This Month in History: A lost art: making pine needle baskets and trays
By TIM KNOX
Special to The Eagle
One of the more interesting displays in the museum is the pine needle baskets and trays. Visitors are amazed by how precise and elegant these items are.
A pine needle is the leaf off the pine tree. The pine trees on the island are longleaf yellow pine and the slash pine.
The technique of creating crafts from pine needles is called coiling. It is one of the oldest forms of basket weaving in the world.
The Seminoles were needle basket weavers. They would use their baskets to carry and store goods in. Their baskets were woven so tightly they would even hold water. The Seminoles utilized a sea shell as a sewing needle to sew bundles of pine needles together with sisal or swamp grass.
During the winter seasons of the 1960s, the Hobby and Pine Needle Club met weekly in Matlacha. Class participation often exceeded 100 people. The final class of the 1961 season was attended by 167 enthusiasts. The popularity of the craft was due in part to the hobby being inexpensive. here were plenty of pine trees around for material.
If green needles picked from trees are dried in absolute darkness they will be a beautiful soft green color. The tone will vary according to the amount of light the needles are exposed to while drying. Some weavers preferred to work with pine needles that were freshly fallen from the trees. The mature needles fall from the pine trees in early autumn. These pine needles have a hardened surface, are glossy in appearance and radiate beautiful hues of brown.
This week I acquired a beautiful pine needle bowl for my collection. The artist explained how she would pick up the pine needles from the ground and take them home and wash them of any dirt. The needles would then be spread upon newspaper to dry. Next she grouped them in bundles and secured them with a rubber band. Finally she stored them in a paper bag for a whole year. She explained that this process would make the needles pliable and easy to work with.
Her tools included the end tube of an ink pen. This would hold the pine needles together in a small bundle while working with them. Raffia was utilized to tie the bundles together. She utilized a darning needle to sew the raffia stitches. A pair of sharp scissors was essential, of course.
A small disc of material such as leather was used as the base for my bowl. A bundle of pine needles approximate 12 inches in length was coiled around this disc and secured to it with the decorative stitches of raffia. Another bundle of needles was coiled around that and secured. This was continued until the desired size and shape was achieved.
Sadly pine needle art is another example of an early American craft being lost to time. The artist told me it can take up to 20 hours just to create a small bowl. Today pine needle baskets and trays are considered works of art and you are most likely to see them in museums or collections or at garage sales.
A special thank you to Shirley of a Flamingo Bay rummage sale for the bowl and your story.
For more history of Pine Island, visit the Museum of the Islands, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m.
The museum is conveniently located next to the Pine Island Library at 5728 Sesame Drive off Stringfellow Road. Call 239-283-1525.
Tim Knox is museum historian at the Museum of the Islands.