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Traditional Weaving
at Stephen Foster

The Stephen Foster Folk Cultural Center State Park, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, hosted a day of traditional basket weaving in White Springs, Florida on Saturday, August 30, 2003. Seven basket makers from various parts of the state of Florida were brought together for workshops and mini lectures with a question and answer period. Students signed up for small workshops, which allowed them to leave with a completed basket. The general public was invited to watch and learn.

All seven weavers have been taught to weave with gathered materials, naturally occurring in the state of Florida, by a relative or member of the community. Each weaver is helping to keep traditional weaving alive. The natural materials included pine needles, white oak, sweet grass and palmettos.

White oak was skillfully split and scraped by Alphonso Jennings who learned the art from his grandmother, Lucreaty Clark. Over four generations of his family have made baskets, dating back to the time when the baskets were used for holding cotton and transporting vegetables from the fields. In those days, a large cotton basket usually sold for around 75 each. Today, the baskets are sold for their decorative qualities rather than utilitarian purposes.
Alphonso Jennings 
weaving a white oak basket
White oak baskets are extremely labor intensive, so much so that Jennings's great-grandfather would only give practically unusable scrap pieces to his daughter (Lucreaty) when she wanted to learn how to weave. Her mother would sneak nice pieces so she could practice. Practicing is very important in white oak work. The first time Jennings split a log on his own, he quickly realized that it wasn't working out the same way as it did when his grandmother split a log. He cut another tree and went back for more instructions.

Jennings prefers trees that are between 6 and 8 inches in diameter and he only uses the trunk below the first set of branches. He begins by splitting the trunk with an ax, scraping and splitting the sections into weavers, rims, lashers and handles. The darker oak strips that were closest to the bark are used for decorative color bands. Jennings is one of the last traditional white oak weavers left in the state of Florida.

Alphonso Jennings 
shaving white oak splits

Seminole weaver Lorene Gopher 
coiling sweet grass Jenny Shore and Lorene Gopher demonstrated traditionally coiled Seminole sweet-grass baskets. They coil bundles of grass and stitch with colorful embroidery thread. The bottoms of their baskets are usually made of palmetto fiber, which resembles the husk of a coconut. The ironic twist is that the Seminoles began coiling these sweet-grass baskets en masse for the tourist trade. Today, the baskets are a combination of old and new traditions. The use of native materials combined with the influence of other cultural groups has produced a distinctive tradition of basket.

Seminole weavers 
Jenny Shore (left) and Lorene Gopher (right) coiling sweet grass with embroidery thread

The second type of traditional Seminole weaving, twill plaited river cane, is a vanishing art form. The river cane, a bamboo like shrub, is no longer readily available. As the supply dwindled, the Seminoles began using split palmetto stems. Palmetto-stem baskets were used in sifting pounded corn to separate the meal from hard kernels.

Florida is known for its abundance of palmetto, the fronds are used to make items such as brooms, fans and hats. When Linda Waldron was a child, she and her siblings made tubular plaited rings, bracelets, pinwheels and other playthings out of palmetto fronds. Her mother swept the house with palmetto brooms. Linda Waldron plaiting plametto

While still in her youth, Waldron was taught the art of bias plaiting at the Florida Folk Festival. A woman there was teaching "Peter Pan" style hats made from saw palmetto fronds. The fronds are left attached to the stems, which creates a "corner" at which to start the plaiting. After the hat was finished, the remaining stem (which was not attached to the fronds) is removed. Over time, Waldron decided to leave the stem attached and see what would happen. A berry basket was the result. The free end of the stem is tucked into the other side of the basket to make a handle. The left over fronds are plaited in a tubular shape and are for decorative purposes only.

Waldron weaving tubular plaited palmetto

Rice was the dominant crop of the southeast coast in the 1700's. Rice was also a common crop in coastal West Africa. For this reason, many slaves were brought to the US from these regions of Africa. These slaves brought with them many traditions, one of which was the art of coiling. Winnowing baskets were made from bulrush with strips of oak used as the stitching material. The men made these sturdy baskets because they had the strength to control the tough materials. As time moved on and slavery ended, small groups of former slaves moved onto the small coastal barrier islands, taking their traditions with them. Women on these islands began to coil the long, thin grasses instead of the heavy bulrushes. The finer grasses allowed for finer more delicate baskets.

In the early 1930's, tourist traffic was increasing to the coastal areas and Route 17 was paved (which connects Mount Pleasant and Charleston, SC). Basket makers began to set up stands along this highway to sell direct to the tourists. Because of this new interaction, basket making flourished in the Charleston area.

Mary Passmore and her
sister - Regina Woodie (on left) 
coiling sweet grass with palmetto strips As a child growing up along the coast of South Carolina, Mary Passmore learned the art of coiling sweet grass baskets. She brought this family tradition to Jacksonville when she and her husband married. Later her mother, Mary Foreman, joined her and together they became a fixture at Arts and Crafts Shows in the Jacksonville area. Today, Passmore weaves with her sister, Regina Woodie.

Most of Passmore's baskets are begun with pine needles that have been tied into a knot. The needles are more flexible than the grasses, so make a nicer start. The needles and later the grasses are stitched together with strips of palmetto. Often the pine needles are used on the side of the baskets to create patterns or bands of color. The palmetto strips are pushed through holes that are made by poking a sharp object through the coils, traditionally a sharpened spoon.

Regina Woodie coiling sweet grass 
with palmetto strips

Kay Burlason lives in Altoona, Florida. Soon after she learned to coil pine needles, she became friends with Mary Buhrman who had learned the art from pine needle artist and author, Veronica Walsh. Burlason's artistry and craft, part of a great lineage of pine needle basket artists, is delicate and imaginative. This lacy looking work is rooted in Victorian parlor craft traditions. Many of the baskets start with or include teneriffe work on the sides of the basket. Lacy, open designs of butterflies, flowers, etc. are created with needle weaving, usually done with fine string or raffia around a metal ring. Kay Burlason working with students 
while wearing a Pine Needle Group T-shirt

Burlason is a true pine needle artist. Her work ranges from miniatures, the size of a dime (woven with one needle at a time), to lacy lamps to a purse that includes many different stitches and teneriffe work.

Just a few of 
Kay Burlason's pine needle art work

The Stephen Foster Folk Cultural Center State Park put together an enjoyable and educational day. Programs such as this are an inspiration to weavers and non-weavers alike. Hopefully, the success of this day will encourage other organizations to develop craft programs that will keep these traditions alive.

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