David Chambers: Pine Needle Baskets

I first heard about pine needle baskets in the late 70’s when my sister-in-law was taking some classes.  The idea of making something by hand using natural materials was very interesting but it never occurred to me to try it myself.  I attended college and received a degree in Mechanical Engineering, got married, and began a career in Aerospace.  It wasn’t until 2002, while walking through the crafts area at the Evergreen State Fair that I met Sarah Anderson.  She was demonstrating how to coil pine needle baskets.  I had been looking for a new hobby and thought I would give this a try.

That night, I purchased Jeannie McFarland’s book “Pine Needle Raffia Basketry” from the internet, which came with a kit to make a small basket.  That basket taught me the basics and started me to think about all the possibilities of shape, size and patterns. But I didn’t want to copy baskets that others had made. I wanted to make baskets that were different.

Then I saw pictures of Lee Sipe’s baskets and was awestruck by how precise, complicated and elegant they are.  That’s when I realized I could use my engineering skills to make baskets.  By applying these skills I thought I could make baskets that would be different and go beyond what I had seen others create.  This was a way I could explore what was possible and try to push the boundaries of pine needle basketry.

All my basket projects begin with sketching until I find some feature or concept that I want to pursue. That’s when the engineering starts.  I make scale drawings and do calculations to work out the details.  It usually takes me hundreds of hours to coil a basket so I want to work out the technical issues before I begin.  People comment on my approach as too scientific, but to me it’s fun.  My engineering background helps me devise construction methods and designs that are different from typical pine needle baskets although I strive to preserve the look of the original craft.  By using traditional materials and techniques but in non-traditional ways I think this craft can take on new dimensions that are both elegant and unexpected.

My designs tend to have an Art Deco appearance. It is not intentional but most likely a product of my approach. I do enjoy the mechanical feel of Art Deco with its geometric shapes, repeating patterns and sharp lines.  The contrast of this mechanical feel with natural materials is very appealing to me.

I use long leaf pine needles that I get from Teri Thompson in Florida.  They are much longer than what grows here in the Northwest and make coiling easier. When I started, I used raffia as the binder for stitching but have since moved on to waxed linen.  Waxed linen requires less preparation, is more consistent, and makes stronger baskets.

I only coil for a couple hours a night, after work.  This is a hobby and I don’t want it to feel like a job – I already have one of those.  I’m not trying to make money at this so I have the freedom to take my time and experiment with new concepts and techniques.  I only finish about one basket a year.

My art education consists of the mandatory classes I took in high school.  But I really enjoyed those classes and have always tried to put an artistic touch on anything I make.  Since I started making baskets I have taken several basket classes with different kinds of weaving.  I’m impressed with the incredible variety of techniques. Afterwards, I’m always trying to figure out how to apply what I learned in my next pine needle basket.

When I finish a basket I’m usually ready for the break. That’s when I enjoy my other interest of woodcarving.  I take the same patience, technical approach to wood working as I do with my baskets.  I don’t care for power tools but enjoy the challenge of creating the same precision by hand.  By the time I finish a wood project I’ve thought of another pine needle basket to pursue and the cycle repeats.

Early on Sarah Anderson encouraged me to enter my baskets in the local fairs. They won some ribbons, which was wonderful, but the most important thing were the judges’ comments.  They helped me focus on where my basket skills were lacking.  My baskets got better ribbons each year until I won Grand Champion. In 2010 I received the Handweavers Guild of America Award for my basket Shirohako.  After that it was suggested I enter juried art shows including the NBO’s “All Things Considered VI.”  It is exciting being accepted into shows with other basket artists whose work I have admired for so long.

I am a member of three basket groups. The on-line group The Pine Needle Group at pineneedlegroup.com started by Pamela Zimmerman, and the Northwest Basket Weavers Vi Phillips Guild based in the Seattle area, and the NBO.  Joining these groups has opened up the world of baskets to me.  Before then it was just me coiling and asking my wife for her opinion. Now I have a vast group of people who I can ask questions and learn new techniques.  I get inspiration though topics that pop-up during conversations.  I now have a connection with people that think “baskets” just like me.

Recently I’ve been making baskets that I call experiments.  I use rope instead of pine needles to study shapes and stitch patterns to see what’s possible and if they can be done with pine needles.  Rope is much quicker and I don’t use my precious supply of long pine needles.  I’ve been getting positive feedback on these baskets so maybe this is something I will explore for a while.

My approach to art is probably not typical.  Most people would not be as technical and take as long to create a single basket.  But, I have no deadlines and I’m trying new things as I go.  In the end I hope my work is enjoyable and inspires others to explore what’s possible and push the boundaries.