Members of Micmac tribe demonstrate how to create a wooden basket

5 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Many County natives have fond memories of putting potatoes in a wooden basket while hand picking the tubers from rows of a field on crisp autumn mornings. On Feb. 9, Mary Sanipass and her daughter Donna Sanipass of the Micmac Tribe demonstrated how to make one of those baskets by hand during the Winter Festival Market at the Micmac Farms facility in Caribou.

To start, Mary took eight splints of thin brown ash wood and layered them on top of one another so they were pointing out in separate directions, but equally far apart, not unlike an asterisk. She then took another splint, about half the width of the first, and wove it around the center of the eight larger splints.

After two passes, Mary added another layer of eight and began the weaving again from the outer edge of the first layer.

Donna said that her mother made potato baskets for farmers across The County when she was younger, and that the wood used was thick, ensuring the basket was sturdy enough to hold dozens of potatoes.

The weaving continued outward until it became as wide as the wooden handle, which Mary added at the end of the process. Once the bottom part of the basket was finished, the splints were carefully bent at which point the weaving continued upward, creating the sides of the basket.

Donna said it’s important not to weave all the way up, as the splints need to be woven down around the hoop and handle at the end of the process. The upward weaving stops when the width of the basket is equivalent to the width of the handle and the height matches up with the notch on either sides of the handle.

The wood, which is wet in order to easily bend to the shape of a basket, then needs to dry overnight. Once dried, the next step is to start from the center bottom and tuck the weaves downward to eliminate gaps, as the wood will shrink after it is dried, according to the Sanipasses.

The final steps of the process involve adding the handle, which will be woven into the sides of the basket. After this a hoop, or ring, of wood will be placed along the inside rim and the splints will be woven down and around it, completing the basket.

Some basket makers, according to Donna, may choose to use small nails to secure the hoop and handle. She added that the nails need to be small and thin enough that they do not split the wood.

During the Feb. 9 demonstration, Mary Sanipass applied two layers of splint for each weave, as the wood was thin. Donna Sanipass said that, in this instance, the wood was thinner than usual, and that her mother would tuck in the wood after one pass, and then start in another location for the second pass.

All in all, Donna said she has probably made close to 5,000 baskets in her life while it would be impossible to count how many her mother has created.

“I started making baskets when I was eight,” said Donna, “but it was off and on because I was going to school. I graduated in Presque Isle, then went to college, and then had kids after that, but I gradually got back into it.”

Donna said her mother has baskets all around the United States, and even in New York.

Mary said that, when making potato baskets, it’s important to use “tough wood,” explaining that sometimes doing a double weave is necessary.

“If you’re going to pick potatoes,” she said, “you want the basket to be thick or else it will break.”