Carrying on Traditions
Alice Ogden has a national following for the baskets she makes from black-ash trees harvested near her Salisbury home.
Anywhere in the world where you find plants, you will find baskets. People have been using plant material to make baskets for tens of thousands of years—archaeologists have discovered baskets made during the Stone Age in dry climates (such as in Egypt and Peru) as well as in extremely humid conditions (such as the beat bogs of northern Europe). With plant material so readily available, people across cultures have woven containers to store and serve food, catch fish, carry heavy loads and even strain tea. Depending on what grows where, baskets are made from different plants—raffia from palm leaves in tropical zones, grasses in savanna regions, bamboo in Asia, willow in North America. Each basket represents a connection to the place it was made.
Basket making is a slow process. Once materials are harvested and dried, the weaving takes time, talent and patience.
In the United States, handmade baskets were part of daily life until the middle of the twentieth century, when synthetic materials began to extinguish the craft of basket weaving. But the 1960s and ’70s saw a revival of that and other crafts.
Alice Ogden found her way to basket making in the early 1980s, and her exquisite black-ash baskets include hand-carved white-oak handles and rims. Her baskets range in size from bushel baskets to nesting sets (perfect for holding linens and towels) to lidded baskets (once used to store feathers for making pillows and now perfect containers for jewelry) and tiny baskets for Christmas ornaments. Ogden’s baskets are prized by collectors throughout the country, and most of her orders take several months to complete.
New Hampshire Home [NHH]: Why do you use black ash for your baskets?
Alice Ogden [AO]: Black ash’s wood fibers are more dense, so they make a nicer quality basket. I find white ash to be
a little more brittle, but some people like it. Also, we have lots of access to black ash.
NHH: Where do you find black-ash trees?
AO: Black ash usually grows in swampy areas in New Hampshire. But not every tree is usable—I can find a swamp full of black-ash trees but only one of those is usable because it is straight. Sometimes a friend or family member finds the trees for me. Lately, we’ve cut trees in the towns of Salisbury, Weare and Littleton.
NHH: What happens next?
AO: These trees don’t look big until you try to move them! Their average diameter is twelve to fifteen inches, and their ages vary between fifty and seventy-five years. The trees I just found were fast-growing trees, as the homeowners had kept the trees groomed and growing in an open area. They all had heavy growth rings. If a tree grows fast, its growth rings are thick. If it grew slowly, its rings are thin.
NHH: What does that mean?
AO: Following the grain of the wood, the growth rings need to be peeled off, which is why a tree needs to be straight. My husband—Brad Weyant, who’s a logger—cuts the tree, and we drag out the butt portion of the tree, which is about ten feet in length. We start at one end, peeling a two-inch section that is ten-feet long. We continue peeling the growth rings two-inch section by two-inch section, going around the log until there’s no more usable material left.
In my earlier days, we’d pound the log with a mallet and it would take forty hours to get the growth rings off. There’s sap between the growth rings and the pounding breaks the bond between the sap and wood. Now my husband has a machine he built that does this job. That saves a lot of wear and tear on the body, but this part is still a lot of work.
NHH: Then what?
AO: The thinner wood splints are hung up or piled up to dry. The splints are sorted by thickness and then stored until they’re needed for a project. For example, the bushel baskets I made last summer [see photo on page XX] need a heavier splint to hold a heavier weight and maintain the basket’s shape. If the basket is more delicate, like the
Christmas ornaments, I use a much finer splint that came from a slower growing growth ring.
NHH: How do you maintain consistency with the sizes and shapes of your baskets?
AO: I have antique forms for my bushel and bushel-and-a-half baskets. Most of my other baskets are also woven over wooden molds. Some of these I make myself, and others are made by skilled wood turners.
NHH: How long does it take to make a basket?
AO: After it is ordered, it can take several months to make a basket, depending on the time of year. But if the tree is harvested, the splints are ready and I have white oak for the rim and handles, it takes about a week to weave and put together a bushel basket. Most of the baskets I make are for orders, as I just don’t have time to make baskets for display in my studio. However, I usually have a few on hand to purchase at any given time.
NHH: What’s the most important part of the process?
AO: Black ash is a strong, dense wood and needs to be wet so it’s pliable enough to weave. After it is woven and before I can finish it with rims and handles, I have to make sure the basket is good and dry. On a sunny summer day, I’ll put the basket in the truck with the windows up so it dries. Depending on the temperature, it could dry in as little as thirty minutes. Or, in cooler weather, I’ll place the basket near the woodstove until it dries.
NHH: Every year, you make a different holiday ornament. What did you make this year?
AO: In 2013, I made a little cheese basket for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen Annual Christmas ornament. Because I made so many big bushel baskets in 2019, I decided to do a mini bushel basket last Christmas. Its opening was two inches, a little wider than a walnut. People who have bought ornaments in the past buy them online—some of my customers have been buying for more than twenty years. I make about seventy-five ornaments per season and do them throughout the year. It’s nice to sit down and do them, as they don’t take as much space to make as my larger pieces. I’ll make about four ornaments at a time, and it will take a week to finish them.
NHH: How did you get into basket making?
AO: When the “back to the land” movement was going on about forty years ago, I decided to leave home in Webster and go to Toronto, Ontario, to take a two-week cloth-weaving workshop. But before that, I had always helped my mother cane chairs. She was a stay-at-home mother and a big influence on me—we always made Christmas gifts and other things with natural materials.
When I came back from Toronto, I bought a sixty-inch loom and made ponchos, bedspreads and curtains. But I didn’t like being inside all day. I like working outside, and making baskets was a way I could do that and have a business. I had always loved baskets and used them to store things once I moved away from home. When I was nineteen, and with the help of my mother, I bought an 1823 schoolhouse in Henniker that became my studio—I also lived in it for years. Twenty-six years ago, I moved to Salisbury, and two of my three children were born in this house.
NHH: What do you like to do when you’re not making baskets?
AO: I love to garden and enjoy rug hooking. I also give workshops around the country, which I enjoy a lot. Teaching gets me out and networking, which is good for life-work balance. But I never tire of making baskets and still enjoy making them after forty years—I know that because I still get so excited when I find good trees!