Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Tiskit, a Tasket, a Strong Shaker Basket

QUESTION: My great grandmother passed down a rectangular basket that, according to family legend, she purchased up country from a Shaker woman. The basket is in good condition and has been in our family for years. How can I tell it’s a Shaker basket?

ANSWER: Shaker baskets were one of the first American "signature"baskets—from a known maker or  group of basketmakers—to come onto the antique market. A combination of style, materials, weaving technique, rims and handles alert collectors to authentic Shaker baskets. But it takes a trained eye to separate a $10,000 Shaker basket from similar styles of Native American and country baskets valued in the $300–500 range. What isn’t widely known is that the Shakers sometimes bought locally made baskets for utilitarian use which has led to the misidentification of many Shaker baskets.

The Shakers designed each of their baskets for a particular task. For those meant to be used indoors, they labeled them for their use or where they intended to store them. For example, rectangular baskets stored efficiently on shelves without wasted space, so the Shakers created them to use to store folded laundry. They often labeled the basket for the room and shelf on which they placed it. The material used to construct this type of basket would be of the same pounded ash wood but lighter in weight, again pointing to the efficiency of the Shaker design. They places wet laundry, however, in stronger round baskets made with heavier pounded ash to support the extra weight. The style they chose for this basket was fluted rather than cylindrical, making it easier to stack the empty baskets after they finished with the laundry.

Despite the variety of utility baskets, the Shakers were most famous for baskets that they made to be sold. They referred to these baskets, made mostly for aesthetic appeal, as "fancy" baskets, which they sold as souvenirs to wealthy travelers at railroad stops and in the gift shops of grand hotels throughout the United States and England during the late 19th century. The Shakers named these fancy baskets for their style rather than their intended use. For example, when a person turns over a "cat-head" basket, the bottom resembles the shape of a cat's head.

Since the Shakers produced many of their baskets at their more numerous communities  in New York and New England, they used local materials. They preferred pounded splint from black ash trees for the horizontal material because it had stronger fibers and was more pliable to work with, as well as for uprights supports. Shaker craftsmen bent and drawknifed local hardwoods for handles and rims. Weavers wove the baskets with a continuous pattern that required an odd number of uprights. But the Shaker's need for uniformity and precision in design of their fancy baskets made it impossible for them to consider using an odd number. So Shaker fancy baskets have an even number of uprights.

Once a particular type of basket had been properly designed, it would always remain the same. Although styles varied from community to community, there was always uniformity within any one community. To achieve this, the Shakers used identical molds, allowing for basket components to be made by different hands and still fit together precisely. One person never made an entire basket. Instead, they used an assembly line approach.

Fancy basket styles can be found in various conditions for $1,500 to more than $10,000 on the open market, and the working styles are sometimes seen, although rarely, for less than $3,000 if in fair condition. Collectors will pay well over $10,000 for a documented good-condition working basket. So it pays to have a potentially Shaker basket appraised by someone who is an expert in them.

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