Coiling History and Background

Apache still life Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-130198 Curtis 1907

Coil baskets using plant fibers such as willow twigs, blades of sweetgrass, or pine needles have a 'bundle' foundation. Long leaf pine needles (10-12 inches) are used extensively along the southeast coast of North America, while northeastern Native Americans often coil 'sweet grass' (Hierochloe odorata) into baskets. European-made baskets and bee skeps often have bundle foundations of grass, such as rye or wheat. Almost any plant material (yucca, sumac, cattail, sedges, corn husks, etc.) can be used in a bundle-foundation coil basket. The bundle foundation provides a flexible support for the basket and allows the individual coils in the basket to be easily stitched together. Solid rod foundations are also used by Native Americans in other regions. The diameter of the bundle or rod foundation is determined by the material used and the size of the baskets. Tiny baskets a few inches high having bundle foundations tend to have coils only 1/16 in. to 1/8 in. in diameter. Much larger work or storage baskets might have bundle diameters up to an inch thick.

Wedding Basket

Native Americans of the Southwest are well renowned for their variety of plaited and coiled basketry. In addition to the many types of wicker carrying and gathering baskets, the coiled baskets of the Navajo (Dine’) often appear as water jugs, trays and low bowls. Boiled down Pinion pitch was applied to coiled water jugs to seal them from leaks.

Navajo baskets are usually made from Three Leaf Sumac, sometimes substituting yucca or willow was (but not preferred by basketmakers). Starting the coil process with a central knot, these baskets are created with what is called a two-rod and bundle technique. In later times a three-rod bundled formation is used. The flexible bundled rods of sumac twigs are spiraled around and bound together by strips of sumac, poked through with the aid of an awl. When the basket is complete, the bundled twigs beneath can not be seen; the covering strips are placed so close together. The finished rims have a braided herringbone appearance.

The strikingly beautiful Wedding Baskets, in their circular stepped designs in natural, black and red colors, are made to contain cornmeal for the couple and guests to consume at their ceremony. Starting with the couple, and having been shared with each guest, it is said that the last to eat from the basket may keep it.

The light tan background of Wedding Baskets is simply the color natural dried sumac. The red color is achieved by boiling down a dye of Alder-Leaf Mountain Mahogany roots sometimes mixed with Juniper ashes and Black Alder. The Navajo word for Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) means "wood heavier than stone", it can only be gathered in the winter while sumac is collected in the spring. The dye for the black color in these baskets is made from pinion pitch with crushed sumac leaves, coal or ochre.

The light center of the basket represents the emergence of the people from a cave into the pure world, and a pathway is drawn from the center to the baskets braided rim, like the journey through a Navajo’s world. First through the black ring of steps or mountains representing life’s darker trials, into the red area characterizing one’s earthly celebrations like marriage and family, and while there may be more trials and darker times represented in the mountains of the outer dark band, the light colored perimeter of the basket reminds us the joy at the opening of the pathway.

Papago Yucca Basket

The Tohono O’odham (Papago), descendants of Hohokam people, are also renowned for their basketry. These Piman-speaking people from southwestern Arizona and northern Mexico create beautiful durable coiled basketry from bundled willow twigs, wrapped with strips of Yucca (Yucca elata ) and Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora). These bold coiled forms usually have colors of black, green, white and red. The black elements in the basket are actually strips of the dried devil's claw seed pods. These curiously shaped hard black seed capsules are aptly named for their appendages resembling a set of two ‘horns’. Green elements are Yucca strips left to dry in the shade, but if left to dry in the sun with bleach the yucca leaves white. A red dye can be simmered from the roots of the yucca.

Papago Indian, Luzi, with basket tray on head Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-105389 Curtis 1907

Coil baskets are made around the world by indigenous people. Sometimes strikingly similar forms and designs are found in widely separated places. In Uganda, intricately woven coil baskets made by the Tooro Ndiiro coil have been frequently confused with those by Native Americans. The Ugandan baskets, for holding bread, herbs, medicine and even coffee beans, are distinguished by their brilliantly colors patterns and tight-fitting lids.

African Coffee Bean Basket

Coiling Cover Page Coiling Techniques