Basket Weaving – A Tradition Passed from Woman to Woman Over Generations

Artisan woman weaving baskets

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In an artisan tradition continued for over 100 centuries, Grace learned the art of basket-weaving at an early age and has passed the skill on to nearly a dozen other women.

“Weaving time used to be my grandmother’s bonding time with her grandchildren,” says Grace, an artisan in Uganda, who creates hand-woven baskets and decor for KAZI and has taught other women in her community. “She would make beautiful baskets and I wanted to make some as well.”

The art of basket weaving is a skill passed on between generations, creating brightly patterned woven baskets that provide a variety of uses.

Over time, baskets have transformed from practical tools for holding food, liquids, tools, and as gifts for weddings and other ceremonies, to also providing means for women to bring money into communities and earn a living for their families. The skill carries the opportunity to be self-reliant and provide for loved ones through income stability and fair wages.

In weaving, Illumine, a Rwandan artisan, found the opportunity to gain skills, knowledge and income, and was able to add to her land ownership, farming and livestock. Illumine learned the skill from her mother in law, who in turn was part of a long line of villagers and ancestors who would spend time weaving baskets together day-to-day. She too shares her knowledge with others.

“I had dropped out of school and I had no other occupation. That's why I decided to learn from her,” says Illumine. “Most of my neighbors and all women who come to me, I always encourage them to learn weaving because I gained a lot of skills, knowledge income and managed to expand my land, I have bought forest, livestock, etc.”

Inventory of baskets

Why Baskets? A Brief History

The recent discovery of a basket dating back some 10,500 years, perfectly preserved in a cave in the Judean desert, shed new light on the important role of woven goods in daily life stretching far back to ancient times.

The artifact is believed to be the oldest of its kind, crafted in the Stone Age. Scientists can determine that two people worked on it – and even that one was left-handed. They are seeking to determine its contents, the Jerusalem Post reports.

“This is the most exciting discovery that I have encountered in my life,” said Dr. Haim Cohen, during a press briefing at the Israel Antiquities Authority lab in Jerusalem.

Traditional baskets have been woven from a wide range of materials, including sisal, raffia, sweetgrass, banana leaves, and other natural fibers native to the area.

Baskets hold traditions that date back many years and have a range of uses as decorative ornaments, filled with wedding gifts when marriage approaches, welcoming the bride into the community of wives and mothers. Many mothers, sisters, friends, and relatives weave and present these baskets to the young woman, sending their blessings and gifts, and she herself will begin to weave baskets for others. Over time, basket weaving has shifted to provide economic security and independence for women.

Afua, of Uganda, learned from a friend, and has taught others, sharing the craft.

“I was taught by a friend of mine as a teenager. We would spend time together and she would be weaving baskets. I admired her skill,” says Afua. “I requested my friend to teach me and I wanted to make nice baskets just like her which I would later gift to my relatives. I will teach someone; I have actually taught three people so far.”

Close up of basket weaving

Female-led Change Brings Positive Economic Impacts

Agriculture was a main source of income for Rwandans and women were traditionally dependent on men to take care of the family. The trade of baskets creates employment that empowers artisan women, and is often their profession for the majority of their life, elevating their status and role within their social environments.

“Over the past 15 years I have taught many women and I am still teaching. It is something I am very proud of,” says Rwandan artisan Yvonne, who learned from an elder sister.

Artisans face difficulties, however, selling baskets in the local market, an unreliable source for stability and pricing. The sale of these baskets fund costs of the family’s children, health insurance, and other necessities that women in Rwanda work to provide.

KAZI’s innovative model of high-volume, high-artisan impact brings new money into communities from world-wide markets, and provides higher wages to its artisans – 98 percent of whom are women and support an average of 5.7 dependants.

Artisans who work with KAZI earn 4-5 times more than in local markets with income that flows directly to women, magnifying the economic and social impact that benefits children and the communities KAZI artisans live in. Traditional baskets offer a supportive network and a place to share knowledge and techniques, the business promotes system change as benefits ripple out to education, healthcare, farming, housing, banking, shop-keepers, materials and food suppliers, and other sectors.

Female artisan weaving a basket

What Are Techniques for Basket Weaving?

Basket weaving requires knowledge of intricate techniques.

Sisal leaves are stripped until the threads inside are revealed and can be harvested. Water and a machete blade are used to loosen the fibers and separate them into individual strands—around a thousand per leaf. After being washed repeatedly and hung to dry, fibers are then wrapped around thin bundles of sweet grass with a needle and secured stitch by stitch into a small coil that grows. At this point, the weaver can incorporate differently colored sisal threads and careful patterns or designs until the baskets take shape. The completed basket is often decorated with its brilliant hues vibrantly dyed, neat coils carefully bound, and intricate design expertly stitched.

It’s a skill regarded as so important that it is taught in some schools.

“In primary school we had weaving classes once a week and I got to learn through my teacher,” says Sarah, an artisan in Uganda. “It was a school requirement. I will teach someone. I have trained over eight people already.”

Bright woven coils for basket