I recently participated in a 2-week workshop on making birch bark baskets, thanks to the William Teegee Memorial Art Bursary and the Carrier Sekani Family Services. This course was taught by Noeleen McQuary, a master basket maker of the Carrier Nadleh Whut’en who learned the traditional techniques from her mother and grandmother.
Over the course of the two weeks, we learned how to gather the supplies from the woods and make the baskets from those supplies. Luckily the weather was cooperative -- April in mid-northern BC can be a bit unpredictable at times!
Here is a visual diary of what we did:
Peeling the bark requires first finding and selecting the right tree, then carefully peeling back the outer layers, leaving the inner bark untouched. Tradition tells us to only take as much as is needed, never to take bark from too many trees close together, and to leave an offering of tobacco or food as well as a spoken or mental thanks to the tree and the forest.
In their "raw form", the roots don't look like they would be useful for sewing:
After many hours of cleaning and splitting, though, they look much better:
This little bundle represents 7 hours of work!
After the bark was brought back to the classroom, we cut it into rectangles, and then cut the rectangle into basket forms...
which were then folded...
... and sewn into basket shapes:
By the end of week one, we had sewn two baskets and basted willow branches around the rims. the baskets then dried over the weekend.
... and how to add some decorative touches:
I came away with one finished basket and need to find more spruce roots to finish my second. The first one is a bit rough and uneven, but I learned looks pretty good, nevertheless.
I'm looking forward to creating more baskets. Since birch bark can only be gathered in the spring before the leaves are on the trees or in the fall, I went out immediately after the course was over and gathered enough bark for a few more baskets. The leaves are out now, so I'll need to wait until the fall to get more. Once the ground is better thawed, I will go and find more spruce roots, and then make baskets as my schedule permits.
I also feel another doll or two coming on. I gave the one below to Noeleen, as thanks for the class.
A word to the wise: Making baskets is hard on the hands. I didn't realize how "exercised" my hands were until the two weeks were over. It took a few days for the muscles to recuperate!