Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Elephant No. 37: Pine Needle Basketry

Today I drove out into the countryside for a workshop on pine needle basketry. This was a totally new activity to me—which, of course, is something I always like.

Baskets have been made for millennia, and coiled basketweaving is one of the oldest forms. Coiled baskets can be made with grasses, rushes and, of course, pine needles, making the raw materials more readily available than vines, twigs and other woody substances. Perhaps because of this, coiled basketry is found on every continent except Antarctica.

The patterns woven into coiled baskets are often very specific to cultural groups, and even to individual artists. Many coiled baskets feature materials in a range of colours—either natural or dyed—resulting in baskets of exceptional beauty. Coiled basketry also accommodates special stitches, similar to those used in embroidery, and is easily embellished with beading and other forms of decoration.

Coiled basket by Native American artist Lucy Telles
Collection of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lucy_Telles_basket.jpg

Because this technique is generally used to make round items such as coasters and baskets, I wasn't sure that I would be able to adapt it to make an elephant. But I'm game for anything, so it was worth a try.

You start out by creating a base coil. This is done by tying a simple knot in a length of raffia, then making a series of stitches through the middle of the knot, until a circle forms.

To establish a base, you continue coiling the raffia around your base circle, catching a bit of the previous row with your stitches.

When you feel you want to start adding pine needles, you simply cut off the raffia in staggered lengths, then insert the needles, point side first. For pine-needle basketry, the longer the needles are, the better—20 to 38 cm (8 to 15 inches) is optimal—and it's a good idea to soak them for about half an hour before using them, to keep them pliable. This is particularly important for heavier needles.

As you continue to coil, the needles will naturally bind in with your stitches.

I got about three rows of the round coaster shape, then decided I should start trying to form an elephant before the coaster part got too big. I started by adding a long folded loop for a trunk, stitching over it to bind the two sides together.

When our instructor came around to see what we were all doing, I think she might have been a little surprised to see a long skinny bit sticking off the side of what had started out as a fairly nice coaster (if I do say so myself). However, this is a very creative group, so they tend to go with the flow.

If you have basic sewing skills, this is a fairly simple activity. Adding on a trunk, then an ear—then more of the ear, and yet more of the ear—required a bit of engineering on my part. Luckily, this technique is very forgiving, and raffia covers a multitude of sins. In this particular case, as long as you don't flip it over.

To finish, I stitched on a few pine needles as a trunk, and a few bits of pine needle as an eye. 

I really enjoyed this activity, which I found rather soothing. The final result could never be used as a coaster—for one thing, the round part is only about two inches wide; for another, it doesn't really lie flat. But I was pleased (and a little surprised, truth be told) at how well it turned out.

Elephant Lore of the Day
For an animal with such poor eyesight, elephants are surprisingly good at shooting hoops. In 2010, at the Island Safari Centre in Thailand, six-year-old Malie and nine-year-old Toktak underwent rigorous basketball training to help improve their health and strength.

It took about two or three months to train the young elephants how to toss a basketball. They were first taught how to hold the ball in their trunks. Next came walking on their hind legs, then rearing back, then throwing the ball—for a slam dunk every time.

You can see Malie and Toktak in action here.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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