Making and Marketing Baskets: A Case Study of Basket Makers in Alleghany County, NC

by Miyuki Honda

Basketry is the product of an activity undertaken to satisfy practical and economic necessities, social and psychological needs, and aesthetic pursuits. Basket making as a handicraft has a longstanding tradition in the history of human beings all over the world, although the significance of basket making changes through time and is different from one individual to another. Basketry in Appalachian North Carolina is no exception. Handcrafted baskets are a continuing tradition, but they have been changing through time, as society changes. Basket making is done as an individual activity, but it is related to complex and dynamic social phenomena. Basket makers who market their baskets have an impact on the economy of their society.

This paper examines five basket makers from Alleghany County and the relationship between their activities and social phenomena, especially economic changes, through basket making and marketing in the context of an Appalachian rural county. The first section of the paper is a detailed description of five basket makers: Sarah Hayes, Hazel Beckett, Ruby Dillon, Amanda Sand, and Emma Dillon (all pseudonyms). The second section of the paper has two parts. One part is an analysis of basket making through the informants' points of views in connection to wider social changes in general, including the perceived meaning of making baskets, the categorization of baskets, and the methods of learning basket making. The other part is an analysis of marketing baskets in relation to social and economic changes in Appalachian North Carolina.


The following case studies of five basket weavers were collected through formal interviews with them. Interviews with Sarah and Emma were held in their homes. Sarah's house is located in Sparta. Emma's house is located near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Her house is surrounded by a Christmas tree farm that she and her husband own. Interviews with Amanda and Hazel were conducted in their basket making classroom, and that of Ruby was held at her gift shop. The basket making classroom is on the second floor of Ruby's gift shop. Her gift shop thodology is located at her campground, near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Data regarding gift shops which will be discussed in the second section of the paper were collected through informal interviews with two shop owners, Ruby Dillon and Beth Bentley. Beth Bentley owns Oak Land (pseudonym), a shop located on Main Street in Sparta.

The Basket Makers

The basket makers have many shared characteristics and social connections. All live in Alleghany County, North Carolina, with one exception. All are natives of the area. The first informant, Sarah Hayes is a teacher of a basket weaving class at the community college branch in town. Hazel Beckett is also a teacher of a basket making class at a campground in Alleghany County. A former resident of Alleghany, she now lives in Wilkes County. She also teaches two basket making classes in Wilkes County. The third basket weaver, Ruby Dillon is a student of Hazel's and the owner of the campground where the class is taught. She has her own gift shop at the campground. Amanda Sand is also a student of Hazel's. She sells her baskets to gift shops in different towns. Emma Dillon also attends Hazel's classes. Emma and Ruby are affinal relatives, and Hazel used to be (she divorced her ex-husband who was related to Emma's husband).

Sarah Hayes

Sarah is a 79 year old woman who has been making baskets for 11 years. She was born and raised in this area and so were her parents and grandparents. She once lived in northern Virginia where she had a sheep yard for many years. Now, she lives in downtown Sparta.

Sarah started to make baskets after she retired from a telephone company. She had worked there for 45 years. After taking two years of basket making classes at a community college in Surry County, she began to teach basket making. Now, she teaches at the community college branch in Sparta from nine until noon on Mondays and at a church, located 15 miles from the town, from nine to noon on Tuesdays. She has 16 students, all female, at the community college and about 20 students, including three older men, at the church. Students pay two dollars per hour of class. The class is not sponsored by the community college, they just meet in a classroom there. The college used to support senior citizens by letting them take classes for free. However, now they must charge $40 per person. So, Sarah just uses a classroom at the college which is free of charge. Also, she sells baskets by going to shows, taking orders, and selling to a local gift shop (which only takes a few baskets during the year).

Hazel Beckett

Hazel, in her late 50s, teaches basket making at Ruby's campground but also works at a bank in Wilkes County. Hazel started teaching classes in the fall of 1979 in Alleghany County. She started teaching two classes in Wilkes County in 1980, and another class four years later. She also used to teach classes in Ashe County (for three years). She has 16 people in the class in Alleghany, 12 people in west Wilkes, and 14 students in east Wilkes.

