Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series in which writers try their hand at learning new skills.
It was 8:40 a.m. on day two of Pat Jeffers’ wicker basket weaving workshop in Pagosa Springs when the unthinkable happened. A weaver’s spoke broke.
A spoke is a thick, round piece of reed used to create the structure of a basket – the bones of the vessel. For a beginning weaver, a broken spoke spells catastrophe. For an experienced weaver like Jeffers, it’s a simple problem with a fixable solution – add another spoke.
Wicker basket weaving is a forgiving medium. Mistakes can be unwound, broken reeds can be replaced, when a reed dries out, it can be soaked in water and made pliable again.
It is also a frustrating medium with weavers getting tangled and spokes poking and slapping the person across the table from you. A moment of slipped concentration and the pattern is thrown off.
Whoever started the myth that underwater basket weaving is easy or suggested that basket weaving somehow could stand in for a meaningless, undecided college degree clearly never made a wicker basket.
After seeing Pat Jeffers artistic baskets on display at the Pagosa Springs Arts Council gallery last year, I decided it would be fun to learn how to make such colorful and creative baskets. I signed up and paid my deposit early as the workshop sells out quickly.
Pat Jeffers creates artistic baskets that reflect her love of the American West. (Photo by Leanne Goebel)
In fact, this year the demand was so high that Jeffers is teaching two back-to-back workshops at the Pagosa Springs Community Center. In my group there were 13 weavers of varying skills and abilities. Two separate groups of four women drove up from Las Cruces, N.M., and Alamagordo, N.M., to attend. Many had taken previous workshops with Jeffers.
Our first meeting Wednesday night involved a discussion of materials and a basic lesson in line, mass, color and proportion.
It’s a bit chaotic being in a workshop with people of varying levels. One must be patient and also a self-starter. Jeffers provided us with a booklet outlining basic instruction. We beginners started out making a small bowl. Jeffers showed us step-by-step how to make a base by securing the slath using randing (a simple over and under weave) and twining (using two weavers).
Once the base is complete, with long enough spokes to also serve as the sides of the basket, the dome is flipped over and the spokes gently bent upwards. The beginners were left on their own to figure out the appropriate amount of tension needed to begin the rising of the walls.
The model basket had a lovely curved shape, but my initial basket walls went straight up. Later we learned that the spacing of the spokes must be even, otherwise the basket is lopsided, like a pot thrown off center. The first basket also involved a complicated weaving tool called a step-up that helps to align the weave vertically and not just create a simple spiral pattern.
By day two we had finished our first small basket, learning how to weave a rolled border. We learned three-rod and four-rod wailing (weaving with three weavers and four weavers respectively). We also attempted to create a pear-shaped tool pot that is wider at the bottom and gently slopes in narrower at the top.
On day two, we finished the second pot and began our third, large project. Every day there were questions from other weavers and small lessons from Jeffers. We learned how to hold the spokes and control them with our left thumb, we learned from watching other weavers create their elaborate constructions. We learned how to add spokes and how to take them away.
A group shop of Pat Jeffers’ basket weaving workshop students. Back row, from left: Pat Jeffers, Glessie Drake, Leanne Goebel, Patsy Lindblad, Marilyn Hansen and Dee Knudsen. Middle row: Jan Harrison, Ann Jacobi, Kerrin Schwander, Betty Weber, Mary Ellen McKay and Gretchen Ferrell. Front: Judith Reynolds. (Photo by Barbara Rosner)
There was plenty of banter among the women in the group, even though weaving requires concentration. Every time I slipped into conversation with other women, I inevitably messed up my weaving. Jeffers kept a running wait list for consultation and to help fix errors.
The cost of the workshop was $400 and that included all the supplies and materials to make three baskets as a beginning weaver. More experienced weavers focused on wall hangings and large utility baskets.
It was frustrating, but somehow therapeutic.
“Now we know why they teach basket weaving in mental hospitals,” one weaver said.
firstname.lastname@example.orgLeanne Goebel is a freelance writer specializing in the arts.