Basket weaving workshop uses tule, age-old techniques

by Judith Kahn

Soft and pliant, tule is a bulrush that grows in marshy lowlands from the southwestern United States to Northern California. On May 11, Bay Area residents gathered at the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park to try their hand at making tule-twined baskets under the instruction of the well-known basket weaver Charlie Kennard.

Kennard said he usually starts students on tule baskets because of their ease of construction and the fact that they can be finished in one session. Using several different patterns, each workshop participant wove at least one lightweight basket suitable for gathering berries or holding small fruits. Many of the students had time to complete two baskets.

During his introduction, Kennard pointed out that tule baskets were commonly made throughout many regions of California, Oregon and Nevada. The workshop began with a display of tule-crafted items, including shoes, skirts and baskets, made by Northern California tribes. The largest item created from tule, shown on a slide, was a boat that successfully floated up the Sacramento River.

Workshop participants from different backgrounds and all parts of the Bay Area shared their enthusiasm and interest in weaving. Lisa, a printmaker, sculptor and member of the Bay Area Basket Weavers Associ­ation, had past experience weaving with fibers other than tule, leading to her interest in Kennard's workshop. She particularly appreciated his choice of a simple weaving technique so everyone could start and finish a basket by the end of the six-hour session.

Frank Niccoli, owner of a landscape business and a horticulture teacher at Foothill College, came to the workshop out of an interest in learning to weave with a new fiber.

Another participant, an interior designer, was gratified to find that - as she hoped - the workshop was fun and informative.

Kennard began the session with a demonstration of how the base of the basket is created by forming a spoke with two bundles of tule stems held in the shape of a cross. The bundles are then woven around, and the stems are gradually separated until single radiating stems appear as the spokes of a bicycle wheel.

Once the base is formed, the basket is then built up using various lengths of tule, holding the spoke in place and positioning it with the left hand.

When participants had formed the spoke, Kennard assured their optimal success by circulating among them, offering pointers throughout the process, and reminding them to keep the fiber moist and to add sufficient spokes so the weave was tight enough.

Kennard was brought up in England, arrived in the United States in 1977 and moved to California. Long fascinated with both European and Californian Indian basketry, in 1989 he began weaving baskets, in his 30s, in a workshop taught by Pomo native Susan Billy at Point Reyes. He especially admires Indian basketry for its long tradition, its fine artistry, and the weavers' knowledge and understanding of the native plants used as materials.

Over the course of his career, Kennard has done commissions for the California Academy of Sciences, including a 150-foot-long woven fence and a tule boat. Other examples of tule boats from his workshop are on display at Bay Model in Sausalito, and in the collection of the Oakland Museum

He shares his knowledge of the diverse basketry styles through his Bay Area workshops. In each of these, participants not only learn the technique and experience the process of making a particular type of basket, they also learn the origin of the basket they are weaving.

For example, in his Berkeley workshop, participants made bowl-shaped baskets out of harding grass known as Juncus, using a skep (bee-hive) technique. The pattern was used in European traditions, in which large straw bowls were used to hold rising dough, while some deep straw baskets were used as beehives.

Kennard, who lives in San Anselmo, welcomes all adults and teens, and beginning and experienced weavers to his classes.

For more information about Charlie Kennard's weaving classes, contact him at [email protected].