‘It’s a worldly thing’: the ancient, multi-stranded craft of weaving baskets | Australian lifestyle

My first foray into basket making started innocently. I found a kit at a craft fair, consisting of nothing but a needle, and a folded page of instructions and reams of raffia dyed in an ombre blue-grey. The picture on the front of the box showed a woven pot housing a rubbery succulent. The instructions were simple and I quickly found myself in a methodical rhythm, a coil of raffia slowly growing, curving, taking shape under my fingers.

All of this happened before I spoke to Cassie Leatham, a Taungurung master weaver. I suspect it is how many people under 21st-century capitalism go about learning a craft as old as basket making. But it was in speaking to Leatham that I began to think there may be a more considered way to go about it.

Cassie Leatham, a Taungurung master weaver with some of her work. Photograph: Cassie Leatham/Supplied

When we speak, Leatham is in Darwin for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, where some of her art is in the running for an award. Even there, she is weaving daily. “I’ve got little pieces of grasses and raffias and little bone needles on me, and I sit [and weave]. I can’t stop,” she tells me. “I just tread softly and I listen. And I just connect wherever I am.”

Leatham’s weaving is not just personal, it is cultural and sacred. Over the years she has been taught by other Aboriginal artists, including Auntie Dot Peters and Donna Blackall, but she was first taught fibre arts by her non-Indigenous mother and came to weaving through macrame.

“I think she wanted me to learn because she knew how important it would be for me for later on in life when I really wanted to take on more cultural journeys with it,” Leatham says. “It’s part of how I connect with my culture, my ancestors before me, with all the natural traditional materials from country – the gifts I get given, which I make with respect and honour.”

One of the world’s oldest intact baskets, from the pre-pottery Neolithic period, approximately 10,500 years ago, found in the Judean Desert in 2021. Photograph: Nir Alon/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Basket making is not a single tradition with a clear origin story, but a multi-stranded global practice with diverse and overlapping traditions. Made with biodegradable materials, basketwork tends to be more perishable than some other crafts, but 3000-year-old items have been found preserved in sand in Egypt, and in 2021, archeologists uncovered a complete basket estimated to be more than 10,000 years old in a cave in the Judean desert.

As Leatham says, “it’s a worldly thing”.

A model wears one of Leathan’s designs by label Yanggurdi during the Melbourne Fashion festival 2024. Photograph: Naomi Rahim/WireImage

English and Irish basket-makers used willow, hazel and heather. People of the Cherokee Nation used river cane and vine. Techniques include coiling, sewing, plaiting and twining and there are structural similarities across disparate traditions. Basketry was inherently tied to landscape management and (often female) cultural or spiritual traditions.

These days, basket-makers are more likely to use fibre found in a craft store than something plucked from a riverbank with their own hands, but as a crafter in Australia, it’s important to engage with the First Nations traditions and be respectful of them, Leatham says.

“You’ve really got to sit down with elders or you know, ones like myself, and learn the stories and connect that way. And then it’s beautiful to see someone else go off and create – not for profit, but to create in their own way and put their own journey into it,” Leatham says.

Stephanie Convery’s (unfinished) attempt at making a basket.

When she teaches non-Indigenous people, Leatham sometimes brings native plants out, to highlight the relationship between the craft and the natural world.

“Nature drops things, it gives us gifts that are biodegradable,” she says. “I will prefer to make a basket or even a piece of clothing out of native materials – fibres, you know – to [scrap] fabrics, rather than go and buy something because there’s so much landfill.”

Sustainability means a lot to Leatham, as does the fact that most basketry is utilitarian. “My ancestors made for everyday use, and I want to make for everyday use as well,” she says.

Leatham says her healing mat travels with her everywhere. Photograph: Cassie Leatham

The work that means the most to her is a healing mat. It’s made with native grasses, including kangaroo grass, bulrush and seagrass, woven with “all the techniques from my old people”. There are 60,000 threads of kangaroo sinew worked into it, and it’s fringed with foraged feathers from the emu nesting area near Leatham’s home.

“It travels with me everywhere,” Leatham says. “It’s pretty special. I lay it on the ground. I sit on it. I do my healing work on it. Little kids come up they sit on it. It’s just for everyday use. It’s not behind glass, like all the other ones are. It’s my signature.”

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