Making baskets is her second income. She started when her children were small. It is a supplemental income for her, and the income is small because supplies are expensive. She sells baskets only through taking orders at home, not through shops. She teaches classes in Alleghany only in the summer because she does not want to cross the mountain during bad weather in winter. She teaches most of the year in Wilkes County. Right now, she is teaching 15 week courses, and they will end in the middle or end of September.

Ruby Dillon

Ruby is a woman in her 70's. She has been making baskets for ten years. She learned basket making through taking several courses at different places. The first time she started to make baskets was at a three day camp in Ashe County through the Extension Service. She devotes about 14 or 15 hours a week to making baskets. She thinks two baskets per week is maximum because her hands are not able to do it everyday. "When you work with wet oak splits, the acid in oak would break your hands really bad if you worked it everyday," she says. Besides baskets, however, she makes wooden crafts and cloth crafts, such as table cloths and quilts. She takes another handicraft class two nights a week, Tuesday and Thursday, in North Wilkesboro. She has not taught basket making but has helped others make baskets. In addition to selling, she gives many of her baskets away because they make nice gifts.

She was born and grew up in a place two miles from the shop. Her family farmed tobacco. Her husband was born and grew up in the house in which they live. Their house is next to the gift shop. They lived in Baltimore, Maryland, for about seven years. She used to work at several restaurants, including a restaurant on the Parkway. She and her husband have owned a campground and a gift shop for 20 years near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The campground and shop are only open from April to October, although they live there year-round. When they started the campground in 1968, they had only ten sites, but now they have 50 sites. The sites are full on holidays. The building now used for the shop used to be a cattle barn. When they sold the cattle, they remodeled it as an office. She manages the shop fulltime and she does the cleaning too.

Amanda Sand

Amanda is a 73 year old lady who was born and grew up in Alleghany County. In 1979, after both she and her husband retired from federal government jobs at the age of 55, they moved to the small community where Ruby's campground is located. Her husband died five years ago. She used to live in Miami, Florida, where she worked at a veterans' office.

She has been making baskets for at least ten years. She learned to make the baskets by attending Hazel's class just once a week during summers. She started to sell her baskets after two years of classes. When Amanda started to make baskets, she did not intend to sell them, but after the number of her baskets increased, she just decided to start selling. Selling baskets is not a source of major income. "It is just like a hobby," she says. She has a retirement pension. Also, she has a farm, although she does not work on it.

Emma Dillon

Emma is a 75 year old woman who has been making baskets for 25 years. She makes baskets not to sell, but only for her own enjoyment. In fact, she gives most of her baskets away. She attends Hazel's basket making class. She tries to go as much as she possibly can, although she cannot always make it. She lives just a few miles from Ruby's campground. She and her husband own a Christmas tree farm adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Parts of the Parkway's lands used to be theirs. She retired from teaching elementary school in 1981 after 32 years of teaching. She learned how to make baskets by taking classes when she was a teacher. She taught craftmaking in addition to other subjects in elementary school. In addition to baskets, she makes quilts too. She learned to make quilts from her mother.

Analysis of Basket Making

Basket making as a craft has changed through time and the meaning of basket making has also shifted through time. In the past, basket making was mostly practiced as an economic and practical necessity. Eaton (1973) states that the role of a basket was as a utensil. Rosengarten (1985) adds that baskets were used for food preparation in the nineteenth century. Also, a basket could be used for measurement. For example, egg baskets were made for carrying a certain number of eggs (Rosengarten 1985). In addition, Ruby mentions the important function of tobacco baskets. She has two big tobacco baskets on the second floor of her gift shop. They are over one hundred years old. They are made of oak splits and nailed together. They used to be in a barn on her family's tobacco farm. When the barn was torn down, she took them from the barn. The basket was used to pile up bundles of tobacco, up to about four feet high. The basket with the bundles of tobacco was so heavy (about 300 pounds) that four men were needed to carry one. But this kind of basket is no longer used on tobacco farms. It seems that men made these tobacco baskets instead of women. She never saw women in her family making baskets of any kind.

