February 20, 2011

Stitched Fibre Baskets From Natural Materials

Basket making is a craft which is almost as old as the human race itself and it can still be practiced today using little more than your hands, a few basic tools and fibres from plants grown in the garden or gathered from nature for free. Stitched fibre baskets, or coiled fibre baskets are probably the easiest technique for the beginner to try out and can produce some very beautiful and strong baskets.

I tried my hand at this craft about 14 years ago and after all that time I still have two of those baskets at home which are used regularly and are still as strong and durable as they ever were. I only have the two now because the rest of the baskets I made were either sold at markets or given as gifts to friends and family. So it is possible to turn this craft into a modest income stream if you desire, as well as making containers and baskets that are functional and beautiful for your own home. You will never get rich making baskets but the material is so cheap or free that it can still be a profitable pursuit.

It’s also a craft that you can do sitting down, so you can do it in a comfy chair with your feet up, listening to music if you like. I started out working with the needles from Coastal She-Oak (Casuarina equisetifolia) because that was the most abundant material source at the time and the long flexible needles make it an easy material to work with. I moved on to work with the needles from various species of Pine Trees (Pinus sp.), and also material from Banana Palm and Coconut palm for a variety of different finishes. All of these materials were sourced for free from public spaces, using fallen materials and no plants were injured in the process. Once I got confident in my basket making I started exploring other plant materials and I found that there is a wide range of plants that are very suitable to use, including many common garden plants.

Strap leaves from plants such as Daffodil and Gladiolus can be dried and used, as can the long stems from some lavender species and runners or canes from a wide range of plants, from Water Hyacinth to Grapevine. Two of the most commonly used plants for basket making are the New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax & cult.) and the Cordyline or Cabbage Tree (Cordyline australis). Flax comes in many different colours and in many cases those colours persist after drying. Both these plants give long and strong material that can be used for both the core and stitching. Many different effects can be achieved depending upon the material, or combinations of materials used.

As I said, my first attempts were with She-Oak needles and I used jute twine as the stitching material. Butchers twine, thick cotton twine and wool are also all easy-to-get/easy-to-use stitching materials for making exposed core baskets which highlight the core material. Plant materials are usually used to make unexposed core (or wrapped) baskets that highlight the stitching material. The common exception to this is Raffia which can be split and used in long lengths as stitching material on exposed core baskets as a contrasting feature to the core material. The choice of materials that can be used is as wide as your imagination. A little experimentation will uncover even more. The main requirement is strength along the length of the material. If you can hold a length in both hands and pull it without it snapping, it will be suitable for basket making.

Basic Tools
To gather materials you may need some secateurs (garden snips) and garden gloves.
For stripping lengths you can use a small sharp knife or the blade of a pair of scissors.
For stitching the basket you will need some large eyed saddle-maker’s needles, a pair of scissors, a football lacer and an awl. I also kept a pair of needle-nosed pliers at hand for pulling the needle through when it got tight or you could use a thimble to help with this instead. You can also use a normal clothes peg to hold the core material together but I never bothered with that.
Those are all the tools that are required and most people would have many of them at home already.

Harvesting Materials
Harvesting materials from native plants in the wild is against the law in many areas so it pays to check with authorities first. Normally, fallen pine needles or palm fronds can be taken without doing any harm and some weed species such as Water Hyacinth (Duck Weed) are an environmental pest that is better utilized in basketry than left to block up water systems. Local knowledge and experience will dictate which plants you can collect from the wild. Harvesting from your own garden can be done without fear of prosecution and can usually be done as part of a general garden maintenance routine.

Softer foliage, such as that from garden bulb species, needs to be handled carefully at harvest and care should be handled in such a way as to avoid bending them, especially if they have already started to brown. Harvest leaves from flowering bulb species several weeks after flowering to give the bulbs time to store food for next year. Foliage from Cordylines and Flaxes can be harvested green and dried or harvested dry from the plant. Long flower stems from plants such as Lavender should be harvested as flowers start to wither and before the stems dry completely.

Preparing Materials
(See plant list for preparing freshly harvested materials for storage)
Some materials require more preparation than others. Pine needles can be used as they are, either green or dry, although there will be a bit of shrinkage if they are green, which can make the stitching loose and the basket flimsy over time.

It’s always preferable to use materials as dry as possible to avoid this shrinkage but in practice, most materials will need to be dampened if they are to be pliable enough to bend without cracking. The finer the material, the less dampening that will be required. The thicker, or woodier the material, the more dampening required. The more moisture that the material contains, the more shrinkage there will be when drying. Experience and instinct will soon take over in deciding how much dampening is required.

