Baskets play a major role in Ethiopian culture and society and are seen as functional, decorative, and sacred items throughout the country. In Jimma wives pack their husbands' lunches in covered agil-gil baskets, woven from grass and straw, covered with leather, and embellished with metal and beadwork. In Harar large, lidded, mesob baskets are used for tables. The mesob is made from a wide and colorful basket with a conical lid place on top of a hollow, tapering pedestal. Injera and wots are placed on the wide, flat top of the mesob while diners sit around the table and share a meal. In Gurage, artisans create a wide range of wickerwork including furniture, fences, mats, and baskets. And in Kafa, artisans combine the coil weaving technique with flat strand weaving to create raffia mats, bags, and screens. Almost everywhere in Ethiopia visitors will find farmers using flat reed baskets for winnowing or drying grains. Throughout the country, baskets are used as containers, tools, and decoration.
Basket making and use is common throughout the country and baskets often fulfill utilitarian, decorative, and symbolic roles in Ethiopian society, especially in Eastern Ethiopia and the Central and Southern Rift Valleys. Women are taught how to weave the brightly colored, grass, and straw baskets from a young age. They create these important containers with the continuous coiling technique using colored transverse fibers that create geometric designs. Traditionally, the first basket a young girl weaves is burned and the ashes are rubbed on her hands to signify a transition to a higher level of basket making. Once initiated as a basket weaver, the girl can join the gelach, a group of young women that meet to weave baskets together. Notably, young women are expected to produce a set of baskets as a dowry for her marriage. In past times, women would spend at least a few hours each day weaving baskets. However, with the pressures of education, more women have turned to professional basket makers to fulfill their dowry requirements.
In Bochessa, there is a tradition of constructing a small hut a few months before a woman's marriage. The woman uses the hut as a workshop and makes the basket that she will take to her new home. At the time of her wedding all the items she made are displayed to her in-laws and wedding guests. After the wedding, all the baskets are moved to her new home and displayed on the walls as decoration.
In Ethiopian culture every basket has a specific place on the household wall. Young women are taught the art of basket arrangement and must be ready to decorate their own houses once married. Baskets are hung on the walls of the house's public sitting area and can be "read" by guests to tell them about the woman's life and family. For more information about basketry read Elisabeth-Dorothea Hecht's 1992 article Basketwork of Harar.
Utilitarian baskets like ukhaat moot (bread basket), afutu (sieve), and sugud (container for measuring grain) are made by Oromo people and sold in the marketplace. Artisans use the coiling technique to create these simple baskets and typically do not include any decorative patterns. The bread basket and the sieve are slowly being replaced with imported plastic and enamel products but the sugud represents a specific unit of measurement and will likely remain for some time.
Basket Making Techniques
Ethiopian baskets are made from a range of materials including reeds, straw, grasses, palm leaves, ensete (false banana) leaves, bamboo and even string. Traditionally, women would use natural dyes to create muted tones for the designs on the baskets. Although natural dyes are still used in traditional baskets, most artisans use chemically dyed grasses to create brightly colored baskets. Most weavers also use knives and awls to trim the fibers and blunt tapestry needles to create coiled baskets.
Natural fiber artisans typically use the coiling technique which consists of sewing a stationary horizontal foundation with vertical stitches. Essentially the artisan binds a bundle of grass pieces into a long roll while wrapping a single piece of grass around the roll. Then the artisan coils the wrapped bunch in a circle and stitches together each ring of the circle to expand the basket. The stitches on a coiled basket can be decorative, functional, or both. In most Ethiopian baskets, artisans use different colored grasses to create a decorative pattern.
Bamboo and stiffer fibers are typically woven with a simple plait weave. Farmers harvest the bamboo, split it open, and peeled it to make strips that can be used for weaving. The flat strips, much larger than the pieces of grass used in the coil technique, are then woven together with a simple plaiting technique which involves passing strips of fiber over and under each other at a fixed angle to produce a checked pattern.
Visitors can find baskets in ....