Collectible Baskets That Will Last a Lifetime
On a tour of Martha's farm in Bedford, look to the grove of bald cypress trees and you will see a small outbuilding dedicated to housing her most prized collection: baskets. The "basket house"—as it has been dubbed, holds her favorite rarities including a large, shallow Nantucket-style tray by Michael Kane, rounded white ash baskets by the late Benjamin Higgens of the Basket Shop in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, and the Maine "packbasket" by basketmaker Stephen Zeh. "Over the years, I've collected a number of them from auctions and tag sales," Martha says, "or from the talented basket-making artisans themselves."
In New England, baskets of a bygone era were made from ash, since this was a wood common to the region—though examples can be found also in hickory, maple, and willow. These baskets made from the middle of the 19th through the early part of the 20th century in New England are highly sought after today by collectors like Martha.
From wicker to metal wire, seagrass to rattan, baskets' natural materials bring a rich palette and subtle texture to any setting, and their familiar shapes have a rustic charm—and, of course, an innate utility. They tout garden vegetables and loads of laundry, decorated eggs on Easter, spring flowers for May Day, and serve as fruitful cornucopias during Thanksgiving. For special occasions and holidays, baskets of every size and shape stand in for place settings to centerpieces, and giftable favors. Many of our favorites here are heirlooms made to last. So, why not take from Martha, and start your own collection today?
Master basket weaver Alice Ogden doesn't buy materials to fashion her heirloom-quality vessels. "Everything I make began with green leaves on it," she explains. She searches local swamps for a fast-growing black ash to fell and haul home. Then the self-taught artisan pounds the trunk with a mallet and peels away layers to create splints, before relaxing into the rhythm of her craft. Ogden's works embrace form as much as function: Nested sets hold towels and throws; minis with attached lids (a style once used to store feathers for making pillows) keep jewelry and mementos ensconced. And exquisite acorns and open-weave tubs simply inspire awe in the beholder.
Alice Ogden Baskets, from $195 each, aliceogden.com
Peterboro Basket Company
Peterboro Basket Company isn't shy about its age. Smack-dab in the center of its brass labels is an embossed "1854," the year the New Hampshire business was founded. As one of the few remaining American basket companies, it has every reason to trumpet its longevity. For 160 years, Peterboro has produced classic woven containers, all made from the hardwood trees of New England. "We use Appalachian white ash now. It's the best, the same wood that's used in baseball bats and hammer handles," says managing partner Wayne Dodds. Every part of the process happens under one roof: Raw materials come in one end of Peterboro's 40,000-square-foot factory, and heirloom-quality wares come out the other. "Each piece is woven by hand. Each nail is individually put in place," says Dodds. "Our baskets are truly handcrafted." There are no shortcuts at Peterboro. Brass nails, hammered in by hand, are used because they don't rust. Strips of wood are sent into a steam cooker to make them more pliable for weaving. Baskets are dip-stained rather than sprayed. These extra-mile efforts are more than worth it: The beautifully constructed products last a lifetime.
Peterboro Basket Company Baskets, in Cherry, from $37 each, peterborobasket.com
For Heather Dalrymple, her baskets designs come from simply solving everyday storage issues—whether it's a carrier for kindling, a drawstring-topped tote for sewing notions, or a hamper for towels (as pictured here). She taught basket weaving classes and sold her baskets to art centers and boutiques, but her designs really took off when she crafted the original peanut basket (for, as one would guess, storing and shelling peanuts). All of her baskets are handwoven using natural weaving materials like rattan, white ash, and cherry or ate (pronounced "ah-tay") which is a vine that grows native to Bali.
Hancock Bali Hamper, $270, hancockbaskets.com
Deborah Gabriel Brooks grew up in a basketmaking family of many generations—watching her mother, grandmother, and aunts weave the splint and sweetgrass baskets that have become a highly acclaimed traditional art for the Passamaquoddy tribe. The tall vintage basket pictured in back, which happens to be one of Martha's, was woven by such an Native American Wabanaki basketmaker in Maine.
Sweetgrass Basketry Work Basket, price upon request, sweetgrassbasketry.org
For more than 30 years, Stephen Zeh has been hand-weaving baskets; each can take several weeks from start to finish. First, he tromps through the woods near his home in rural Maine, looking for the perfect brown ash tree, which he then fells himself. He scrapes the wood into malleable strips known as splints, and enlaces those splints into elegant but hardworking baskets, like the ones here. Zeh is largely self-taught, but he takes inspiration from local trappers, the Shakers, and the Penobscot Indians.
Stephen Zeh Nesting Set of Five Swing Handle Baskets, price upon request, stephenzeh.com
Olli Ella—co-founded by sisters Chloe and Olivia Brookman—was named in combination of their first and middle names. And this family-first mindset inspires the "mama and me" approach taken to their collection of housewares. They made their mark with a little wheeled trolley called the Luggy, which is now highly sought after in both adult and kiddie size. They use natural materials sourced sustainably with a focus is on craftsmanship and ethical production, inspiring the spirit of play in generations to come.
Olli Ella Big Luggy, $139, us.olliella.com