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A folded bark basket is similar to those created in a spontaneous fashion by pioneers to carry wild berries back home. The bark basket starts with a rectangular piece of tree bark. The maker scores the center with two curved arcs, similar to a cat-eye or elongated football shape. This step forms a bottom for the basket, so that it folds up similar to a box that holds fast-food French fries. The bark basket maker then laces the sides, creates a band to stabilize the top edge and adds a handle or carrying strap.
In pioneer days, the bark basket was considered disposable, a temporary measure to carry berries home. The pioneer could make the basket quickly. In primitive times, bark baskets were likely laced by using an awl made of bone, wood or antler as a needle. The inner bark of a hickory tree was sometimes used for the laces of a bark basket.
Current day basket makers also use this method to create durable backpacks and other containers, such as wastebaskets or laundry hampers. The best time of year to remove bark from the tree is spring or early summer, as this is when the bark most easily separates from the wood. The bark is most flexible immediately after removal, so a bark basket maker should have all supplies handy.
Poplar, willow, ash, tulip and various conifer trees are used for making bark baskets. When taking a strip of bark to make a basket, the tree survives as long as the strip does not encompass the entire circumference of the trunk. A bark basket will become sturdier and lighter in weight as it ages.
People are often surprised to learn that not all baskets are woven. Bark baskets are now a rare collectible piece of history. Because they were considered disposable, not many exist. Over the years, many of those who learned to make bark baskets from their elders have passed on, and the basket-making skill has become rare.
Some historians chronicle the techniques and stories of the craft and have discovered that the bark basket is often overlooked by museums and folklorists. Now, these historians find, measure, study and document the old baskets. Pioneers also crafted other items, such as huts, houses, canoes and boats, from bark over the years.