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Black Ash Kittenhead Basket  Susi Nuss, Double Satin Basketry, 2009. All rights reserved.The Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra) tree is also known as the Hoop, Basket, Brown, or Swamp Ash. The Black Ash is strictly a tree of wet places; of low wet woods, swamps, and river bottoms that are frequently inundated with flood waters. It is a small to medium sized tree, usually attaining a height of 40-60 feet, with a trunk diameter of rarely more than one foot. The Black Ash ranges from Newfoundland to Manitoba, Canada, south to Delaware, Virginia, and Iowa.

Baskets made in New England by Indians or early settlers were very often made of Black Ash. The ideal basket log is a straight, knot-free butt of a healthy black ash tree, approximately 8-10" in diameter. After the tree is felled, the log must be stripped of its bark. The log is then pounded methodically to force the growth layers to separate from one another. These annular growth rings, called splints, must be scraped clean of the spongy growth that clings to both sides of the splint. This spongy growth is made up of the transfer tubes that carry the nutrients to the plant cells while the tree is alive. Thin growth layers can be used in this state. Thick growth rings can be peeled into two, or sometimes more, layers, revealing satiny inner surfaces. When a splint has been subdivided more than once it has that satiny surface on both sides. These splints are referred to as "double satin". I have chosen this term for my business name. Nothing compares to the tactile sensation of holding a finely crafted basket that has been made of double satin black ash woodsplint.

After each woodsplint is prepared it must then be cut into strips of uniform width, graded for color and weight, and any imperfections must be discarded.

It is only now that you can begin to actually weave a basket. Most of my baskets are woven over wooden molds in the same manner as the Shakers, Indians, and many individual rural basketmakers of the 19th century. I make many of my own molds and jigs, and many of my tools, a process I enjoy.

Weaving a basket over a mold allows the basketmaker to achieve shapes that would be difficult to achieve without one. The mold also allows the basketmaker to dependably make a basket that is to hold a certain measure. After the body of the basket is woven, and taken off the mold, the basket is allowed to dry thoroughly. The weavers will have to be packed down, and additional weavers added, to make up for the shrinkage that occurs when the splints dry. The ends of the uprights, or spokes, are then resoaked, and bent over the last row of weaving. They are then tucked under several rows of weaving to secure them. The body of the basket is then finished and ready to be rimmed.

The handle and rims of the basket are made of Shag Bark Hickory, White Oak , or other hardwood. Choosing a good tree is again important. The tree should be about 6-8" in diameter, straight grained, knot-free, and healthy. After it is felled, it must be stripped of its bark, and then split repeatedly into halves, until you are left with pieces of usable size. These pieces must then be squared off with a drawknife, while seated at a shavehorse, and then split along the grain. A handle can now be carved from this piece with a drawknife, and further shaped with a jack knife. The handle is then carefully bent into shape, and inserted into the body of the basket. Rims are carved in the same manner, and then fitted to the top edge of the basket body. The basket is finished by lashing the rim to the basket using a long, thin splint. Lacing first around the basket in one direction, and then lacing back around the basket in the other direction. Each basket is then signed, dated, and registered in the collector's name.

When the process is complete, a beautiful, functional basket has been created that can be a source of pride for its owner, and the owner's family for generations to come.

General Notes On Working With Black Ash

When weaving with black ash woodsplint, you should keep the following things in mind.

  • Run your hand along the length of each splint to check for defects before using.
  • Routinely grade out all but the most minor of defects.
  • Determine which side you want to show to the outside of the basket.
  • Most weavers will not require thinning down (grading) when two overlap at joins. Thin when necessary, so that the two layers do not create a noticeable bulge.
  • When you start a new weaver, overlap over at least a spoke count of 4 and conceal the ends.
  • The splint should be worked dampened enough to remain flexible, but keep in mind that the splint swells on its width when wet, so that the wetter you have it, the more it will shrink up as it dries.
  • Allow yourself enough time for the weaving to dry thoroughly before turning down and tucking the spokes, so that shrinkage will not cause problems.

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