Rekindling a lost art
In 1995, Mary Conradt of Clintonville took a handmade basket weaving class at a local technical college.
“Those were individual classes that lasted probably about six hours,” Conradt said. “It offered two classes a semester and I did that for two or three years before I started buying my own materials and weaving on my own.”
Since then, she joined the Wolf River Basketry Guild in Shawano and continued to attend numerous classes and workshops. She said the Wolf River Basketry Guild hosts a workshop in the fall where nationally known teachers are invited to come and teach. It also has a spring workshop for members only.
“I’ve attended every year since I joined,” Conradt said. “Teachers can come from all over the country and teach you different techniques.”
Conradt has also attended workshops held in other states.
“I’ve always been interested in craft-type things,” Conradt said. “This was something for me to try.”
Conradt said she enjoys making handmade baskets. It is also a way for her to relax.
“I read somewhere once that there are two kinds of people – product people and process people,” Conradt said. “I decided I’m a process person, so I was interested in the process of how you start with a piece of flat or round reed and turn it into something that has a totally different shape. I just enjoy the process of seeing what you get with the technique you are using.
“It’s a way to exercise some creativity and I find it relaxing.”
When asked if it was easy to learn how to make handmade baskets, Conradt gave all the credit to her teacher – Susan Vogel Longmire of Shawano.
“Not only was she a basket teacher, but she is a teacher by trade,” Conradt said. “Her teaching was excellent. I still have the first basket that I made.”
Decorative and utilitarian baskets are the two types that Conradt constructs.
“Baskets were the precursor to the plastic bag,” Conradt said. “Back when you had to collect your vegetables from the garden or go to the general store, you needed something to carry your goods home in, so some of these are strictly decorative and some are more functional. I have them all over the house with stuff in them so that’s the functional for me.”
There are many factors that come into play when determining how long it takes to make a basket, Conradt said.
“It depends on the material you are working with, the size of the basket and the complexity of the pattern,” she said.
Conradt said she works with a variety of materials, which come from a variety of places. Some of the materials come from Madagascar, Indonesia and China, while others come from the United States.
In her work area in the basement of her home there is a shelf full of binders. She said the binders contain more than 1,000 basket patterns. Conradt has these patterns entered in a spreadsheet so it is easy to reference to a particular pattern.
She tries to spend two or three days a week making handmade baskets.
When asked how long she spends making handmade baskets during those days, Conradt responded with a laugh, “All day. I hate to stop.”
Some of the baskets Conradt makes are available for the public to purchase. To sell her handmade baskets, she created the business – Creekside Creations. Her baskets are also available at Honey Creek Gallery in Clintonville, the Living Room Coffee Shop in Clintonville and the Copper Llama Yarn Shop outside of Clintonville, as well as at craft shows she attends.
Conradt isn’t afraid to give away her secrets, as she shares her passion for handmade baskets with others. She has done demonstrations at the Clintonville Public Library, and teaches through the Shawano Community Education program. This is an outreach program through the Shawano School District that is open to the community. Conradt said the ages of people she teaches range from 35 to 60 years old on average. She is also a merit badge counselor for the local Boy Scout troop. The time spent teaching at the library and working with the Boy Scout troop is volunteer time.
“The big thing for me is just being able to share something I love with people who want to learn about it,” Conradt said. “I volunteer my time. I just want to share something I love with other people who want to learn about it.”
Conradt says there is quite a bit of interest in handmade basket weaving. She points to the fact the Wolf River Basketry Guild has just under 100 members. The group meets regularly “to share and promote the art of handmade baskets.”
“If you do a search for handmade basket guilds on the Internet, you’ll find one for every state. It’s amazing. It’s kind of a cottage industry where you aren’t out in front of people necessarily doing that stuff. I would say the interest is real strong,” Conradt said.
Not only does Conradt enjoy sharing handmade basketry with others, she also receives great satisfaction from her work.
“A lot of times when I make a basket I will leave it sit on the floor in the living room for a couple of days just to look at it,” Conradt said. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”