Billy Ray Sims Basketmaker

Prepping for Basket Class at Arrowmont

Preparing all the materials for fish creel baskets and others to be made of white oak and black ash for Arrowmont Craft School, TN, March 26-29.

Lots of basket parts underway in the studio — molds, lids, leather, prototype of fish creel basket planned for upcoming three-day class at Arrowmont. Lots of hardwood splint to go!

Bulrush & White Oak

Completed for the Contemporary Greenwood exhibit, Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, Rockport, Maine , January 2020

11″ W x 3″ H
Bulrush coils bound with white oak splint. Lid is cross section of white oak tree.

Essex Museum Clam Basket

13 1/2” x  20″ x 16 3/4”

White oak on galvanized wire

The Essex Shipbuilding Museum (MA) has created a project to replicate a vintage clamming skiff and clam harvest basket. The basket part of the project calls for reproducing one of the original baskets from the area and teaching several classes for the community.

The new basket (shown above) is made with #12 gauge galvanized wire woven with white oak from near the museum.

Here’s an article, Reviving a Clamming Tradition, regarding the project in the Gloucester Daily Times. 

 

Original white oak clam basket from Essex

Appalachian Egg Basket

egg

11″ x 14″ x 10″

Carved, whittled, woven, rib work construction; hand-split white oak

This basket is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a gift from Martha G. Ware and Steven R. Cole.

It’s based on an Appalachian style known as a Gizzard basket that allows you to carry eggs and other fragile goods safely over the back of a horse to market, or riding snugly against your hip when walking. The round-ribbed and lobed shape was challenging and a process that involved many hours of splitting, scraping, carving, and weaving splits.

Potato Basket & Mini-Spud

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White oak potato baskets carved and whittled rims and ribs, weavers are white oak splits
10″W x 4″H


A challenging commission, shown in the foreground, came from a client who wanted a version of the potato basket you can read more about below.

But when I informed her how large the original basket is —23″-wide— she asked for something a little smaller. Hence, the petite outcome.

Tennessee Feather Basket

12″w x 22″h

While visiting the Museum of Appalachia, Norris, TN, and admiring John Rice Irwin’s incomparable collection of handmade Appalachian baskets, I was offered the chance to purchase one from his private collection. My eyes were immediately drawn to a large urn-shaped basket with a simple note inside that read, ” Feather basket from Upper E. Tenn. bought at auction by E.L. Martin, Fall 1990.”

DSCF1776 My heart and pocketbook went out the window, and I brought the old basket home with me.

The original is shown at left, and my take on it, which looks more like a ginger jar, is above and details of the top and bottom below.

Thanks to John Rice for his pioneering, inspiring work, and research and preservation of the iconic Appalachian crafts.

Every October, the museum hosts it Tennessee Fall Homecoming. People from around the world attend for the old-time music performances, crafts, and the kind of food upon which I was raised and relish.

I’ve enjoyed demonstrating basket making at the festival and hope to join the fun again soon.

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Alabama Corn Basket

white oak field basket14″ H x 18″ W

This field basket, modeled after one by Vonnie Miller, was quickly made at an annual  gathering of white oak basket makers at Mary Ann and Bill Smith’s home in McCalla, AL. About 10 enthusiasts came together to sit under the shade trees of the Smith’s for two days last April. We made baskets, shared stories, techniques, tools and tips.

Painted Lady

egg basket

Gizzard Basket

12″ x 12″ x 10 1/2″

Hand-split white oak and reed; milk paint, varnish

The handle, hoop, wrap and initial woven splits are white oak. The ribs and bulk of weaving are reed. A gift for a friend who needed a basket in her collection that sits way up high on a shelf and says, “Come on up and see me sometime.”

White Oak Market Basket

market basket

6 1/2″ x 10″ x 7 1/2″

I’ve enjoyed the privilege of working before with Leona Waddell, a wonderful master basketmaker in Cecilia, KY, but this one was something special. It’s a small market basket, similar to larger versions Leona made some 50 years ago. Most of the white oak for it came from my property, but Leona pulled a few heartwood splits from her stash to add contrast to the weaving, and the result is what she judged to be “a cute little basket.”

