How To Make Iris Weavers For Basketmaking

Braided Iris germanica, tall bearded iris leaves

Above is a free form basket using the iris braid as weavers, along with other materials. The ring and stakes are grape vine, or the stakes might be honeysuckle, not sure. It was made a long time ago.

I became interested in baskets in the mid 1980s. We had moved to southern California from a small town in middle Pennsylvania. It was a culture shock to say the least. But there was lots to do and see there, including an arts festival in Laguna Beach, the Sawdust Festival. One of the stands featured baskets made from landscape materials, some made with pine needles. Our front yard was filled with Canary Island Pines that dropped needles nearly continuously. We could not afford the baskets, but did purchase a book about baskets made from nature’s bounty. I made a small pine needle basket, it was harder than I thought and didn’t turn out that great.

Three years later we moved to a town in upper east Tennessee. Some new friends there were taking a basket class and invited me to come along. I jumped at the chance and took many, many sessions of classes, long after the friends had had enough of it. I was obsessed. After mastering the basic techniques well enough to be able to make some simple baskets without instruction, we looked into the garden for materials.

This is one of the first baskets made from the garden. The ring and handle are bunches of Vinca minor stems (not a good choice, too brittle), the weavers are lavender sticks (also too brittle) and single iris leaves. It was noticed during garden clean up of the large iris bed that the mottled leaves were not only attractive but very strong. Unlike the daylily leaves that would tear easily, the iris leaves were composed of fibers that held even with a firm tug. Removing the dying iris leaves was also good gardening practice for slugs and snails like to hide in the decaying matter as well as the dreaded iris borer. Thinking of a way to put the leaves to good use, and being in the mode of trying anything and everything from which to make baskets, it was decided that braiding the leaves would make for stronger weavers. The free form basket in the second photo was the first basket made using that material. Even after more than twenty years, the basket is still strong and solid. (The above basket is filled with moon snail shells collected from the beach in South Carolina some time ago.)

Are you ready to learn more? Timing is everything.

The time is right, now is when to look for iris leaves at the peak of perfection for making braids to be used now or later for basket weaving. The signs are the leaves beginning to turn tan as the chlorophyll says goodbye for another year.

This is just what we want, still intact and completely tan, no green. The leaf should dislodge from the rhizome with a gentle pull. Gather a couple of dozen more or less to begin.

Put the leaves in some water in a bucket. They don’t have to soak for long, but should be thoroughly wetted. They will stay in the bucket while you work. Ignore that green one, it was not used and should not have been picked. It is not ready.

Before you begin, find a comfy chair outdoors that can get wet. Wear old clothes or a sheet of plastic over your lap. Have another chair in front of you to hold the braid, seen in upcoming photos. Start by selecting two pieces. Fold one in half, add the other and begin braiding the three pieces, the one folded making two.

Getting the first couple of inches done is the hardest part. After that, fasten the braid with a clothespin or clamp to the extra chair in front of you that I told you to get before. Get comfortable, keep your back straight, legs apart for stability. You’ll thank me later. Have the bucket of leaves on a bench or something so that you don’t have to reach in an awkward position to get more leaves, for you will be doing that almost constantly.

Braid with a foldover, not a twist as you go. This will give a neater look and also make the braid stronger.

Add another leaf to the shortest piece when it is about six to eight inches long. Don’t wait until you are down to the very end or it will be likely to pull apart during basket weaving. I usually add the pointed end of the leaf to the existing piece, then you will have a double thickness for the more narrow part of the leaf. Keep adding new leaves as needed to the shortening pieces as you braid, never letting the braid piece get too thin either, in case you have picked a less than perfect leaf. Having selected the largest iris leaves to harvest will pay off now as every leaf you pull from the bucket is of consistent size and strength, hopefully, but the weak ones sometimes sneak into the bundle. Continue braiding, moving the work up and over the chair top and refastening the clothespin to keep it at a comfortable position for you.

Occasionally the end piece of the leaf, the part that was attached to the rhizome will be larger than the braidings. We consider this to add character and simply braid around it, letting it stick out, braiding firmly but with not too much pulling to break or tear the leaves. You will get really efficient at this quickly. It is fun!

If you need to stop before all the leaves have been used, because your hands are hurting or there is something else that needs your attention, clip the braiding end with the clothespin. You can leave the leaves in the bucket of water, but not for hours or overnight. They will start to disintegrate and be unusable with too much soaking. It is best to pick only what you are going to use at one sitting and work straight through, with rest periods for sore, aging hands of course. This is the reason why the braiding sessions need to coincide with the perfect timing of the browning of the leaves. Green color gone, but still strong and intact is the best time to use the iris leaves. (Ignore the green part, it is not supposed to be there. Do as I say, not as I do.)

