The Language of Native American Baskets Techniques, Tools & Workplaces Techniques, Tools & Workplaces
Introduction The Weavers' View Techniques, Tools & Workplaces The Weavers' Aesthetic Burden Baskets A Set of Values Basketmaking Associations
Tools and Workplaces
  “The only way to weave a basket is to have your basket move with your body.”
—Terrol Johnson, Tohono O’odham
Tools and workplaces

Like all artists, basket-weavers have strong preferences about when and where they work, and the tools they use. Few weavers work full-time. Even when baskets were essential containers for cooking and storing food, women wove in hours in-between caring for their families. In communities where men wove, such as the Rio Grande Pueblos, basketmaking came after doing agricultural work and meeting other family and religious obligations. Today, as in the past, friends and relatives get together and weave away the hours and centuries.

Materials are meticulously trimmed to size, and many of the hours a basket-maker spends “weaving” are taken up in preparation. Coiling requires the most precisely trimmed elements. Obsidian blades were once used to trim and scrape plant fibers. Some weavers still prefer to use volcanic rock or commercial glass blades, although well-worn penknives and kitchen knives are more often seen. Tin can lids punched with holes are also used to size weaving materials; sewing strands are passed through successively smaller holes until they are fine.

Metal awls, capable of being honed to finer, longer-lasting points, have replaced those made of bone or cactus spines. Using metal awls enabled weavers to make finer baskets, such as those of the Washoe, Panamint Shoshone, and Mono Lake Paiute. Basket-makers make awls of knitting needles, screwdrivers, and ice picks, and purchase cobblers’ and leather-workers’ awls. Each weaver’s personal preference determines the length of her awl, the size and type of handle it has, and how it is decorated. A basket-maker may use the same tools throughout a lifetime’s work, and they become highly personalized, through use as well as by decoration.

Today, most basket-makers sit at tables to weave. Some work at specially designed workbenches. Others prefer to work sitting on the ground under the shade of a tree, or on the living room sofa in front of the television, or at the kitchen table. The basket might rest on the table, the ground, or the weaver’s lap. Weavers use their own bodies as tools, splitting fibers with their teeth or shaping a basket over a knee.