Leona Waddell with market basket

I split out the uprights and whittled the handle before we started. Then we worked for the better part of two days to weave the basket.

As always, I learned more of the finer points of basketry from Leona. Mostly, we just enjoyed being together to catch up on what life has woven of us since we last visited.

white oak market basketBest of all, Leona sent me home with a tin full of homemade fudge. On the long drive back to Alabama, I savored the treats and thought about how deeply I appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with such a great artisan.

It’s All in the De “tails”

10″ x 10″ x 48″

Here’s a white oak fish trap that was a boatload of fun to make. It’s a replica, with exception of carved heads and tails, of a trap made by old-time South Carolina basket weaver Elbert Brown that is part of the McKissick collection.

Elbert Brown Elbert Brown

Thanks to the great staff at the McKissick in Columbia, SC for letting me closely study their assortment of fish traps.

(Click on any photo to enlarge image.)

Lessons from the Past

potatoPotato Basket

21″ x 21″ x 9″

Rib-work construction; hand-split white oak

There are few basket makers who work with white oak.  It’s labor intensive—this basket required hand splitting the good part of two small oak trees—and most of those with the know-how are getting on in years.

Although I’ve been blessed to learn from several master basket makers, the teacher for this basket died long ago.  It’s an interpretation of a Pennsylvania field basket likely made in the late 19th century.  As I learned by trial and error how to carve, whittle and bend the big ribs of the basket you see here, I marveled at evidence of how the original was created by sure and confident hands.  And I felt perhaps some old boy was looking down on me from above, and smiling as I carried forward lessons from his work.

White Oak Fish Creel

creelWhite Oak Creel

8″x12″x6″

Split-work construction; white oak weaving and quarter-sawn oak lid; saddle leather strap

The basket shown is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a gift of Martha G. Ware and Steven R. Cole.

CreelIt’s made on a mold to maintain a perfect shape and will make a great complement to a fine bamboo fly rod. Or, as my cycling friends were keen to suggest, it makes a primo handlebar basket (without the lid).This is a popular basket that will make a wonderful and durable heirloom.

Sweetgrass Rice Fanner

fanner2 1/4″ x 16″ x 16″

Coiled and sewn construction; sweetgrass, bulrush, palmetto

Some 15 years ago, I lived on an old wooden sailboat on the Stono River just south of Charleston, SC. Newly divorced and in need of healing, I sought out ways to connect with interesting people in this quietly beautiful and soulful place. And so I took up surfing, for which I never gained any proficiency, and sweetgrass basket making. scan0323_2

When I first arrived at the community center where basket maker Harriet Brown taught classes, mostly to suburban women, she seemed to hardly notice. Surely she thought I was in the wrong class or wouldn’t have the aptitude, since weaving with sweetgrass takes patience, a good eye, and nimble fingers. My first lopsided basket appeared to prove her right!

But I kept coming back, and coming back, and eventually Harriett took me seriously. She shared not only the rules of good basketry (“You’s got to feed the baby (row) to keep it growing steady”), but also stories of her own amazing life and that of her family, some of whom had woven baskets as slaves at the nearby Boone Hall Plantation in the 19th century. (The basket shown above is a decorative version of those originally used to winnow rice.)

Over the ensuing years, Harriet and I became very close, even after I moved away and began life in a new place. Sewing numerous baskets by her side, with her gentle encouragement and close scrutiny, I believe I mended my frayed heart and dreams, row upon row.cobra

Black Ash Pack Baskets

pack

22″ x 13″ x 9″

Woven, split-work construction; hand-split black ash and white oak, saddle leather straps

Woven from New Hampshire black ash with white oak rim and handle, this basket was a fun take on the traditional New England pack basket. It has a bit of flare from the belly to the rim that you typically don’t see in these baskets, but I wanted to give it a more sculpted shape.

New England black ash is the Lexus of split wood basket materials, as opposed to the Mac truck, contrary nature of Southern white oak with which I typically wrangle.

img_03011Special thanks to Jack Leadley (shown left) for tutoring me on his method of creating and attaching straps to the pack. Jack is an Adirondak renaissance woodsman who’s likely busy right now in his sugar shack making maple syrup.

Below is a much larger pack basket I made while working with renowned basket maker John McGuire.


Berry Basket