In recent times, the meaning of basket making seems to have completely changed. All five basket makers I interviewed say that they make baskets primarily for their own enjoyment. For instance, Amanda says that attending the class is for her enjoyment. Emma says that although most of the techniques are reviews for her, she learns something new and enjoys talking to the other people in the classroom. Ruby mentions that she enjoys basket making. Hazel's opinion is that most of her students are retired, and they like to give baskets as gifts. That is one reason why they make baskets. Younger people like to learn different crafts. In fact, a woman who attends Hazel's class showed her cross stitching to the other classmates. Similarly, Sarah clearly states that basket making is her hobby, for her personal enjoyment.

Several implications of this change in the meaning of basket making can be made in relation to societal changes in Appalachia. First, the shift from a traditional agricultural economy to an industrial, commercial economy led to a decrease in opportunity to use the baskets in farming. Mechanization eliminated the need for some baskets. For example, tobacco baskets are no longer used presumably because of new kinds of equipment. Also, when Ruby talked about egg baskets, she noted that their usage has changed because people used to use the egg baskets to gather eggs in chicken houses, which few homes have any more.

The second implication of a link between the change in the meaning of basket making and the transformation of society is related to retirement. Because many of the basket makers are retired women, they have more spare time. Beaver (1986) explains that for women, old age is the period of concentration of power. Older women start more creative work once their childrearing responsibilities end when the children settle in their own homes. Retired women generally do not have to work for a living because they receive a retirement pension. This leaves them with time to do creative works, not for money, but for their own enjoyment. For example, Ruby made a basket she named a "mountain basket" (Figure 1) which reflects her experience. She says, "I sit on the porch, just see over the mountain, and you see the humps and the things [in the basket design], so that represents the mountain."

The social shift leads to another change in an aspect of basket making: the categorization of baskets by the makers. It is partly due to the nature of basketry, that is as a creative process. More people making them means more new patterns will be likely to be produced. I asked Ruby if she learns a lot by taking Hazel's class every Saturday in summer even though she has been making baskets for ten years:

Yes, because there are always new patterns, and Hazel practically has a new one in every week. And, then, sometimes different people who are making them design one of their own, and they bring them in and we all share it. So, there is always a new pattern. Even if you took it a hundred years, you'd still find a new way to do it, to do new patterns.

Basket makers name, and thus categorize, their baskets. Names represent categories because usually the words in names have implications as to use and shape. Eaton (1973) finds that mountain baskets were traditionally named in most instances according to their shape and use. Ruby distinguishes older from newer patterns by saying that the older design is more plain and that old baskets are made for usefulness. For example, the egg basket (Figure 2) seems to be one of the most traditional baskets because many informants mentioned that their first basket was an egg basket. Emma mentions that they are fundamental. Ruby says that they are traditional and, she says, "If you can make egg baskets, you can make anything." The first kind she made was an egg basket, too. In addition, as discussed earlier, while tobacco baskets (Figure 3) once served to carry tobacco, they are now hung on the wall as ornaments. In contrast, when they talk about newly designed baskets, informants describe more their design elements. For instance, the cathedral baskets were so-named because their design looked like cathedral windows, according to Emma. As another example, Ruby described a basket which has modern style by saying "It's got a fancy top and painting on the side" (Figure 4). It seems newer baskets might also be named for their design instead of shape or usage because older ones have a plain color and simple design. The categorization shift is again related to a decrease in the utilitarian nature of baskets which is brought about by broader socioeconomic changes, such as the decline in agriculture and growth in industrialization.

