Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Carol Vanhook has been retired for eight years from a 36-year career as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher. Yet her retirement years have been filled with activity. Always a crafter, she decided to focus on the art of basketry, and her husband Gary, who is not fully retired, assists her.
“He makes the bases from palettes for my baskets,” she said. “He sands and grooves them in his garage workshop. He reinforces the baskets’ pine handles to the bottoms before I begin weaving so that the basket is stronger. I tell him what I’m working on and he makes me what I need.”
Gary has also made his wife several different sizes of “jigs” (forms) to work within as she is making baskets. She makes utilitarian baskets from large market sizes to hold books, magazines, or a throw, for example, to gardening, all-purpose utility, and mail baskets.
Carol said she has always been interested in crafting items by hand. Currently, she is working on quilt, crocheting mats out of plastic bags for the homeless, knits, and works together with her husband to create fused glass items. However, basketry appealed to her during a Western Carolina University Heritage Festival she attended years ago. “I was walking around looking at beautiful baskets and I thought, ‘I could learn to do this.’”
She took classes from an instructor with The Arts Council of Macon County. She also attended a weekend of basketry classes at John C. Campbell Folk School in Cherokee County.
“It’s one of those skills you can continue to improve on … learn things about,” said Carol. “While I’m weaving, I add pressure or relieve pressure depending on tightness of the weave and the shape. I use a level to keep the basket uniform.”
She orders flat rattan strips for her baskets from a basketry supply source. If she does not want baskets to be natural in color, she uses Ritz dye for a dye lot and then allows the strips to dry on a rack in her gazebo. “I’ve found that Ritz dye is better than powdered dye because I can control the colors better.”
Carol keeps her basketry materials in a finished basement, “so I can walk off and leave the mess.” But she will weave anywhere and describes the craft process as relaxing.
“It’s a way for me to be creative. I used to have to take out some of the weave, when I
was first learning, but now I’m proficient at it. And there’s a sense of accomplishment finishing one … coming up with ideas and colors and ways to embellish.”
So far, Carol has made at least 300 baskets. For a while she was giving them away as gifts, donating some for special charity events, or keeping and using them. In fact, she and her husband have their baskets all throughout their home that they use for kitchen utensils, mail, dried flowers, knitting, and more.
“We decided a few years ago to start selling some of the baskets to at least cover the cost of the hobby,” said Carol. Prices do not reflect the amount of time – at least three hours a basket – and the expense of the materials. One of the couple’s utility baskets, for example, sells for $45. Elsewhere, handmade baskets might sell for $100 or more due to the tediousness of the process, explained Carol. “Time and money is definitely invested in each basket we make.”
Carol and Gary show their baskets annually on Main Street in Franklin at PumpkinFest and the Hometown Heritage Festival. Plus, she has demonstrated basketry at the Franklin Area Folk Festival at the Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center. The Vanhooks plan to show their baskets this summer in Minneapolis, Minn., where their daughters reside.
She enjoys coming up with distinct decorations, like handmade rosin hearts that include a bit of Macon County Clay, “so that no matter where you are there will always be a bit of Macon County in your heart;” incorporated repurposed items; and, seasonal theme wraps to tie at the top of baskets.
“I really enjoy working on these baskets and knowing that my husband and I did the project together,” said Carol, pointing out that a future project is a backpack basket.