Stitching material needs to be far more pliable than core material, which should be used dry whenever possible as this will make a stronger basket.

Materials can be soaked in a tub or with a hose on the back lawn. Damp materials can be kept in a damp towel while you are working to stop them drying out. If you have left over damp material when you are finished, try to dry it before re-storing as damp material can go mouldy or rot. Material should be stripped as fine as possible and untidy or frayed ends and serrated, sharp or spined edges removed before use. Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) is one example of a material with a sharp serrated edge and needs those edges removed while still green for safer handling and storage. Always store materials in a dry and dark but airy situation to avoid colour fade and mould.

Commonly Used Stitches For Exposed Core Baskets

Spiral Stitch

Work from the front through to the back of the work. Insert the needle to the right side of the stitch in the previous round, coming out on the left side of it at the back. Work through the top part of the core material of the previous round for added strength. Bring the stitch back to the front of the work again and work another stitch as before. It helps to keep the stitch spiraling neatly if you place the thread in position and hold it there with your left thumb as you pull the stitch tight. Continue in this way, pulling each stitch tight as you go and adding core material as needed and try to space the stitches as evenly as possible. If the stitches do become spaced too far apart, you can add an extra stitch between each one in the previous round to begin extra rows of stitches.

Glove Stitch

The first step is the same as for the spiral stitch. Insert the needle from the front on the right of the stitch in the previous round and pull it through on the left at the back. Pull the stitch tight and repeat this stitch into the same place. Repeat these two steps as you work, adding more rows of stitches when they get too far apart. Don’t forget to stitch through the core material and pull each stitch tight. This stitch is reversible, very strong and ideal for short lengths of fibre, such as pine needles. When starting a round basket with glove stitch the process is the same as for spiral stitch and a spiral stitch is used on the first round. Change to glove stitch in the second round when there is more room for the double stitches.

Split Stitch

This stitch, a variation of the spiral stitch, needs to be worked with material wide enough to be split, such as raffia or strips of flax. Both are used damp. Raffia needs to be dipped in water for only a minute or so before working and may need to be split into narrower strips. Thread the needle with the thick end. Split stitch is worked in the same way as a spiral stitch, except that the stitch in the previous round must be pierced.

Wheatear Stitch
This is a variation of the glove stitch, in which the two halves of each stitch are worked straight through the middle of the V in the previous round. This can look very effective when using raffia or flax as the stitching material.

Straight Wheatear Stitch
The two halves of the stitch are worked through the left side of the previous stitch, splitting it. This stitch gives fairly straight lines of stitches.

Spiral Wheatear Stitch
The two halves of each stitch are worked through the right hand side of the previous stitch, splitting it. This stitch will spiral around the basket, even more than a normal spiral stitch.

Basketweavers’ Buttonhole Stitch

As for spiral stitch, insert the needle on the right of the stitch in the previous round and come out on the left side on the back but do not pull the needle right through. Loop the stitching thread around the needle from left to right, pull the needle right through and pull the thread straight up - firmly. Make sure that the top of the row of stitches and knots is on top of the core material so that it will be completely covered by the next coil. To finish the basket without an exposed line of knots, stitch the top coil with spiral stitch.
(I used my own variation of this stitch that worked in a similar manner and gave straight stitching lines but hid the knots under the core material anyway. It was basically the same stitch but upside down.)

Wrapping Techniques for Hidden Core Baskets

Lazy Squaw Stitch

The origin of the name comes from the practice of wrapping the core a number of times before working the more time consuming, longer stitch which binds it to the previous round. This is much quicker, especially if you wrap the core 8 to 10 times before stitching but remember, the lazier you are, the weaker the basket will be.

Bring the weaving strand from behind and wrap it around the core once. This makes a short stitch and the strand is now at the back of the work again. Bring the strand over the core and back to the front. Insert the needle below the short stitch in the previous round and pull through to the back. This gives one short stitch and one long stitch. Repeat these two stitches, one short one long, around the work. The more firmly you work, the stronger the basket will be.

An extra ‘one short, one long’ must be worked in when necessary to keep the stitches radiating out from the centre. It looks better if the material is kept flat with the shiny side of the leaf uppermost. The added advantage is that a wide piece of wrapping material will cover the coil faster than one that is twisted. If the stitching material is stiff enough at the base it is much easier to work without a needle. Cut the end of the material to a point and use an awl or large needle to open the gaps between stitches to make it easier. Trim the end to a new point as needed.