When you have used all the leaves, tie the end into a knot.

Here is the finished product, about six feet in length. That is about the right length to use of any material to weave a basket. Longer and it will begin to fray from being handled so much as it is woven in and out, no matter the method used. You want it as long as possible so there are fewer joinings, always a weak point in a basket and the idea is for it to be strong. You wouldn’t want it to fall apart after putting so much effort into it. This piece will be hung in the shed to dry until it is needed.

Here is another basket made many years ago using a lavender root and stem as the handle. The ring is several stems of grapevine, the stakes are , hmm, I don’t know. I think it might be purchased smoked round reed. The blue is purchased reed, what most baskets are made of, that has been dyed using Rit Dye. After the blue weaving is iris leaf braid then the remainder is woven with braid made from smartweed which was everywhere in our garden. It, the grass like plant, was difficult to braid, using handfuls of the blades and stems to have enough thickness to be strong. This basket is messy, always leaving debris wherever it is resting. The bird house gourd was grown when we lived in Texas, where we moved after nine years at the other Tennessee house. (We have been back in Tennessee, in another town for ten years after three years in Texas.) We still have quite a few of those gourds from that one year. The secret to success was that the seeds were planted at the base of the compost bin and watered by the inground irrigation system at that house.

Back to the topic, this how to post will not show how to make baskets. I suggest you take a course with some friends at a shop that sells the materials. Take the course several times and acquire the skill to be able to make a basket out of anything you can get your hands on. We did sell some of our baskets, gave many as gifts and still have several. Or you can use the iris braids in whatever way your brain leads. Wreaths, swags, please let me know if you have other ideas!

Isn’t it nice to make something useful from something so beautiful?
Iris germanica ‘Champagne Elegance’

There is one other type of leaf that has been braided to make a basket. In 2002 we found some seeds for Sorghum vulgare, broomcorn, while on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. The seeds were started in the greenhouse the following spring, planted out, and grew well. The stalks were harvested to make some brooms, the post about it can be seen by clicking here-Brooms. The leaves were stripped off the plants as part of the broom making process and seemed too wonderful to toss into the compost. They were soaked and braided per the instructions above, then made into a basket as a two part wedding gift for offspring Semi, with some money plant, Lunaria annua thrown in for good financial feng shui. The broom that was used at the end of the wedding ceremony, jumped over as they left the church hangs on the wall at their house. It often gets commented upon, as you can imagine.

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30 Responses to How To Make Iris Weavers For Basketmaking

  1. Edith Hope says:

    Dear Frances, I have been utterly absorbed by this posting and know, right now, that I shall never be able to construct such intricate pieces of ‘garden art’ which you refer to as a basket. You have such an artistic eye, such patience and attention to detail and the final results are lovely.

    The closest I have come to braiding, or ‘plaiting’ as I have always known it, was through the pigtails that I sported as a small child. When a ‘friend’ cut one in half as a joke, plaits and I were never reacquainted.

    Dear Edith, thanks for being absorbed! I knew that this particular how to would not be something everyone would rush out and do, but if one person is inspired to try it…. I am detailed oriented and the basket making class was a perfect fit for me. I became friends with the teacher and continued taking the class for quite a while for the friendship and camraderie. We do like to put things to good use and the iris leaves lend themselves to that well. As for your friend who cut your plait, that was not a nice thing to do! You must have been traumatized! Hair is the most wonderful medium for braiding. πŸ™‚

  2. steve says:

    I used to watch my daughter and her friends braid one another’s hair prior to softball tournaments.They would color it too, of course. I really enjoyed the turquoise team she played for, lol. Anyway, we’re talking far more patience than I fear I will ever have. It looked intimate and fun and very ‘bonding’ – but it sure aint me, lol. Having said that, I definitely admire the craft and love reading about it.

    Hi Steve, thanks. I love your bonding story! Braiding hair and braiding for basket making are the same ritual. It is soothing to make those repetitive foldovers. As my basket teacher told us, there has not been a machine invented that can make a basket, so any basket you ever see has been made by hand. Intimate indeed. πŸ™‚

  3. DL says:

    Thank you for the interesting post. I learned something today about an old art. I did not realize that beautiful and unique baskets can be made from what is basically garden debris. I was engrossed in every word. Like you, I went with a friend to learn stained glass, and took so many classes to learn different techniques. The friend who suggested it lost interest, but I continued. I know I would feel the same about basket making after reading your informative post.

