This topic page focuses on traditional Pākehā basket making that came to Aotearoa from England and Europe. Baskets have been in use since early human society all over the world using local materials, and are said to be one of the earliest crafts.
In colonial Aotearoa woven baskets were used as utility objects and could be found in all aspects of home and industry. Contemporary basket making in Aotearoa continues to provide practical objects for living.
By Finn McCahon-Jones
Glancing through any book about New Zealand society at the turn of the 20th century you will see all sorts of baskets in use – baskets for grading kauri gum, prams, shopping baskets, produce baskets, flower baskets, plant stands, work boxes, washing baskets and baskets woven around flagons, bassinets, waste paper baskets and chairs.
Baskets are light, inexpensive and can easily be fashioned into any shape. However, basket making hasn’t been a large part of the craft history of Aotearoa, probably because it is more associated with a trade or utility item rather than a studio practice. Whatever the reason, there are very few pages dedicated to basket making in the written craft histories of NZ. Baskets and objects with woven parts have slowly been vanishing from our lives as light and cheap modern materials become more widely available.
Craft for health
After the Wars, basket making was one of the more popular crafts proffered as part of the orthopaedic rehabilitation programme offered to injured servicemen. Soldiers were encouraged to take up trades and crafts as part of their recovery.
The crafts not only brought back strength to their bodies, but gave them new skills to enter back into civilian life.
In this photo of Trentham Military Camp in Upper Hutt taken in the 1920s, you can see a number of men using various basket making techniques to create wastepaper baskets and oval and round shopping baskets. Other ANZAC’s in Australia created craft and toys that were sold to the public. 
Studio craft basket making
In the 1970s basket making was in vogue, and a number of New Zealand magazines were published on the subject. Cecilia Parkinson’s magazine Canework Basketmaking shows step-by-step processes of how to make things like picnic baskets, ‘Ali-Baba’ baskets for laundry, a cosmetic tray and over 20 other designs – all using imported cane products. Although the text talks to New Zealanders, the designs are very English. The first Pākehā basket maker to really use local materials and engage with a local aesthetic was Ruth Castle.
Ruth began basket making in the late 1950s after finishing her training as an occupational therapist in Auckland. Ruth started making functional baskets in the evenings as a way to relax after work; it was not until she met her husband, potter Len Castle, that she really started experimenting with materials and form. ‘I was surrounded by interesting shapes of pottery and these have influenced the basket shapes I make.” Ruth’s baskets sit between functional domestic objects and wild energetic forms where the material sometimes defines the final object more than the technique. Ruth’s baskets often reflect the landscape around her.
Dried wisteria and grapevines are some of her favourite materials, along with the hard mangemange vine used by Māori for hīnaki fish traps. However, Ruth’s main material of choice is cane - ‘I’ve tried cutting the thorns from mangemange but the vine is very tough and curly and won’t soften with water. You can’t get the even curves and swirls that you can with cane. We just don’t seem to have the equivalent here’.
Ruth is still making baskets in 2019 as luxury items. Ruth explains ‘Baskets bring warmth and texture and pleasure into a home. They enrich our lives.’
Another contemporary basketmaker located in Golden Bay near Nelson also believes that baskets are essential to our life (and death). Nicola Basham, trading as ‘Go Willow!’ produces a range of traditional baskets made from willow that she grows in Golden Bay.
Nicola specialises in hand woven coffins made for eco-friendly funerals. “Our aim is to weave beautifully crafted willow coffins, stunning sculptural work, delightful everyday baskets and to run courses to enthuse others with the material and the craft.” Nicola made her first coffin in 2009 after learning the craft at a coffin making course in England. Her website promotes willow as an eco material as it is sustainable and biodegradable.
Rattan, cane, willow and wicker
Rattan, cane and willow have become the most popular materials for the basket maker.
Willow originally comes from the cold regions of the northern hemisphere. Supple willow shoots have been used for millennia.
Rattan comes from a climbing palm found in hot tropical regions, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines who are the largest exporters of rattan.
Cane is the generic term for the dressed rattan strips used in basket making and canework.
Wicker is not a specific material but refers to all items made of flexible slender sticks or shoots.
Header image: Unknown maker, wicker tote bag with four horizontal red stripes, date unknown. All Rights reserved, Museum of the Everyday, 01809