For thousands of years, before the introduction and widespread use of cloth carrying sacks, primitive peoples worldwide wove wooden splints, vines, and tree barks into pack baskets as a way of transporting goods. They are still very much in use in some parts of the world despite the availability of modern materials. In Malaysia, for instance, the Orang Asal people carry their kit in pack baskets made of rattan. Even in the US, there are still basket-weavers who keep the craft alive. For the Akwesasne Mohawk on the New York-Quebec border and the Penobscot (Panaomeska Wabanaki) in Maine, basketry is a way of keeping their tribal traditions alive. They make beautiful and practical pack baskets out of Black Ash splints, just as their ancestors have done for so long. Today you can buy handmade pack baskets at outdoor retailers or directly from the basket-weavers themselves.
But since I don’t have $89 to spend on such a basket and wanted to make one on my own, I figured I’d give it my best shot…using no metal tools, only stone, the aboriginal way.
The tool kit…
For the sake of simplicity and time, I opted for using vines with an “open-weave” construction.
There is no shortage of invasive Asiatic Bittersweet here. I cut numerous long, new growth shoots around 1/2 cm to 1 cm /0.2 – 0.4 inches in thickness. For the frame itself, I used River Grape vines bent into a teardrop shape and bound at the top and bottom with Black Willow inner bark. Wild Grape vines are equally as strong as Bittersweet, but they’re much more flexible and make excellent alternative weaver strands.
Splitting a Black Willow branch to get even strips of inner bark. Make sure you scrape off the flaky outer bark as it will weaken the fibres as they dry.
This is not a project that can be completed in an hour or two. Gathering the materials, cutting them to shape, removing the protruding nubs of branching off-shoots, weaving, and gathering more materials (if you think you have enough materials prepared, you WILL run out) is a lengthy process. Patience and commitment are key, and once you “get in a rhythm”, the hours will pass without you noticing.
But all that work pays-off ;). Here is the end-product, with a final piece of River Grape vine bent at the top to provide extra strength, and shoulder straps fashioned from a 5 ft/152 cm piece of Asiatic Bittersweet vine. The pack basket measures 12 inches/ 31 cm tall with a top opening of about 6 inches/15 cm diameter, just enough to carry all my essentials.
It is most certainly not a very comfortable design…I noticed right away that the shoulder straps bit into my shoulders, and the woven structure dug into my spine. With some upgraded shoulder straps made of willow inner bark, and perhaps the addition of a back panel, these problems should be alleviated. On the plus side, the pack rode high on my back and distributed the weight surprisingly well.
There you have it :). Despite some comfort issues, I am very impressed with how it turned out. This pack basket is going to get a lot of use – and for me, that is most rewarding part of all :).