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Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 13: Basketry

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While those of us in the conservation department grapple with the many challenges facing our society, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. We understand that like us, many of you may be turning to your family treasures for comfort during these trying times. Thus, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections and assure you that we are here to support you and the collections that you hold dear. 

Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. This week’s post focuses on preserving basketry collections and was written by rising second-year Textile Major and Organic Objects Minor Bellie Camp.

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Baskets are made across the globe and vary greatly. (Image courtesy of Bellie Camp.)

Basketry 

Baskets are dear to my heart. Both my mother and grandma collect them, and they are beloved art pieces and utilitarian objects in all of our homes. Found across the globe and throughout millennia, baskets are typically made of plant fibers or wood splints (although any flexible material can be used). They can be priceless works of art or simply an attractive object used to hold your magazines or keys. Due to their complexity and diversity, baskets pose many preservation issues. However, the following are four of the most common issues encountered in the conservation of baskets and ways to prevent them.

Surface Grime

Surface grime—also known as dust—is a common issue on baskets. Due to the woven structure, dirt can easily become embedded in the basket’s interstices, where it can hold moisture and attract pests. To prevent dust accumulation, store your baskets on a shelf or in a case. Always handle baskets with clean hands, as skin oils can hold dust on the surface. If cleaning is necessary, baskets can be lightly dusted with a soft brush. You may hold a vacuum next to your brush to collect the dust as it comes off. Be sure to brush out the inside as well, and be careful not to damage any loose cracking areas in the process.

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Common basket-making techniques include coiling (left) and plaiting (right). (Image courtesy of Bellie Camp.)

​Breaks and Losses

Because baskets are made of dried plant material and are held under tension to create their overall structure, they are prone to cracking, breaking, and ultimately loss. Fluctuations in relative humidity, which cause the plant material to expand and contract, will increase the likelihood of breakage occurring. Additionally, high-contact areas, such as the rim and handles, are susceptible to breakage caused by poor handling. Baskets, although light-weight, should be handled with two hands: one to support the base, and the other to support the body. Loose or protruding elements can also easily snag or catch on clothing or jewelry, so be cautious of what you are wearing when handling basketry. If you do use a basket to hold keys or magazines, this can also cause distortions and ultimately breakage. To prevent this, consider how much weight the basket can hold. Do not overfill it, and always empty it before moving.  

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​Baskets may be adorned with other elements, such as wood, bone (left), beads (center), resins (right) and feathers. (Image courtesy of Bellie Camp.)

Light Damage

The cellulosic material of baskets will experience UV-induced degradation. This can result in discoloration of the natural material and also can cause embrittlement or weakening. Additionally, baskets may contain textile elements, as well as dyed or painted components. All of these will also be susceptible to light-induced fading. Thus, baskets should be kept in a minimally-lit area. This will help ensure that their original color is preserved.

Pests

Since baskets are typically composed of organic, cellulose-rich materials, they can be food sources for common household pests, such as silverfish, wood-post beetles, and even mice. Additionally, baskets will often have proteinaceous components, such as feathers or leather, which can attract clothes moths or carpet beetles. To prevent any pest-related damage, be sure to prevent the accumulation of surface grime and monitor routinely for pest activity.

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​Baskets can also be objects of use, such as purses. (Image courtesy of Bellie Camp.)

​The complexity of basketry may make its preservation seem daunting. However, following these guidelines will help to ensure that all of your baskets will stay woven into your lives for years to come.


We hope you are enjoying these entries in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at art-conservation@udel.edu. The previous posts in this series are available on the Department of Art Conservation website here.

You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we face many challenges. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.

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This week's post looks at four of the most common issues encountered in the preservation of baskets, whether beloved art pieces or utilitarian objects.
6/24/2020
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