TREES TO TREASURES: Materials
MATERIALS: Traditional baskets are made from woodsplints of the Brown Ash (Fraxinus nigra) tree. Native Maine
sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) is often added in the weaving of these ash baskets as a traditional design element.
BROWN ASH TREE (also known as Black Ash, or Hoop, Swamp, Basket Ash)
The woodsplints of the Brown Ash tree are excellent for basketmaking. They are pliable, tough, durable, and bend easily
for weaving. The finished weavers have a smooth silky appearance which adds to the visual attraction of the baskets.
Brown Ash is considered to be a small to medium size tree with an average height of 60-80’ Tall, and 12-24” in diameter.
Growing best in northern swampy wetlands or near stream banks, the brown ash trees have been in decline for several
years. They have a slower growth rate than other species, are shade intolerant, have a very shallow fibrous root system
and require high soil moisture with good soil aeration for best growth.
Unfortunately, a beetle from Asia introduced to the United States a few years ago called the Emerald Ash Borer has been
killing many brown ash trees recently. The long term scenario for the basket ash tree may not be favorable. It is becoming
increasingly difficult to find quality ash trees for baskets, with very few who are harvesting the ash. The future potential
for Wabanaki basketmaking as a livelihood may be adversely affected by this shortage.
SELECTING THE TREE: The most essential part of brown ash harvesting is selecting the best trees. Experienced native ash
harvesters know how to determine whether or not a particular tree will yield pliable ash that is not too brittle for
SPLINTS: The brown ash tree log is pounded along its length with a mallet, sledge or the back of an axe. The pounding
causes the outer spring wood to be crushed and the inner summer wood to be separated and peeled off along its annual
growth rings in long strips. The ash log pounding is a time and labor intensive process and requires skill and strength.
These rough strips of ash are then ready to be split with a wooden “splitter”. Each strip is separated at one end with a
knife and pulled up through the “splitter”, producing splints that are thinner, rough on one side and smooth on the other.
The splints are then coiled and ready for additional processing. The woodsplints are scraped on their rough side with a
knife and then “sized” with gauges into various widths ranging from 1/32” to 5/8” for weavers and standards (standards
form the foundation of the basket and are heavier than the thinner weavers).
SWEETGRASS (also known as holy grass, vanilla grass, buffalo grass, Seneca grass)
It is typically harvested in early to mid summer, cleaned, hung to dry in bundles for use in weaving. The picking and
cleaning of sweetgrass is also time and labor intensive.
Both single unbraided strands, as well as braided strands are used to enhance basket design. Some traditional style
baskets use all sweetgrass braid in the overall design. The beauty and fragrance of sweetgrass is unforgettable and time
Braiding sweetgrass for weaving is an art in itself. The grass must be wet and pliable and braided in just the right width
for each basket to be woven. Smaller braid for smaller baskets, for example, is essential so that the woven braid will
enhance the basket, rather than overpower it.
Braiding skills are learned only by practice. To make enough braid for a medium size basket may take many hours,
depending upon the amount of braid used in that one basket. To become adept at braiding requires tremendous patience
in order to achieve long strands of braid that do not unravel or twist out of shape and the same width of braid must be
At some point prior to the turn of the century in "fancy" basketmaking, the braided "frog" handle was introduced as a
strong design element that completes the sweetgrass look and feel of many antique collectible sweetgrass baskets. Most
of the baskets offered here on this website in the Passamaquoddy Gold Collection are topped with a traditional frog
handle to give the baskets a timeless authentic appearance.
The standards form the foundation of the basket and are thicker and less pliable than weavers. On round baskets, the
weavers are used to begin the bottom of the basket. The sides are woven with various width weavers after the wooden
block (mold) is inserted into the basket. Covers are woven without a mold, and hand shaped to fit each basket. Many of
the molds used today were handed down generation after generation in basketmaking families and functionally attest to
the "living tradition" of basketmaking.
The square or oblong baskets are woven in the same manner, with the exception of the bottom which uses a lattice
design weave to give them sturdiness of construction and allows for different sizes and shapes to emerge.
It has been estimated that materials preparation is 2/3 of the total time it takes to produce just one basket. To ask a
weaver how long it takes to make a basket would be difficult to answer, considering the time it takes to prepare the
materials. All of this preparation is time and labor intensive, but well worth the richness of the finished product. The
weaving is where the creative artistry begins and the true beauty of the basket unfolds.
The design range of Passamaquoddy basketry today is unlimited. Contemporary weavers, meaning the basketmakers
that are alive today, are continuing the living tradition of basketry, using traditional methods, supplies and equipment,
and the richness of artistic design seems endless.
Many weavers are creating unique designs never seen before with artistic flair. Some weavers continue to create designs
based on the older style of basketry and help to keep us informed about the past weaving practices and artistic influences,
giving their baskets an authentic traditional presence. Some designs incorporate a whole new range of ideas into a
traditional shape with stunning results.
As in all of Native American art, there are basketmakers today who are experimenting with color, shape and overall design
elements - these are contemporary basketmakers producing art that is a little more risky and challenging. They are
creating tradition with a new flair!
The creative design aspects are limited only by the artistic vision of contemporary Passamaquoddy weavers, whether they
use curliques, porcupine weave, assorted sized weavers combined with braids of grass or bright and colorfully dyed
The Passamaquoddy Gold collection for sale on this website offers the highest quality braided sweetgrass baskets - all
sweetgrass braid to stripes and checkerboard designs of braided sweetgrass. All braid used is hand braided by
artist/weaver Deborah Gabriel Brooks, including the traditional braided frog handles.
Check out these websites for
All photos by Deborah Brooks, unless otherwise noted
Brown Ash Tree
Cook, William. 1998. Upper Peninsula Tree Identification Key. Michigan State University Extension, Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center, Escanaba, Michigan. Available on-line at http://uptreeid.com.
Sweetgrass, photo taken at Sanctuary Ecovillage
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no
Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
Photo is copyrighted under the GNUFD License at wikipedia
Photo courtesy of MI State Univ.
photo taken at Sanctuary Ecovillage, Grand Forks, BC
Maine Indian Baskets
Passamaquoddy Native American Brown Ash Splint Basketry
By Passamaquoddy Weaver, Deborah Gabriel Brooks
Deborah Brooks, Passamaquoddy Weaver
Phone: 480-861-2396 Fax: 915-242-1039
For orders: firstname.lastname@example.org