The Qualla Boundary is well known for beautiful white oak baskets made by talented Cherokee craftspeople. Materials for these baskets are gathered from the mountains and then prepared for basket making. Emma Taylor is a famed basket maker, and her daughter, Eva Taylor, wrote this article about gathering and preparing supplies from the mountains for her mother's baskets. The article was written for this Web page.
When I was a young girl, I went with my mother, Emma Taylor, to look for white oak trees to make her baskets with. We would leave home early in the morning. It would take anywhere from four to five hours in the woods to find trees the right shape and size and bust them into sections. We would return home before the day was too hot.
After returning home the preparation of the wood began. The bark was removed from each section. Each section was then taken apart by the grain to make the splints. All of the splints were then scraped with a very sharp knife. They had to be scraped until they were smooth and workable. After all that work, the splints then had to be cut to various sizes to make the baskets. The center of the tree was used to make the rims and the handles for finishing the different types of baskets. This process took from one to two days to complete.
The splints then had to be dyed for the different colors used in the baskets. Blood root was gathered in the early spring. The splints were dyed with the blood root and were saved until they were needed. Today the blood root is kept in the freezer until it is needed for dye. It makes different shades of orange. The roots of the yellow root plant were used for dye. It could be gathered any time of year. It makes a yellow dye. These are the dyes from the roots of plants. To get these colors the splints are dyed one hour.
There is a dye which comes from the bark of the walnut tree. This dye makes the color brown. The butternut tree bark makes a black dye. The leaves, nut coverings, and roots of the trees can be used also to make these colors. The splints are dyed four to five hours with these materials in water at a constant boil to get these colors.
To make the basket, the splints are laid out on the table. To make the bottom my mother laid three splints down and added three crisscrossed in the middle of the first three. Slints were added to the desired size to be made. These splints are more sturdy and wider. This was the bottom of the basket.
It was now ready to be woven. A splint was used around the bottom to keep the shape of the basket. The bottom of the basket was held in my mother's lap while the second splint was placed on. She bent the splints to stand up to make the sides of the basket. As she wove the basket, she developed the design while placing the splints on one at a time. This process took her anywhere from three to five hours. The time depended on the size and shape of the basket.
After reaching the desired height, the basket was left with enough of the splint on top to be folded and tucked into the woven splints to keep the basket from unraveling.
Sometimes a handle was placed in the basket at this time, or else the handle was placed as part of the bottom. The first type of handle could easily be replaced. The handle placed as part of the bottom could not be removed without taking the complete basket apart. A rim was placed around the top edge of the basket. The rim gave the basket more strength.
This is a picture of Emma Taylor taken at her home. Her baskets have been on display at the Smithsonian Institute, and she has traveled to distant places to demonstrate her craft. She has demonstrated basket making in Japan. There is a PBS movie about Emma and her family of basket makers.