0712 Basket convention

Jenny Elzy weaves a chair-bottom.

By Sean Bailey / Staff Writer

It used to be a poor-man’s occupation, but now it’s considered high-art. It was once a vital part of everyday life that over time, like so many trades, has been replaced by plastic and mass production.

And it’s about as Kentuckian as horse racing, quilting and Bourbon.

It’s, believe or not, basket weaving.

“You have to remember there was a time when there were no plastic Kroger’s bags. People used baskets for everything, carrying pig slop, apples, eggs, everything ... And now it is art,” Scott Gilbert of Scottsville said.

Gilbert is one of 16 teachers at this year’s Kentucky Basket Association (KBA) convention which is taking place at the Corbin Civic Center through Saturday. Gilbert specializes in the white-oak basket making process that is an old Appalachian tradition. He is teaching a three-day course where students get to weave a basket starting with “a regular old white oak tree.” After shaving the tree down to workable parts, his students start the weaving process. All of which is done by hand.

“This is a traditional method I learned from the Childress family in Park City, Ky. They’ve been doing it for five generations this way,” Gilbert said as he helped with a students basket.

Turn of the century photographs captured train cars filled with baskets, ready to be transported to all corners of the country. Gilbert said these pictures stand as testament to what a huge industry basket weaving was at the time.

Whole families’ livelihoods depended on long days weaving the baskets by hand, and Gilbert said, “When you’re doing that many you’ve got to do as good of a job as you can, but work as quickly as you can.”

And to add to the hard-work, basket weaving wasn’t held in the highest-esteem at the time.

“It was once seen as a poor man’s occupation. Some people were ashamed of having to make baskets for a living. It show’s how times have changed. People are very proud of the quality now,” Gilbert said.

In the old days, baskets varied in shape and size according to what they were used for, whether it be freshly picked apples, or slop for the pigs.

“I don’t think you’ll be using that one for pig slop,” a passer-by said to one of Gilbert’s students, Pam Withee as she worked on her basket-skeleton.

“No, after all this work, I’ll be putting this one up,” Withee said.

Withee came from southeast Ohio just for Gilbert’s class.

“I called to make sure they had room in this class, and I told them I wasn’t coming if they didn’t,” Withee joked.

Withee has been weaving for eight years after she took a weaving class at a local art colony in Ohio. She said she fell in love with the hobby “immediately” after that first class.

“I’ve always wanted to weave a basket starting with the wood. So this class was perfect for me,” Withee said.

“Love” and “addiction” are both words thrown around quite a bit at the convention. Past president of the KBA, Wilma Tate, from Paris, Ky. is a retired teacher, who upon retiring discovered the hobby through friends confessed to having her own “weaving habit.”

“When you weave you either become addicted or you say ‘I can’t weave another basket for the rest of my life!’ And I became addicted,” Tate said.

Tate said this year’s convention will be attended by 99 registered basket weavers, from all over the region and country. Weavers also span the generations, with the oldest attendees in their 80’s and a 12-year-old signed up for a class on Saturday.

The KBA was created to keep the centuries’ old tradition of basket making alive, Tate said, and to “perpetuate the art, and it really is an art.”

Some pieces can sell for hundreds if not thousands of dollars, Tate said. The value of the basket is most often determined by the wood used in it’s construction and by the quality of the artist’s work.

Besides being a hobby and an art-form, basket weaving is also a social networking tool for some.

“It’s a very social thing,” Tate said. “After a while you start to see a lot of the same people and become friends.”

The convention continues through Saturday evening. Registration for the classes is closed, but the vendors are open to the public.

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