A family tradition of basket weaving

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 17, 1999

DEBORAH CORRAO / L’Observateur / March 17, 1999

It’s an art that has survived thousands of years, passed down from generation to generation, taking roots in America as pioneer families crossed the prairies, mountains and raging rivers in search of opportunity and land to call their own.

It endured through necessity until mass production made the art of basket weaving almost obsolete.

Baskets, for the most part, once an essential item in every household, have become purely decorative in many modern homes.

But one local artisan, determined to keep the art alive, says if you’re not using your baskets, you’re missing the boat.

A native of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Kari Morton Walker of LaPlace learned the art of basket weaving from her own mother, who learned it from hers and on up through the branches of the family tree.

The family now specializes in weaving and selling historic work baskets and passing on their skills to anyone who desires to dabble in the traditional craft.

Walker’s mother, Barbara Morton of Morton’s Baskets, has sold her creations for the past 20 years out of her own shop in Blue Springs, Mo.

In keeping with family tradition, Kari Walker, who works as the secretary at First Baptist Church in LaPlace, taught her three children how to weave.

A daughter and son-in-law have taken up the craft and assist at Morton’s Baskets in Blue Springs.

“Everyone in my family can do it,” says Walker who, with husband Johnny, has started her own business, Morton’s Down South, since moving to LaPlace. “Not everyone enjoys it. Some try it and don’t like it.”Not so for John Walker. He became a basketweaving aficionado when hemarried Kari Morton and it became a passion. He now half-jokingly refersto himself as a master weaver. Kari Walker agrees, saying men make thebest weavers because of their strength.

The couple operates Morton’s Down South out of a studio in their home.

They display the art at the Oak Alley and Andouille festivals and will soon be traveling to North Carolina and Indiana to demonstrate their art at basket weaving conventions.

They teach weaving at classes in their studio as well as in classes sponsored by the Community Education Department at St. Charles ParishSchools.

The technique involved in weaving a basket depends upon how the basket will be used, Walker says.

“The shape of a basket is determined by its function,” she tells her students.

Each basket woven and sold by Morton’s or Morton’s Down South comes with its own story tag that tells how the basket originated and how it was used.

In the days of the covered wagon, Walker says, the spoon basket became popular. The basket is tall and narrow with a flat back and was attachedto the outside of the covered wagon and held handcarved wooden utensils.

After a meal, the basket would be loaded with the utensils and swished in a stream before being rehung on the wagon.

One of her favorite baskets, the Mountain Pounding Basket, was used during the pioneer days on the frontier when neighbors would “pound” a young couple with food items to help them get a start in setting up a household. The food would be presented in one-pound quantities in a smallbasket. Nowadays, says Kari Walker, some people still hold “poundings” toshow regard for newlyweds or someone just moving into town.

“On the frontier if you gave a gift of food you gave a lot,” says Walker. “Itwas the greatest way to show friendship.”In the bayou country, Walker says, her mother-in-law, one of 13 children, remembers using a Louisiana cypress basket to gather moss to stuff pillows. The basket was tied to the side of a pirogue and as the moss wasgathered from the swamp it was put into the basket.

The Walkers say while their baskets are beautiful and decorative, they can also be put to use today in a variety of ways.

“I use my baskets for everything,” says Kari Walker.

The spoon basket with its flat back can be hung on a wall or sit on a counter to hold utensils. A market basket once used to take produce to andfrom the market is used as a picnic basket for Mardi Gras parades. Aplantation key basket holds a TV guide and remote control.

The Walkers have chosen the plantation key basket to teach a recent community education class. Kari Walker says the small rectangular basketwas first designed to hold the big brass keys used on plantations.

She says mistresses of plantations usually kept the keys on a huge ring but would entrust a servant with a particular key to unlock the huge pantries that housed the food needed to feed the hundred or more people who lived on the grounds.

Often times the servant would come back claiming to have lost the key.

Coincidentally, food would begin disappearing from the pantry. Themistresses would then demand that servants keep the keys in a basket so they would not be lost.

In two 2 1/2-hour sessions of community education classes, the Walkers’ lead students through the steps it takes to assemble the basket, providing raw materials and helpful advice.

While many of the baskets made by the Walkers are woven with red or white oak purchased in planks and stripped out by Johnny Walker, the novice weavers will use reed which is easier to work with.

The long strips of reed, which come from Indochina and are bought in bulk by the Walkers from a supplier, must first be soaked in water to make them pliable enough to work with. The students begin the bottom of theirbaskets with 10 strips, called ribs, laid out into an interlocking grid and held together with clothespins until the basket begins to take shape.

Peggy Sherwood has taken classes before and finds she enjoys it a lot.

“I took classes to make stained glass once. I was so frustrated my family threatened to move out,” she says, laughing. “With basket weaving, I getinstant gratification. I can see where I’m going.””I’ve been looking for a basket weaving class for a long time,” says Leslie Cambre of Luling, a self-confessed crafts freak who also enjoys tatting, filet crochet and sewing.

Judy Ebeling of Ama has taken three classes with the Walkers.

“I’ve even taught the Cub Scouts to weave,” she says. “They used it to getmerit badges.”This class session the students will get about halfway through their baskets. When they come back the following week they will have to soaktheir creations in water to get them pliant again.

“As a matter of fact, baskets need water,” says Kari Walker. “They willlast a lifetime with care but need to be misted three or four times a year just like you would a house plant.” Walker says baskets may also be taken outside and hosed off if they’re mainly used as decoration and tend to collect dust.

Walker’s one concession to the non-functional is a design of her own she calls the House Basket. Made to resemble a cottage with a thatched roof,it can be personalized by painting on the name of a family or a business.

Walker says it makes a great housewarming gift.

It is customary among weavers to name special baskets they have created.

Kari Walker’s father passed away last year after 50 years of marriage to her mother. Their relationship has been memorialized by his daughter in abasket she calls Jack and Barb’s Courting Basket.

Deborah Corrao is a reporter for L’Observateur

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