In 1994, Ethel M. Gill learned basket making from a co-worker, and hasn’t looked back. It was like a match made in heaven that combined her eagerness to learn something new with a natural talent for weaving rattan and seaweed into functional pieces of art.
Gill, who was already skilled at crocheting, sewing, embroidery, needlepoint and cross-stitch, said, “After learning, I lost my mind, and didn’t do anything else for about 15 years!” Her basket weaving later led to flower arranging as a way to fill some of her beautifully hand-woven vessels.
Gill honed her skills with classes taught by well-known basket weaver Grace Kabel, who’s written several books on the art form, considered to be as old as mankind. “She thought basket weaving was a spiritual adventure. She and I both felt the same about it, because when you start to create something you’re fully engaged in how it’s going to look. You get lost in the process and you’re oblivious to what’s going on around you. I start with a picture in my head, but that’s not necessarily how the finished project will look, so I feel something happened and that’s a spiritual intervention.”
The Farmington resident admits that learning basketry was rather difficult in the beginning. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but after I knew I wanted to do this all the time, I found waterproof Band-Aids to wrap around my cuticles. They also have a lot of tools you can use to push the material. In the beginning I was using my nails like they were tools.” She believes it’s all “a matter of technique” and keeping the material wet.
These days, Gill not only sells her baskets, with average prices ranging from $40 to $125 each, she also shares her skills by teaching others at her church, Scott Memorial United Methodist Church. Fees are typically $15 per student, which includes materials, and reservations are required. She charges $25 per person for groups of four to six wanting a more personal class in their home, community room, church or elsewhere. Supplies are provided, and the class will be anywhere from three to four hours, depending on the project and everyone’s arrival time. Participants typically leave with a finished project.
Gill prides herself on the fact that her well-constructed baskets are made entirely without glue or nails. “They’re all hand-woven, and woven to stay together for life,” she said. “That’s all in the construction and packing from the beginning. You can’t weave the basket, then try to shape it. When I weave, I count each row. Weaving is a lot about math. Most of the crafts I do have math in them.”
Despite her passion for basket weaving, Gill believes it’s a dying art, especially in this area. “When I first got into basket weaving, there were several stores that sold supplies and offered classes. Today, most of the stores are out of business. You can still buy basket weaving products, patterns and tools online. Basket weavers continue to meet at each others’ homes, churches, etc.
“I think the industry is still thriving, just on a smaller scale. It’s going the way of the rest of the world right now. I don’t know of anyone having classes right now around here. They used to have basket conventions in Grand Rapids. Now it’s in Belleaire – like three and a half hours from here. If it’s alive, I don’t know anything about it.”
Asked what inspires her to weave baskets, Gill responded, “I think it’s because I got such an early start in creativity with my mother, grandmother and aunt. I think these are God-given talents, and I thank God everyday for my talents. For me, it’s solace and peace.” She also enjoys seeing her customers’ eyes light up when she gives them their finished basket. “I really enjoy the excitement they have. Some don’t believe I did it.”
So far, Gill has produced “probably 150” baskets, with one taking as long as 70 hours to complete. “The teacher had to be there the whole time. It’s very involved and very beautiful,” she said. “It’s like a market basket, but I don’t take it to the market. It has a braided handle with color. It was truly a ‘labor of love.’ One thing about basket weaving is that it teaches you to be patient.”
Gill won second place in two basket weaving contests at Plymouth Reed & Cane Supply in Plymouth. She designed the patterns for her winning entries.
Gill, who accepts custom orders, will have a collection of her basket creations available at the Town Peddler (35323 Plymouth) in Livonia, beginning Sept. 1, just in time for early holiday shopping.
Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.
Contact Ethel M. Gill at (313) 530-5393 or email@example.com.
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