A Creel-y Useful BasketApr 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
They’re seen in illustrations at least as far back as the Middle Ages, and they’re still being used today. They’re sometimes collected as objects of beauty, but are so functional you can’t help but fill them up and carry them around. They’re creels, originally lidded baskets worn on a shoulder strap by fishermen, intended to keep the catch fresh in watery confinement while the fishing proceeds. They’re also useful as a place to stow fishing flies, leaders, and small tools. Their bulbous organic shape is pleasing to the eye. The back is usually slightly curved inward to fit against the body, which may be partly why some women carry them as purses. Traditionally the lid has a slot, allowing the insertion of fish without having to open the latch.
Creels are now made of durable fabric, leather, and plastics but they were, in days past, woven of willow, wood splint, or reed. Those days are back. On April 30 and May 1, basket weaver Barbara Betrus is teaching a “Make a Fishing Creel” class at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum. While the class of six might begin knowing little of basketmaking, they will emerge at the end of the class, finished creel in hand, ready for many seasons of fishing or simply admiring the results of a new skill.
Nancy Wightman, at the FLBM, thinks the creel class is a good fit.
“We celebrate boating history and boat building,” she says. “The iconic boats of the Finger Lakes were the rowboats and fishing boats, also called trout boats.” The Finger Lakes, of course, are prime territory for lake fishing, particularly for those in search of trout, bass, and landlocked salmon.
Many years ago, Barbara was invited to take a basketmaking class with her sister. She recalls loving the time with her sister, although not the class itself. But later, while teaching in a wide-ranging series of public school settings in the Adirondacks, Barbara found an inspiring mentor in Bill Smith. She was intrigued enough to try it again. Bill is a renowned storyteller and musician whose narratives of resilience and survival are part of his dedication to preserving traditional arts. Hailing from Colton, New York, Bill learned basketmaking from his mother, who in turn had learned from Native Americans who were frequent guests in their home. From Bill, Barbara learned to weave baskets out of ash splints, but the predations of the invasive emerald ash borer have forced many basket makers, Barbara included, to turn to reed.
She went on to take more classes, including a creel class with a pattern developed by Lisa Nortz, daughter of well-known silversmiths Butch and Pat Bramhall. “Lisa and Bill were amazing instructors and, from them, I learned I could do it,” Barbara says. It’s Lisa’s pattern Barbara is teaching at FLBM this spring
“I originally started making it because I’d seen people using them,” says Lisa, who’s from the Adirondacks. “A lot of creels were patterned after the Adirondack pack basket from a long time ago. It’s so indigenous to this region of New York.” Traditional Adirondack pack baskets are pot-bellied rather than straight-sided. Lisa weaves miniature pack basket necklaces out of sterling and fine silver. They may be seen at silverbenchjewelry.com.
Lisa says she’s pleased Barbara is teaching her pattern. “She does beautiful work and she’s taught others the pleasure of weaving baskets. And that’s wonderful,” Lisa says.
The two-day basket weaving class—six hours each day—begins with reeds thoroughly soaked in warm water to make them pliable. The weaving starts flat, then is shaped into a vessel as it progresses.
“Whenever you make any sort of basket, you have to let it sit overnight and dry. Then you re-wet it the next day so you can pack it down,” Barbara explains. The woven-together stakes used in the flat part of the weaving have to be “upset”—or turned upright to shape the sides of the basket. This is a tricky step, and can be frustrating for beginners, as Barbara discovered during her first foray into basketmaking.
What she ultimately took away from that first class was that a good instructor helps students deal with any discouragement. “You’ll definitely hit some bumps in the road,” but adds there is “always a way to go over it.” For this and other fine points of basketmaking, there’s no substitute for a real-time instructor who can help with troubleshooting, tools, techniques, and maybe a quiet “be kind” mantra when the beginning weaver wants to throw things.
When the basket is finished, students will turn them upside down and trace the top opening. Then the museum’s woodworkers will shape a wooden top specific to each basket.
“Everybody’s basket is not the same, so you can’t have the wooden top made ahead of time.” Barbara says. “It’s very individual.”
The creels are finished with leather straps and a latch. The top—with or without a fish slot, as the maker prefers—is attached and the creel is done. You can line your creation with moss to receive a fish, display it if you’re a catch-and-release kind of fisherperson, or perhaps let it be useful as a container for something else. Whatever purpose they find for their creel, Barbara wants her students to enjoy the project. She also hopes some will continue making baskets.
“I don’t want the art of weaving to be lost,” she says, adding, “I’m hoping to be the teacher like the good ones I’ve had, to pass the knowledge along.”
Find more information or register for the class at flbm.org, call (607) 569-2222, or visit the museum at 8231 Pleasant Valley Road in Hammondsport.