    Hi DL, thanks so much. It is illuminating, to think that all baskets actually began as growing plant material, going back to prehistoric days. People needed something to hold their stuff! I have done nearly every craft there is, except stained glass, which I adore. If the moon is ever in the correct phase, I will take tackle that final frontier! You would love basketmaking if you can do the glass work, manual dexterity needed for both. πŸ™‚

  4. Gail says:

    Dear Frances, I am so glad you shared your basket making history with us. They are beautiful and so are the brooms you’ve made. I had no idea that almost all the materials came from your gardens~that’s fantastic. Also, very glad I read the comments and learned that all baskets are hand made. xxgail

    Dear Gail, thank you. Using garden materials was got me interested in making baskets at all. As the techniques were learned using the store bought stuff, it was always with the goal of using garden cuttings to make them. There is just something about that that is so satisfying on many levels.

  5. You’ve provided a great tutorial/inspiration. I’m always amazed at those proficient at weaving. Have you ever seen the baskets woven by the ladies in Charleston, SC? They command hundreds of dollars per basket. About the only thing that I’ve ever braided is the “hunter” mane and tail of my Arabian mare for showing back when I was in my 20s.

    Thanks Cameron. I have one larger sweetgrass basket from Charleston, and a few small ones, bought in 1988 when we first moved to TN and went on a trip there. Amazing craftsmanship and highly prized. They weren’t quite as expensive back then, but still pricey. That grass they use is the muhly grass, BTW. I have tried making a basket from it but it did not turn out well. How fun to braid your horse’s mane, I’ll bet it looked beautiful. Now maybe you will try braiding your garden! πŸ™‚

  6. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Frances, You are a woman of many talents. This is fantastic. I have always admired baskets and basket makers. You have to have stamina to do all that braiding and then your artistic eye to actually put it together. You are an inspiration. I have never been able to braid hair let alone iris leaves. Sigh~~

    Hi Lisa, thanks so much, you are too sweet. If you can draw and paint, you could certainly make baskets. You don’t have to do it all at one sitting. I have one very large basket that took a year to make, working on it when the mood struck. πŸ™‚

  7. Dave says:

    Very creative Frances! I never thought of using the leaves of the irises for anything.

    Hi Dave, thanks. I was on a tear, trying every single thing growing in the garden for basket weaving. There were successes, like the iris leaves, and there were flops, more of them. Hosta leaves won’t work, for instance. HA πŸ™‚

  8. Teresa O says:

    These baskets are so earthy and wonderful. What a perfect way to use leaves, roots, stems, and stalks from the garden. Your instructions are so tempting to try, but then I’d hang the braids to dry and probably never get around to learning how to weave a basket.

    Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge.

    Hi Teresa, thanks. That is what piqued my interest, to use stuff from the garden. You can leave those braids to hang for years before using them. I have. There is a plastic trash can in the garage that holds my basket making materials. It has been moved twice, to Texas and here. The stuff is still useable. It just needs to be kept dry. πŸ™‚

  9. Jenny B says:

    I have always loved baskets and have wanted to learn how to make them. It has always fascinated me how intricate they can be–how useful they are–and how much we take them for granted. Your “how-to” highlights just how much work goes into something we often use and throw away (shudder!) without thinking. Truly an art form that is as old as mankind. I always look at the basketry in antique stores or museums and marvel at the workmanship. My gardeners hat is off to you for continuing this ancient tradition! What an enjoyable post!

    Hi Jenny, thanks so much. Baskets amaze me as well. People made them to serve a function, holding their stuff, even babies! Those cheap baskets that get thrown away were made by hand. When the teacher told us that, it was the opening sentence to the first class, it shed a new light on the entire process. Somewhere people are working for very little money making baskets.

  10. MNGarden says:

    Weaving something useful from available materials is a new consideration for me other than a few attempts with vine wreaths. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Hi Donna, thanks. Wreaths are great too, and easy. I love making those but the basket making is very enjoyable as well. πŸ™‚

  11. Jen says:

    WOW, looks like something I could do. Certainly easier than the embroidery I’m learning. Adding it to my to do list.

    Thanks Jen. I was hoping someone might be inspired to give this a try, using iris leaves or whatever is available. Try them all. If you can braid hair, you can braid leaves or stems. πŸ™‚

  12. lotusleaf says:

    The broom is very pretty. We make brooms from dry coconut leaves.

