How Birch Bark Baskets Are Made
Birch bark baskets have been used for hundreds of years for a number of different applications. Traditionally they were used for carrying food, water and storage. Birch bark is a surprisingly durable material. Natural waxes in the tree make it water proof and when prepared properly even fire resistant.
Collecting the bark
The best time to harvest the birch bark is in the spring time or early summer when the sap if running. This will allow the bark to be removed easier and not damage the tree. Only the top layer of the bark is taken off of the tree. The brownish bark under layer is left so the tree can survive. A sharp knife is used to make a vertical cut down the birch tree. A good rule of thumb is to cut the same distance vertically as horizontally. This creates a nice square piece of building material.
Interesting fact: If you look closely at a birch tree you will notice it has black horizontal lines (called lenticels) in its bark. The shorter the lenticels the stronger the bark is and less prone to splitting. Every piece of birch bark is picked with care.
The bark is then carefully pried off of the tree with a knife making sure the tree doesn’t get damage.
Preparing the birch bark
Once the birch bark is collected it needs to be prepared. There is a brown/reddish residue on the backside of the bark that needs to be scrapped off. The bark is first scraped with a knife followed by sand paper. Next the bark is flattened by being pressed between two pieces of ply wood. Sometimes the bark needs to be dampened with a wet cloth so that it can be bent more easily. The sooner the basket is formed after taking the bark off the tree, the easier the bark will bend. The design is then traced onto the back of the birch bark using a pencil. Scissors or a sharp knife is used to cut the desired pattern. The basket is then bent into its desired shape using a metal ruler to create neat fold lines.
Fasten it together
Once the basket has taken its desired shape it needs to be fastened together. This can be tricky because the bark will want to curl. The basket is clamped into place so that it can hold its shape. Traditionally white spruce roots were used to hold the birch bark basket seems together. Today small strips of moose hide are usually used. Small holes are punched along the edge of the bark and moose hide is weaved to hold the basket edges together. At this point the basket is essentially complete.
After the basket is formed the maker works on creating a decorative design. The skilled crafts person carefully sketches an outline of their pattern onto the basket. Next, coloured porcupine quills are usually used for the design. The quills are dyed and then woven into a floral pattern on the side of the basket.
Interesting fact: Some traditional unique patterns were created by subarctic aboriginal people through bark-biting techniques. This involved people peeling ultra-thin pieces of bark, folding them, and then biting them in specific patterns to create their designs. Some of these designs date back centuries.
Once finished, the basket maker does one final inspection of the birch bark basket and places their creation for sale. These works of art have been made for centuries and are looked for by art collectors all over the world.