Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: Basketry of the Appalachian Mountains

Title: Basketry of the Appalachian Mountains
Author: Sue H. Stephenson
Date: 1977
Publisher: Van Nostrand Reinhold / Litton
ISBN: 0-442-27972-8
Length: 112 pages
Illustrations: photographs (by Aubrey Wiley) and diagrams
Quote: “It takes fifty hours to make a twin-bottomed egg basket. The weaving is extraordinarily simple, but the shaping and molding of the oak requires hand skill of a high order.”
The twin-bottomed egg basket is the type shown on the front cover of this book, against a lovely mountain landscape. Only to an informed eye does it look worth fifty hours of skilled work. Even in the Appalachian Mountains, only a few people feel called to keep the old European and Native American basket-weaving skills alive. Sue Stephenson is one of those people.
Serious basket weavers can tell by looking whether a basket is part of a European or American tradition. I can’t, but I’ll take Stephenson’s word that the baskets she’s collected and made are European styles.
This book contains much of the information readers will need to make their own baskets. Beginners will find it easy to work with honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), an invasive weed that needs lots of cutting back, or phragmite reeds, or spent raspberry canes. (The brambles on which raspberries and similar fruits grow have a three-year life cycle: one year to sprout, one year to bear fruit, one year to get in the way of berry pickers.) Miniature baskets can even be made with twigs and grass or string. The full-sized, challenging patterns in this book can be scaled down to twig-and-straw proportions, at which size they make cute dollhouse or Christmas tree decorations.
If you want to work your way up to making full-sized baskets with willow or oak splints, this book also provides information on how to convert solid wood into material that can be woven. A good oak basket, Stephenson tells us, should last thirty years. Willow baskets are vulnerable to mildew; paint and varnish aren’t traditional but will probably extend the working life of a willow basket.
Along with information about the baskets, and patterns for several baskets, this book contains some information about the makers of the baskets Stephenson studied. This information is valuable when not overgeneralized.
For example, Stephenson usefully specifies that her own Scottish family, in West Virginia, condoned marriages between first cousins, a risky practice often blamed for what are more often the results of brain drain in small towns. When jobs are scarce in small towns, talented young people tend to seek jobs in cities, and people who qualify for disability pensions stay in the small towns, a high incidence of brain damage will always be observed in the active generation. Meanwhile, each of the ancestral cultures that influenced the various Appalachian Mountain communities seems to have had a different rule about relationships among cousins; when Virginia banned marriages between people more closely related than “third cousins once removed,” the legislature was compromising between English custom, which allowed marriages between first cousins, and Irish custom, which banned marriages between fourth and fifth cousins. So today it’s offensive to suggest that cousins ever married each other in some towns, while in other towns, not far away, the fact is that they did.
Nobody I know has any grievance against the one small town that is properly known as Appalachia, but residents of other towns have every right to object to the way outsiders (a) cling to outdated stereotypes of Appalachia, and (b) add insult to injury by confusing our towns with Appalachia. And one of the best features of Basketry of the Appalachian Mountains is that its narrative is precise and specific, with little confusion about “Appalachia” and lots of details about this basket made by this person.

As an example of praiseworthy precision, this book is recommended to all students of handcrafts and folkways.

A hardcover edition of Basketry of the Appalachian Mountains exists, and is quite expensive. Paperback editions are cheap, so unless you insist on the hardcover edition you may purchase the paperback for $5 + $5 shipping. As always, anything else you see on this site that will fit into the same package can be shipped for the same $5. 

Will Sue Honaker Stephenson get a dollar out of this $10? I honestly can't say. I'm not finding any personal information about her online, and don't know whether she's still alive or not. But if you buy this book from me, I'll make efforts to find her, and, if living, she can claim a dollar from me or send it to a charity of her choice.