Sewing Basket
Article by Joleen Gordon

If we could see beneath the forest floor, we would see that all the trees, the pine, the birch, maple and so on, are holding hands, regardless of species. We as people, regardless of race, must come together and hold hands and help each other. We must listen to our Mother Earth. She is sending us a message.
–Mi’kmaq Elder and Spiritual Leader
Chief Charlie Labrador, 1932-2002

i’kmaq First Nations People in Atlantic Canada draw on the natural world to provide the plant and animal fibres and dye sources necessary for their basketry. This extensive knowledge of surrounding resources– seasonal gathering times, preparation methods and weaving techniques to use with specific materials–has evolved over the years with demographic, economic and environmental shifts.

Two major archaeological sites have revealed to us information essential to the history of basket making. In both cases, fragments of organic material have been preserved owing to the presence of copper sulphate, acting as a biocide. The 2,500-year-old Augustine Mound on the Miramichi River in northeastern New Brunswick contained residues of an apparently affluent salmon-rich fishing area where makers created exceptional textiles with materials gathered from fauna and flora: moose-tendon warps wrapped with bundles of moose hairs; alternating rows of alternating pairs of unwrapped and porcupine quill-wrapped moose-tendon warps separated by rows of tendon twining; woven two-ply fibre used in both warp and weft; braids of plant leaves, wood splints and spun animal hair. Many of these fibres have yet to be identified.

The second site, from about 1570-1590 AD, was found near Pictou, Nova Scotia. Most basketry materials have
been identified. Long flat leaves of the cattail plant (Typha latifolia) with their ends, were bound together with cordage made from another plant, true rush (Scirpus lacustris). The leaves were hung
in curtain fashion and sewn, at handwidth intervals, in two separate layers with grass twisted into a two-ply thread.

Cattail leaves were also braided in threestrand cords that anchored the sewing threads on each side of the mat. It is believed that large sewn cattail mats were used for wall construction in summer dwellings; the vertical flat leaves guided summer rains to the ground while the latticed effect of the overlapped leaf construction provided air circulation within the dwelling and the open space between the two layers
allowed air insulation on cool nights. Smaller mats may have been used for seat cushioning in canoes.

Rush was also used to make large floor mats. No archaeological evidence has yet been found, although Marc
Lescarbot (ca. 1570-1642), a young Parisian lawyer who was in Port Royal in 1606, recorded such matting and
described the dyed rush patterning:

[They] make mats of rushes, wherewith they garnish their cabins, and others to sit upon, and all very artificially, yea, also colouring their rushes; they make partitions in their works, like to them that our
gardeners do make in their garden knots, and such measure and proportion as nothing is found amiss
(Lescarbot, pp 252-253)

The Pictou site also revealed twined rush fragments, most likely the remains of bag-like containers. Several
rushes were bound mid-length closely together with a single row of rush twining, and folded in half along this line; the free ends forming the framework of the bag. The rush twining was continued in one continuous row up the sides of the bag, adding new rush framework pieces at both sides for shaping and new rushes into the twining when required.

Grasses such as sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) and American beach grass (Amophilia brevingulata) were also
used for making twisted and plied sewing thread and small twined baskets.
Outer bark of the white birch tree (Betula papyrifera) was cut, folded and stitched into an amazing number of items; heavy bark was used for sturdier objects such as canoes and thinner bark for lightweight containers.

