets one of the most famous in the world. But what it does say is that the hard work started with collecting and preparing fibers long before--sometimes years-- before it was time to weave.
One of the main fibers used in Pomo basket weaving was Carex Barbarae or Santa Barbara sedge. Santa Barbara sedge as well as willows were once abundant in the marsh areas of Clear Lake and in oak woodland areas near streambeds. The Pomo people cultivated sedge along the Russian River and along the Navarro River in Mendocino County.
The season for collecting sedge roots varies between coast and river root tracts so they needed to plan ahead. Even the roots from dirt and sand tracts differ. Good sedge beds on non-private land are now precious few so their locations are sometimes understandably kept secret.
I was so fascinated with the stories of this basket sedge I decided to test growing it in my garden here in Lake County. It's at a higher elevation so we'll see how it survives plants benefit from harvest every few months to keep them healthy.
The best roots to harvest for baskets are straight. The roots can grow very long and if not maintained will become entangled and crooked.They are then usually stripped of their bark and treasured for their inner root. The inner root can also be dyed in the mud itself or with rusty nails to create a reddish brown color.
It was said that "The sedge root could be made into a very fine thread and it is from this material that almost all of the very finest Pomo baskets are chiefly made. They were the strongest, most durable and most costly that are made."
All generations of basket weavers dig roots. It is usually a family affair with women, men, children. Roots are dug with digging sticks by sitting in the mud and just going for it. The digger follows--with her fingers--the roots from the crown of the grass as far as it reaches following its path under and over other roots never losing sight of it in the mud. Some roots that have been dug up were eight feet long.
Where the beds have been cultivated in this way the roots can remain straight and unkinked. Each spring new runners allow the harvester to take the older roots.
Sedge root from Clear Lake County--before it suffered from pollution--was valuable enough to be exchanged for valuable foodstuffs that were absent inland. Kashaya Pomo people who lived along the coast would trade their
available seafood for Lake County roots and other weaving materials not growing on the coast.
Hard work, planning ahead, negotiating as well as practiced hands all contributed to the attributes that made Pomo baskets one of the most famous in the world.
In the drawing above Pomo Basket Weaver No.1 behind the weaver are sedge flowers which play a prominent role.
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