Another aspect of basket making which is related to social and economic changes is the method of learning the craft. In the past, people were likely to learn basket making at home from another member of the family. Eaton (1973) says that, in the mountains, many practical forms of baskets were made historically as a result of isolation. Rosengarten (1985) states that basket making was a skill learned by household members in the past. Although early accounts could not be elicited from my informants, it is very likely that basket making has already become a vanished tradition in family households. In fact, Eaton (1962) states that basket making, especially the production of old-style highland baskets, was once in danger of extinction.

The contemporary method of learning basket making is, in contrast, predominantly through teacher-student relationships. All my informants first learned basket making through some kind of classes. Some of them have attended more than one kind of class for a long period of time. For example, Emma attends Hazel's basket making class even though she already has 25 years of experience, and Ruby learned to make doll baskets when she visited Cherokee recently. Ruby also learned to make Scottish baskets by attending two days of classes in Asheboro. She says, "Over the years, a lot of time I did it for pure recreation. You know, just to go somewhere, away from home, and do something that was a little different. And took whatever was available." Emma explains that about 20 people attend Hazel's class, and some of them are beginners. They usually attend the class about 10 weeks for $35, but the number of weeks varies. These classroom settings are an outgrowth of the handicraft revival movements after the middle of this century. Eaton (1962) describes various institutions and centers which made significant efforts to revive mountain handicrafts. In the last part of his essay, he emphasizes the importance of planning craft education in the mountain region (Eaton 1962). The fact that both Emma and Hazel, who had learned basketry earlier than the others, first learned it through some kind of extension program in the 1970s demonstrates the beginning of such revival of handicrafts.

Other methods of learning the craft include the observation of others' baskets by going to various craft-related events, such as fairs and conventions, and reading books. Sarah's primary method of acquiring further techniques and patterns of basket making is going to craft fairs. She says that "Once you know the basics, it is easy to figure out how to make things." However, she claims that she has never copied somebody working, only their products. In addition to this, she has studied basket making by reading and looking at books. Ruby has been to craft conventions, but not recently. She also studies basket books. Hazel says that the North Carolina Basket Weaving Association has a convention once a year and hosts seminars in the eastern and western parts of the state each year to introduce new supplies and reach new people. There are over 200 members in the association, both North Carolinians and others, and the members pay a $20 annual fee. At the convention, they have pattern rooms so that anybody can learn new patterns. As a result of these new forms of instruction, basket making has become increasingly accessible to people across the state. As a town resident, Sarah has more access to gift shops where she sees others' baskets. Thus, urbanization may contribute to the perpetuation of basket making in some ways.

Analysis of Marketing Baskets

Marketing baskets is also subject to the broader economic changes in Appalachian North Carolina. Trading or selling baskets used to be based on their utilitarian value. Eaton (1973) says that in the past local stores or other trading places used to provide places for trading and selling baskets. However, baskets today are no longer just utensils, but serve as gifts and souvenirs, particularly for tourists. Morris (1962) explores the impact that tourism has in southern Appalachia, influencing many businesses, and the potential for expansion of the tourism industry.

Among the five informants, four of them have sold and still sell their baskets. Marketing strategies vary and are often multiple: taking orders, having booths in shows, and selling to stores. Hazel is the only one who sells baskets only through taking orders at home, not through shops. "The orders keep me busy," she says, although making baskets is only a second and supplemental income for her. Her customers are mostly from Wilkes County. She gets more orders at Christmas time and maybe for Mother's Day. She sells approximately two dozen baskets at Christmas time, probably the maximum number of baskets she can produce. Although she sells them, her primary interest in basketry is teaching.

Sarah uses all three strategies to sell her baskets. She has sold more baskets as a result of individual orders than through any other strategy. She sells individually ordered baskets for prices ranging from $20 to $50. Her only method of obtaining orders is by going to shows. She goes to shows held on the Blue Ridge Parkway, such as "Brinegar Day" held once a year in August. She cannot sell there because of regulations, but she takes orders. She also goes to Virginia for three or four shows a year. Also, she says she takes orders from all over the U.S.