Inner barks of other trees provided sheets of material for weaving. Thick and spongy white cedar (Thuja
occidentalis) was split and re-split into narrow widths for matting. Lightweight and porous basswood (Tilia Americana) was retted (soaked in water to separate the fibres), dried and then spun into two-ply cords which were twined in spaced rows to make bag-like containers and nets.
When Europeans introduced steel tools and their agricultural economy in the seventeenth century, the Mi’kmaq
adapted these new technologies to their basket making. The skill of weaving with soft plant materials was gradually lost in favour of loom-woven cloth, blankets and carpeting. Influenced by northern European wood-splint baskets, the Mi’kmaq added their old skill of splitting and re-splitting the inner cedar bark—for lining their canoes—to pounding and splitting hardwood trees such as black ash (Fraxinus nigra) and white ash (Fraxinus Americana) into ribbon-like wood splints. These were woven into sturdy agricultural baskets
for sale and barter. Much later, logs of poplar (Populus tremuloides) were cut by American-made veneer machines into wide splints for less durable, special-use containers, such as Easter baskets.
Mi’kmaq craftsmen were ingenious tool makers. They crafted gauges of many sizes from cut and sharpened
watch springs set into wooden handles to cut fine and yet finer wood-splints, woven into whimsies and fancy catch-all baskets popular in the souvenir market.
Basketmakers developed several decorative projecting patterns by folding and twisting a second splint-weaver
into the surface weave of the basket.
Three patterns were the most popular —jikiji’j or periwinkle or curls, porcupine quill, and the standard diamond.
“The periwinkle weave is possibly one of the oldest known decorative effects,” according to retired ethnologist Ruth Holmes Whitehead. Today, the Mi’kmaq word jikiji’j is used to refer to all decorative
Organic plant dyes were discarded when chemical dyes became more cost
effective to make brighter, more colourful baskets. Fragrant sweetgrass continues to be used as a weaver, either in single strands or in lengths of three-strand braid, as well as a bundle of strands
bound onto the rims of fancy baskets.
The Ursuline nuns of Quebec taught Mi’kmaq women to embroider with dyed moose hairs on birchbark, creating elaborate floral patterned Victorian whimsies such as callingcard trays, fans and napkin rings. The
souvenir market also encouraged the making of geometric-patterned porcupine-quilled birchbark boxes of many
sizes and functions.
A family of Black basketmakers from the American South settled outside Halifax after the War of 1812. Their descendants perpetuated the craft using red maple (Acer rubrum) to make ribbed baskets which they sold at the weekly Halifax City Market, alongside the Mi’kmaq basket sellers. The Mi’kmaq never seemed to have made this distinctive style of basket, but they may have been inspired to use the material, as well as the technique of making the strips into small, popular maple-strip fancy baskets.

Modern Mi’kmaq basketmakers have been forced to adapt their craft to environmental change. Greenhouse
gases and introduced pests have weakened many trees. The bark of the birch is no longer thick, and canoe-makers too must search further afield. While the white ash population is stable, black ash trees are not plentiful. Indeed, all ash trees are in danger of being killed by the imported Asian Emerald Ash Beetle. Poplar trees, often regarded as ‘junk’ wood by the timber trade, have also become scarce.
Dwindling wood materials have forced some basketmakers to supply the apple industry with sturdy picking baskets woven with man-made plastic tape on a framework of wood splints. Fancy basketmakers have shifted from mass production to focus on details—colour patterning, carved wooden handles and elaborate patterned baskets for the basket collector and for ceremonial gifting.

Other artists use less material by creating miniature baskets from wood splints
so fine and narrow that they defy the
eye, let alone the hand.
For the past twenty-five years, working
with porcupine quills and birchbark
has been revived by experimenting with
patterns, colours and other ways of using
the quills. Cheryl Simon reproduces
the petroglyph images found on the rocks in Kejimkujik National Park and
National Historic Site in Nova Scotia
through ‘painting’ them with fine
white quills on bark. By framing the
finished pieces, she transforms the artefact
into ‘art.’
Basketmakers have also been relearning
the old ways of gathering,
preserving, preparing and weaving
with the soft plant and animal materials
to make reproductions used in
programming for cultural-heritage interpretation centres.
Mi’kmaq basketmakers are rediscovering,
maintaining and developing
new ways of using materials gathered
from their environment to keep their
basket traditions alive, relevant and
eye-catching to the collector.

Joleen Gordon is a Research Associate at
the Nova Scotia Museum and is President
of the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild. The
author wishes to thank Ruth Holmes
Whitehead, Ursula A. Johnson and
Cheryl Simon for their assistance in the
preparation of this article.

Image: Caroline Gold, Sewing Basket, 2010.
White ash, sweetgrass ornamentation.
Photography: Krista Comeau