Try making this natural, sturdy bread basket out of flax.
In many cultures, artisans have made simple coiled baskets of locally available materials for thousands of years. I’ve drawn from this tradition to make a sturdy bread basket out of flax, stitched with waxed linen thread. The contrast of the natural, earthy flax (which you can grow and process yourself or buy commercially) and the smooth, precise stitches is wonderfully satisfying both to make and to look at. Waxed linen thread comes in a rainbow of colors and is so strong that you don’t have to worry about its breaking.
If you have never coiled a basket before, I suggest that you make a small sample first to get the feel of the materials. As you stitch, pull the waxed linen good and tight and don’t let it twist around itself as you go. Do, however, twist the flax fiber as you work; this makes it both stronger and less apt to come apart. An easy way to add the twist is to turn your basket over from time to time in the same direction. If you are left-handed, reverse the directional parts of the instructions: you will be much more comfortable working from left to right.
To make the basket shown, I used prepared flax roving: a loose, thin, continuous roll or snake of fiber that’s available from fiber stores or weaving shops. Roving has a rich odor, the result of soaking the flax to rot away the woody and sticky parts and free the long, silky fibers. Find a work area with good circulation (I work on a covered porch) and carefully dump the roving out of the bag. Spread it apart gently and let it air out for a day or two.
To make roving from flax that you’ve processed yourself (see “Growing and Processing Flax”, page 50), lay out the pile of line fibers into a long, continuous roll of consistent thickness, twisting it as you go. When compacted, the roll should be about 3/8 inch thick, or twice the thickness of commercial roving.
If using prepared roving, you’ll need a double thickness for the basket; place the two ends together, then repack the roving loosely into a basket or sack, aligning the doubled strands. Set the basket or sack beside you as you work.
1. Cut a piece of waxed linen 3 to 4 yards long and thread it doubled through a tapestry needle. Gently straighten the end of the doubled strand of roving. Bury the ends of the waxed linen in the roving and, starting at the end, tightly wrap the waxed linen around the roving (from right to left) at 1/4-inch intervals for 51/2 inches. Twist the flax as you go. Turn the work over and bend the flax back against the wrapped portion so that you are again working from right to left. Wrap the waxed linen away from you and over the top of the new row of roving. As you bring the needle back up for the next wrap, stitch through about 1/8 inch of the previous row.
2. To make the stitch, flip the work over by rotating your left wrist and insert the needle through the back of the work, to the right of the next stitch on the previous row. Rotate again to the front of the work and bring the needle through the roving to the left of the stitch on the previous row. The stitches on adjacent rows will form a pleasing diagonal line.
3. When you reach the end of the 51/2-inch-long first row, bend the flax back on itself again, turn the work over, and stitch back (always from right to left). Continue until you have stitched five rows. When about 6 inches of thread remain, cut and thread a new piece on a second needle. Lay the new ends on top of the roving and take one stitch over them with the first needle. Now, bend the ends back on themselves and continue stitching until the old thread is too short to work. Cut off the first needle, wrap the old thread around the new and add it to the top of the flax coil. Pick up and continue stitching with the second needle.
4. At the end of the fifth row, bring the flax roving around the base, stitching into the ends of the first four rows and then into the first row, and so on. You may make the corners rounded or squared. Rounded happens naturally. If you want a more rectangular basket, don’t pull the flax snug as you turn each corner; instead push it back against the previous stitch a bit to add extra fullness.
5. You will need to add stitches at the corners from time to time to keep the stitches spaced about 1/4 inch apart. Do this by taking a second stitch through the same hole as the previous stitch. This makes a V-shaped stitch. When the base measures 5 inches by 9 inches, or the size you wish, it is time to start the sides.
6. As you start the sides, you will coil the flax roving on top of the base and begin the pattern stitch. Take a regular stitch and then stitch through the same hole again. This creates a diagonal stitch (visible only on the outside of the basket) and a vertical stitch.
7. Wrap the thread once around the core without stitching into the previous row, and rotate your hand to look at the wrap from the outside. Use the needle to push the wrap snug against the last stitch.
8. Wrap five more times for a total of six wraps, pull the core up against the edge of the base, and then stitch into the previous row. Stitch through the edge, twice through the same hole. You will continue stitching the core to the edge of the base for one complete round.
9. The width of the solid part of the stitch (nine rounds in all) should be about 5/8 inch. Move your needle 5/8 inch to the left and stitch twice through a single hole.
10. This is how a completed pattern stitch sequence should look. The solid and open sections should be equal in width. Take special care in working this first row as it will set up the pattern for the rest of the basket.
11. Continue alternating solid and open areas until you near the place shown in the photograph. You must end this row with a solid section of the pattern so that an open section will be directly above the first solid section on the previous row. Measure back from the beginning of the pattern in 5/8-inch segments to see whether your pattern is going to come out evenly or if you will have to fudge a little. In this sample, the pattern did come out correctly except that the space for the next solid section was a bit too wide. I added one extra stitch to each of the remaining solid sections to accommodate the discrepancy. Sometimes, you must undo a section and make each solid part of the pattern one stitch narrower.
12. Work with the spacing until the pattern fits correctly; you will find stitching the rest of the basket straightforward. The remaining rows are stitched directly on top of the previous row, alternating solid and open sections of pattern. To make the basket flare slightly, add an extra wrap to every second or third solid pattern section every row or so. Do not add to a given pattern section twice until you have added a wrap to each of the others.
13. This basket has eight rows of pattern and a final row, which is worked in continuous solid patterning. Taper the flax core so that it ends shortly after it intersects the beginning of the solid row. When you reach the intersection, stitch over both the tapering core and the previous row until the core ends, as shown in the finished basket on page 53. Thread the ends of the waxed linen underneath the wrapping of the rim and cut them off close to the basket.
Robin Daugherty is a basket maker, teacher, and writer in Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of Splint Woven Basketry (Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1986), and she has shaped many basket projects for The Herb Companion.
Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins, 633 N. South Broadway, Boulder, CO 80303-5958. Flax roving and waxed linen.
Royalwood Ltd., 517 Woodville Rd., Mansfield, OH 44907. Waxed linen.
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