Amanda and Ruby both sell to gift shops. Ruby sells her own goods in her own shop while Amanda sells them to two gift shops in different towns. The one in Ashe County stays open until Christmas. They charge her a 50% consignment fee. The other shop is located in Sparta where Sarah lives. It stays open all year long. They charge a 25% consignment fee. This gift shop's owner is her friend's mother. They take her baskets once every two or three months. In addition, Amanda sells to individuals at church.

Their strategies of selling baskets reflect social and economic changes. Tourism is a relatively recent trend in this area of the mountains. The target customers for baskets seem to be outsiders, not locals. Since the tourist trade is still rather limited in Alleghany County, shop consignment is only a small part of their overall marketing strategies. The trade in baskets for local residents is limited because, as one shop owner says, too many people in Alleghany County make baskets already.

There is another recent socioeconomic trend that is reflected in selling baskets: seasonal migration into the mountains. In the case of Ruby's shop, her customers are mostly from their campground. She says that her shop gets very few tourists coming off the Parkway. Most of the campers are from Florida, others come from Georgia and Alabama, and a lot of the campers are from down-state, residents of Raleigh and Burlington who seek cooler climates. However, the numbers of customers are, again, not many. She says that she has an average of two customers a day although sometimes she can have 25 customers in a day. It depends on the weather, seasons, and so on.

Marketing baskets can result in a discrepancy between the customer's needs and the makers' needs. The types of baskets that producers want to make often do not meet their customers' needs. Ruby says that she makes all kinds of baskets, whatever she wants to make, saying "I'm tired of making the same old one." However, she also says that "Ironically enough, the sales go back to these old style baskets." She says, "People say, These are nice,' and people who do baskets all say I want one of them,' but people who want to buy a basket, they like to go back to the old styles. I don't know why." Although generally she does not care about customers' needs, she has made baskets the customers want, such as tobacco baskets. She has a replica of a tobacco basket, which is smaller than the original ones. She makes replicas in various sizes because "It's been a trend for the last ten years," and "Everybody's trying to kind'a hold onto those old baskets, want to hang them on the wall." As a result, she has only one left now.

This discrepancy between customers' needs and makers' needs is the result of complex social and economic shifts in this area. The revival of handicrafts and the increasing free time available to senior citizens, all partly brought about by a shift from an agricultural to an industrial society, has led basket makers to diversify baskets. Tourists, on the other hand, are eager to buy handmade goods, especially traditional styles that characterized the region and made it culturally different. Thus, there is some tension between basket makers who want to satisfy their own feelings of "enjoyment" and basket buyers who want culturally distinctive, locally-made goods.


It is evident that basket making and marketing in Appalachia is significantly related to social and economic changes. Changes in the meanings, categorization, learning, and marketing of baskets are interrelated and reflect large scale changes in the society, including the transition from an agricultural economy and society to an industrial market economy and society, the rise of tourism, population growth (particularly the in-migration of outsiders), and urbanization. Alleghany County may be unique in some ways. If basket making is indeed more popular here than elsewhere, the local market may remain small as local people may make their own baskets or be given baskets by other local people. Thus, basket sellers will be led to sell more baskets to shops outside the county or to sell to tourists. In fact, my informants who sell baskets through orders, Hazel and Sarah, both sell more to individuals who live outside the county, including those living in adjacent counties, such as Wilkes County in Hazel's case. Thus, micro as well as macro changes in the economy can affect basket making in the Appalachian region.

References Cited

  • Beaver, Patricia D.
    1986 Rural Community in the Appalachian South. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.

  • Eaton, Allen H.
    1973 Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. New York: Dover Publications.

  • Morris, John W.
    1962 "The Potential of Tourism." In The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey, Thomas R. Ford (ed.). Lexington: University of Kentucky Press. Pp. 136-148.

  • Rosengarten, Dale
    1985 "Spirits of Our Ancestors: Basket Traditions in the Carolinas." In Carolina Folk: The Cradle of a Southern Tradition, George D. Terry and Lynn Robertson Myers (eds.). Columbia: McKissic Museum, University of South Carolina.