Basket weaving is one of the most ancient of all arts, the spontaneous invention of people in all parts of the globe. As white explorers moved into the area that would become Tennessee, they found that Native Americans substituted baskets for many articles Europeans made of metal or wood. Basket forms followed function for a variety of needs. Indians carried water in baskets coated with tree gum and floated down rivers in basket boats caulked with pine pitch. They cooked in clay-lined baskets, filling them with water and dropping in hot rocks to make the water boil. They sifted corn meal through basket sieves. They wove sturdy sandals for footwear and basket hats for protection from sun and rain. Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and Chickasaws all used locally available river cane and white oak. Tennessee Indian baskets were colored with vegetable dyes to emphasize the earthiness, charm, and beauty of the baskets. Vegetables dyes were made from roots, bark, leaves, hulls, flowers, fruits, stems, seeds, or the complete plant. The cane or splits were boiled in the dye. East Tennessee Cherokee cane baskets were the most highly developed and refined in technique, construction, and design.
White settlers in the mountains of East Tennessee brought the techniques and traditions of basketry forms learned in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the same traditional forms produced in East Tennessee today trace their origins to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in those countries. The adaptations of these forms to local Tennessee native materials–oak, hickory, birch, pine needles, willow, corn husks, and river cane–make them unique.
The two prominent types used by the early Tennessee settlers were slat and ribbed baskets generally constructed from swamp white oak splits. Slat baskets are made from white oak strips that have been scraped but not prepared in any other way. They are thick and rough to the touch. In the production of splits or splints (interchangeable terms) the proper selection of timber is crucial. The tree should be a sapling with a diameter of four to six inches. Its trunk should be absolutely straight and unmarred by limbs, knots, or imperfections for a least a length of seven feet. A six-to-nine-foot section of perfect trunk is the only piece used. Stripped of bark, the log is cut lengthwise into eighths. After the heartwood is cut out, the process of stripping the splits proceeds from the lining up of a pocketknife blade with the growth rings of the timber.
Ribbed baskets are the best known style in Tennessee. They are constructed of three different elements: ribs, hoops, and splits. The traditional egg basket, or gizzard basket, is the prominent style or form produced by this technique. Different parts of the basket require splits of different lengths. The splits are woven between the ribs and gradually increase in width towards the middle of the bottom of the basket. The ribs themselves are strips of white oak usually about three times as wide as they are thick, shaved until they are rounded to an elliptical shape in cross section. The ribs are widest in the midsection and gradually taper to points at both ends. The two hoops or strips of white oak, much thicker and wider than the ribs, range from three to five times wider than thick. The hoops are carved with a pocketknife until the desired length, width and smoothness are achieved. The splits are shaved thoroughly because they must be the thinnest, most flexible parts of the basket. Shaving makes a very smooth form so the splits do not stick out and damage the contents. Today, Cannon County still provides the best examples of the fine ribbed baskets, or typical egg basket forms, in part because of the plentiful supply of swamp white oak. Trevel Wood has taught the craft at the Campbell Folk School in North Carolina and the Arrowmont School in Gatlinburg.
West Tennessee cotton and work baskets provide good examples of the slat oak split basket. Cotton plantations used these baskets to harvest and transport the fiber. Made of hickory, ash, and birch, they were usually hamper-shaped with two handles and rough-cut splits. The baskets were usually about four feet tall and constructed by the traditional in-and-out basket weave. Farmers used the same type basket to harvest potatoes and vegetables and gather wood.
Tobacco baskets were utilitarian flat-slat tray-like forms. They were usually four feet square with a shallow depth of four to five inches. They were woven very loosely and held together by a frame and nails. Cut tobacco was piled high on these flat baskets to move the tobacco from field to curing barn and also to transport the cured leaves to market.
Tennessee basketmaking has continued largely unchanged into the twentieth century. The only exception has been the incorporation of nails, which occurred first during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Baskets of all forms and materials can be found at a variety of craft fairs and retail craft stores throughout Tennessee. Although many people do not use the baskets for the intended design purpose, the techniques for basketmaking remain virtually the same as those of the past.