I’VE worked out how to make my fortune. I am going to borrow as many copies of Basketry and Weaving with Natural Materials by Pat Dale as I can – and then sell them on Amazon Books. With a face value of $40, the asking price for this 80-page paperback “bible of basketry” is $371 plus shipping! Margaret Balfe has told me about this book by her mentor Pat Dale in glowing terms. At that price, I think everyone agrees.
Margaret is part of the South Gippsland Fibre Group which Pat established seven years ago in order to pass on her enormous legacy of skills. Work by members of the group features in a current exhibition, Women in Basketry, at Wonthaggi ArtSpace.
It is 60 years since Pat made her first bulrush basket as a young bride by going to basketry days a Country Women’s Association (CWA) member’s farm. Since then she hasn’t stopped learning her craft and sharing it with others.
Pat encourages her students to use natural fibres from plants indigenous to this area – from the coast to the heathlands – and plants from their gardens. They use a wide variety of fibres and vines including grapevine, kennedia, wisteria, red hot poker, cordyline, pine needles, native grasses, NZ flax and bulrush. Many things that are usually thrown in the green recycling bin end up in a box stored in a basket maker's home – because it will prove useful some time. Members of the group share what they find. Op shops are scavenged for fabrics, beach ropes and cords – anything goes.
When Pat first started making baskets, she, like many of her vintage, belonged to the CWA. They inspired her with their resourcefulness of taking discarded materials and turning them into something practical. She encourages her group to be as resourceful as those women were more than half a century ago – but with a twist.
Whilst the baskets can be very practical vessels, most of what the group produces are contemporary, abstract works of art from fibre found just about anywhere. Pat encourages the group members to develop their own creative style and not be bound by convention. This is quite a different style from other tutors who want students to follow their lead meticulously.
Margaret’s style is using curved and rounded shapes. She tells me about going to a workshop where the facilitator gave each of the group a piece of clay and asked them to mould it into a shape. She then gave them a piece of paper and asked them to draw a shape. She then gave them another piece of paper and asked them to cut a shape. The facilitator then asked the group to review their shapes and each was amazed by the similarity despite the different media used. The facilitator told them she believed that each of us has a shape inside us.
Try it yourself. I did with a group of people over for dinner the other night. Sadly, mine was sharp and pointed! Interestingly Margaret’s daughter produced the same shape as her mother. Is that nature or nurture?
Not only has the group become a group of gatherers constantly on the lookout for material that nature discards to incorporate into their work, but they have also re-designed their own gardens to provide source material. Margaret’s garden now includes day lilies, lomandra, kangaroo grass, red hot poker, hardenbergia and kennedia.
In addition to artistic creativity, you need an incredible amount of patience to make a basket. First, you are not always assured of being able to get the fibres needed. Plants are so dependent on the seasons and lack of rainfall or blight means some materials may not be found at all.
When they are, the plant materials must be gathered when they are green, sorted and then tied into bundles and dried. A cool airy place must be found for the drying to take place. And then when ready to use the fibres must be dampened or else they would break before they are twisted, twined, woven or threaded to make baskets. So much care must be taken or the basket will perish for the use of unseasoned materials and so many hours and hours of work will be wasted.
Margaret tells me the making of the baskets is almost meditative, surrounded by the smell of the plant fibres, as well as the companionship of a group of women. She says it is almost tribe-like – being part of a supportive, community group that enriches people’s lives. She hesitates to call it “women’s business” but the fact is there are few male basket makers. Well I think she may just have a new male recruit. Matt, my husband, can’t wait to give it a try.
The Women in Basketry exhibition is at ArtSpace Gallery, Wonthaggi, until May 6. The opening is from 2pm-4pm on Sunday April, 7.