Mariposa Stitch

Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly as the stitch is supposed to represent the two wings separated by the body. The first two movements are the same as for the Lazy Squaw stitch (short stitch, long stitch). Then bring the strand through to the front between the two cores on the left hand side of the last long stitch. Pull the stitch tight and this will create a decorative knot. Thread the strand back through the cores on the right to the back of the work and repeat the short and long stitches and the wrap, remembering to pull the stitches tight as you work.

If a more open weave is desired, short pieces of cane or stick can be used to separate the knots and removed when the basket is dry. The knot may need to be wrapped more than once when using this technique.

Navajo Stitch
The Navajo stitch is a type of figure 8 stitch.
Bring the wrapping material through from the back of the work under the top coil, over the top and down and bring it back between the top and lower coil. Then go back over the and through the lower and out to the back. This gives the basic figure 8. Pull the stitch tight. Use an awl or another tool to help create gaps to work the material through. This stitch double wraps the core and gives the basket more strength. It is slow but very firm and strong. Keep the stitches radiating from the centre by working extra figure 8’s where necessary.

This stitch can be used to work patterns by working two or more different colored weaving materials. The colours which are not being used can be carried along in the core material and swapped over when needed. When making patterns with this method, remember that it is only the top layer of the double wrap that will show on the surface.

Getting Started - A Simple Pine Needle Basket

Once you have your materials collected it’s time to begin. I will give a basic description for making an exposed core pine needle basket, as it’s an easy project to learn on. Firstly, it pays to have an idea in mind of what the finished project will look like as this will determine how you start the coil.

For a round basket, start with a small coil of needles and make a circle, tie off one end and wrap the thread around the length of core material about a dozen times. Bend and stitch with a spiral stitch to form a small circle. If there is a small hole in the middle of the circle, this can be filled by using the stitching material to darn and fill the gap.

For an oval-shaped basket, one end of the core material should be bound and wrapped but kept straight for a short length. Then the core should be (carefully) bent and tied, then tied at the other end. Bend back along the straight length with a spiral stitch, then bend and stitch and so on. Oval shaped baskets are slightly more difficult to keep a regular shape but the final results can be very pleasing.

Try and keep your stitches and darning as tidy as possible here. At this very early stage the stitches need to be fairly close together so that as the basket base expands and the gaps between stitches expands, you will not end up with rows of stitches too far apart. More rows of stitches can be added if that happens in between the previous rows of stitches. Core material can be added as you work and the circle expanded to the desired size. It’s up to you how large the base will be and how much curve you will have on the sides of the basket. It is better to start with a fairly small project so that you can finish a basket and see the results sooner. Starting out on a big project can be daunting when you start out and may be off-putting to continuing the craft.

To build up the sides start stitching your row of core material on top of the preceding row and keep working the core around and up at the curve that you desire. The more the new row sits on top of the row before, the sharper the curve will be to the point of making a straight vertical side. Getting a balanced and pleasing curve is a bit of an art but it doesn’t matter if your first few baskets are a bit wonky. That’s called character. As you work, pull all stitches as tight as possible and try to maintain an even thickness of core material. In time it can become almost rhythmic as you stitch, tighten and add more core material. It is really quite relaxing and time can pass very quickly. To finish off with a flat edge, you need to begin reducing the amount of core material as you work around the final layer. I always used to double stitch the top row of stitches for added strength. A small basket can be made in a few hours, even by a beginner. So there you have it, your first basket finished. Congratulations.

So there you have it. The basic technique is easy to learn and can then be expanded upon to create different effects and styles of baskets. This will come in time, once you are familiar with the technique. There are all sorts of wonderful effects that can be achieved and the sky is the limit as to how far you take this craft. I have even seen pictures of a hut made from stitched coil panels.

In the modern world baskets are either made from artificial materials or manufactured in a distant place and transported long distances to the point of sale. This makes them cheap in price but expensive in the use of resources and energy. In the consumer society, nobody thinks much about these things but we are slowly learning that these things matter. Making your own baskets at home will take you from being a consumer to being a creator and provide you with beautiful and useful objects that you will be proud to say that you made. Enjoy your basket therapy.

Further Reading
Fibre Basketry Homegrown and Handmade edited by Helen Richardson


  1. Very nice site, well done, I especially liked the stitch explanations, nice pix.

  2. Thank you very much for the knowledge about the stiches!

    Aneliya, Bulgaria

  3. Great site. Very Informative

  4. I've been a pine needle artists for many years, and I still found this to be a helpful site. Very good information and great illustrations.