“I get lost in it, and when I do time ceases to exist — I stay younger,” said Helga Gillard, weaving a quarter-inch piece of reed through an upturned stake to set the shape of the basket’s intricate wall.
Main Brook’s Helga Gillard has made basketry her main hobby since retiring from teaching in 2005. Since that day, she’s woven more than 70 baskets.
“I think that’s what I enjoy most about basketry … the process.”
Having already soaked its base in warm water to soften the fibres, Gillard delicately constructed a splint basket atop her dining room table. The woven creation was just another to add to her repertoire of 70 or more.
“It’s a hobby for me — I enjoy creating the baskets but, essentially, I enjoy the history and the research, and discovering where all of the different types originated,” she said. “It’s a hobby you sort of have to do by yourself, though, because there aren’t many basketweavers around — just a few scattered across the island.”
As the Main Brook resident’s stories of the beleaguered craft unfolded quickly, the up-folded stakes — or ribs — of the basket were pulled taut by a thin piece of reed.
Though her days of serious weaving didn’t begin until after her retirement in 2005, it was back in the ’80s when the former schoolteacher was initially drawn to basketry.
“In our home, growing up, there were baskets and one, in particular, was made with plaited birch strips and sewn together — it’s referred to as a chip basket — and I was always curious about it,” she said. “It was a basket that my mother, at the age of 17, bought from a local Englee lady, who made it.”
The origin of the basket was unknown at the time, and this gap in knowledge invited Gillard to do some in-depth research.
“It would have been straw that was woven in this manner, but because of Newfoundland’s geography, the cool climate and the lack of grain crops, people substituted natural materials,” she said.
“In Europe, for example, the ribbed structure was created using domesticated willow, but here we use whatever is flexible enough to bend over the wrist.”
Skills were eventually intermingled, she acknowledged, when the art was adopted by the Mi’kmaq community, and adapted to use materials that were available at arm’s length.
Red-osier dogwood and chokecherry are materials that quickly came to Gillard’s mind when describing the process of making handles. She also recommended ash splints for plaiting — the process of interweaving crosswise and lengthwise at right angles.
Spruce root was the material of choice, however, when she constructed her first baskets in the late ’90s. The materials, she said, were found in the immediate area.
“You would have to go out and find a spruce tree and harvest the secondary roots,” she described.
“You’d then debark it, soak all of the materials and dig into the bark to pull up strips until it goes up the length of the wood.”
The strips would have to be cut into “sheens” to be plaited before being sewn into the desired shape, she said.
“Spruce root basketry is very labour intensive — you really need a lot of strength in your hands,” she said. “It takes time, too. … It might take you a full day to go unearth the root.
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“But it’s much more satisfying when you can get material from your own region.”
The tools and materials used reflect the geographical location, insisted Gillard, but one thing remains constant regardless of place: all weavers use narrow strips of fiber from plant materials.
“Black ash is the ash of choice but, in recent years, there’s been a problem with the emerald ash borer beetle, in that it’s decimating the tree population … these days people are using Palm Rattan instead,” she said.
“It’s similar to bamboo but it’s got a solid core — it’s referred to as “reed” and it’s commercially cut into various widths and lengths.”
Unravelling a bundle of reed, which she had shipped in, Gillard declared that a majority of contemporary basketmakers use the material. Snipping off the length, she continued to shape the basket.
“You weave around to create the wall — it’s a plain weave, so you go over and under, pinning as you go,” she said.
“The first couple are usually a pain and as you work you will have to keep adjusting the stakes.”
Having already started the weave on a stake that jutted out from underneath the basket, she delicately worked her way up.
“When you come around to where you started, you have to overlap by four stakes before cutting the weaver,” she said. “If you’re really particular about your basket, you can shave down your weavers a little thinner so there isn’t too much bulk — a process called scarfing.”
Eventually, she weaved her way up to the “rim row” — the final length of weaver in the basket wall. Two pieces of ‘flat oval’ — stronger reed — was used to sturdy the rim, and sea grass was placed in between as filler.
The tediousness of creating a rim, she said, is the most difficult part of the basket making process.
Spritzing the reed with a bottle of water to prevent it from drying, Gillard began tucking and trimming the stakes, to ensure the rim’s perimeter was level.
“Now, here comes the fun part,” she said jovially, acknowledging the need for elbow grease when beginning the lashing process.
Gillard grabbed her trusted “lash buddy” — a two-inch long piece of brass — and began lashing the two rims together, always being careful not to twist the reed.
“Basketry is all about symmetry,” she said, minutes into the meticulous process.
Looking to contact more basketweavers
Gillard declared there’s only a small pocket of people in the Bonne Bay area who participate in basketry, which is why it didn’t become an economic operation like it did in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and other parts of Canada.
Although a Newfoundlander — Corner Brook’s Eileen Murphy — taught her the spruce root basket methodology, Gillard sharpened many of her skills as a member of The Basketry Guild of Nova Scotia, and through one-on-one work with a Mi’kmaq chief from Bear River. She’s also held workshops at the Cow Head Fall Festival, as well as the French Shore Historical Society.
Functional baskets favourites
Describing the different variations of baskets, from those with wooden bases and those created using moulds, such as a kitten head basket, to those made from day lily leaves, coiled together and sewn tight, Gillard said she enjoys functional baskets the most.
Scattered throughout her home, the collection of baskets are anything but dust collectors — they are used to separate the potatoes from the onions, situate the salt and peppershakers and house the dinner napkins.
Though she’s sold a couple of baskets in the past, she said it’s not something she’s interested in doing more of.
She is, however, inviting other basket weavers on the Island to contact her.
“It’s been an interesting journey because you get to learn so much about different people and different cultures — there are so many different weaves that you can do, and I don’t profess to know them all,” she said.
“I’m just doing this on my own, and doing what interests me — I certainly haven’t mastered anything, but I’m still learning and I’m still enjoying it.”
The Northern Pen