Decorated Birch Bark Baskets
Have you ever seen a trillium? It’s a beautiful spring wild flower that grows in the woods in Wisconsin. This photo shows a birch bark basket that Christine made, decorated with the image of a trillium. Click on the talk bubble to hear Christine tell you about more about it.
“What I like to do is mostly floral designs. A trillium, especially, is a flower that is very abundant in our woods. And it comes out in the spring white and then turns pink. And then, before it dies, it’s a purple color. It’s one of my favorite flowers, because it makes me really happy that I made it through the winter. I’m really happy to see it in the spring. It’s just thick, that white carpeting in the woods. It also means that pretty soon I’ll be able to go get birch bark. They say that when the wild roses are in bloom, you can, that’s the time that birch is ready to come off the tree.”
Christine uses the flowers and plants to know when it’s the right season to peel birch bark off the tree. The bark has a good leathery texture in June when the wild rose is blooming. Christine slices the bark and it pops right off. She knows how to harvest it so that the tree does not die and continues to grow.
Christine estimates that she has made one thousand baskets with the trillium design during her lifetime, and that’s not all. She has also made many baskets with other designs, like roses, tepees, hearts and geometric designs.
Before you read how Christine makes her baskets, you might like to watch this video clip. The video shows Christine at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1998. She is telling people about how she makes her baskets. You can read along by clicking here.
After Christine has gathered all the birch bark she needs, she starts cutting it into pieces for her basket. She cuts two circles and a few rectangular strips. The circles are for the top and bottom of the basket, and the strips are for the sides. Then, she stitches the parts of the basket together.
Christine has to prepare other materials too. Christine uses porcupine quills to decorate her baskets. There are a lot of porcupines that live in the woods in Marathon County. How does Christine get their quills? Listen to her explain. You can read along by clicking here.
After she boils the quills clean, Christine might dye them different colors. She has used a natural dye called bloodroot to make a yellow color. Christine uses store-bought dyes too because they make brighter colors. Sometimes Christine uses quills in their natural colors, white with brown on the ends.
Now that Christine has prepared the birch bark and quills, it's time to decorate! Christine pokes a hole in the top of the basket with an awl and pushes a quill through the hole. She has to use a thick leather thimble to push the needle through the tough birch bark. She chooses quills that are the right color and size for the pattern she wants to make.
After Christine completes her design with the quills, she cuts out another circle of birch bark for the lining. The lining covers the underside of her quill design, so the inside of her basket is smooth and only birch bark shows. Finally, she uses sweetgrass to decorate the edges of some of her baskets. Christine knows a few places in the woods near her home where the plant known as “sweetgrass” grows. The above photo shows a basket with sweetgrass edges.
Sometimes Christine will be so determined to finish a basket that she will work on it all night until she finishes it around six in the morning!
“What I like to do is just make baskets.”
– Christine Okerlund