    Thanks Lotusleaf. That is so cool, I bet they sweep stuff very well, and look pretty to boot! πŸ™‚

  13. Nancy says:

    Your baskets are amazing. I weave with reed and have done a few ribbed baskets. I’ve never seen a basket with iris leaves. Thanks for the post!

    Hi Nancy, thanks and welcome! I am so happy to have a basketmaker visit. Braided leaves work well for the ribbed or staked and add such a natural look to the basket, not to mention using free material from the garden. πŸ™‚

  14. Frances, this post is wonderful! I have always been fascinated by baskets as well as basket makers… I do want to give it a try!

    Thanks Meredith. I do hope you give basket making a try. It is so empowering to be able to make something so functional, especially using garden stuff. Let me know if, make that when you do! πŸ™‚

  15. I love baskets but have never successfully made one, although I have tried several times. Of course, I never actually took a course, which may have something to do with my lack of success. I do own several wonderful baskets, mostly they are composed of oak laths.

    All I could think while reading this post was “Like I don’t already have enough to do!!” as I found myself becoming inspired by the idea of harvesting iris leaves (Oh, I have LOTS of irises) and braiding them. Perhaps it is as well that I maintain my focus because due to GGW and Saxon Holt I have decided to convert the front yard into meadow/prairie garden. Needless to say this is going to be time consuming. . .

    Hi Hands, thanks. How exciting for your front yard! It sounds like the perfect, if longterm project! Those iris leaves do made beautiful weavers, if you can find the time. Then find the time to take a few basket classes. πŸ™‚

  16. RainGardener says:

    Amazing Frances! I’d never thought to braid Iris leaves. I have lots of ’em and may give it a try. Guess I’d need to go out in the woods and find some twigs though or something to use with the braiding. O’well one thing at a time. Let’s see if I can even braid one first. πŸ˜‰

    Hi RG, thanks, so nice to see you! I would just start with the iris leaves, they kind of need to be used at the right moment, not green but still intact is best. Or try anything you have on hand! Many things can be braided. Besides hair. πŸ™‚

  17. Frances, that is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen made from leavings of the garden. I tweeted the post for you cause it was so good.~~Dee

    Oh thank you Dee, you are the sweetest thing! πŸ™‚

  18. ellada says:

    Not bad, not bad at all, I must said to you a big bravo. It’s beautiful.

    Thanks Ellada, you are too kind. πŸ™‚

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  20. My daughter has a book on this topic: Baskets from Nature’s Bounty She made me a basket from multiflora rose branches. She had to de-thorn them all.

    Hi Kathy, thanks for that. I did make a basket for son Brokenbeat and his wife as a wedding present from the rose Veilchenblau. It has few thorns but still had to remove them. Rose canes break easily, had to be super careful with the weaving. The book sounds perfect and lucky you to receive such a fine gift. πŸ™‚

  21. Lythrum says:

    I know the post was about the iris weavers, which was extremely interesting. But I L-O-V-E that broom. πŸ˜‰ I have a bunch of irises that I’ll have to check for the proper stage of done-ness. I tried a pine needle basket in my Carolina living days, but wasn’t up to it. I’ll have to see what other basket makings I can find. πŸ™‚

    Hi Lythrum, thanks. I hope you clicked to read the post about the brooms, it has all the background information about their construction. I hope your iris are ready, or nearly so. Pine needle baskets are more difficult to get right, IMHO. Keep trying! πŸ™‚

  22. Jennifer says:

    Great post! My Mom was a great basket maker and used many unusual materials to make her baskets. My favorite is made of pine needles and has a pine cone knob on the lid. Making baskets from gardening materials is very interesting and something that even she has never thought of.

    Hi Jennifer, thanks so much. How cool that your mom was a basket maker. I love baskets with lids! Hope she is able to try garden stuff, fun and free! πŸ™‚

  23. meemsnyc says:

    That is so cool that you make your own baskets. And out of Iris leaves. Awesome!

    Hi Meemsnyc, thanks and welcome. I am glad you enjoyed seeing the iris leaf baskets. The making of them is so much fun, or even just the braiding of the leaves for other crafts. πŸ™‚

  24. It makes me think… I only have one large bearded iris plant in my garden. And that surely isn’t enough… I just saw some on the 50% off table at the garden center today. Although if you see my current post on my garden blog – well – maybe not such a good idea. Then again there is always time to teach my 2.5 year old how to braid while sitting outside enjoying the garden – even if her fingers can’t quite get it this year. She’ll love helping me gather the materials and helping me fold them into the braid… for a bit anyway.

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful garden craft projects!

    Hi Marsha, thanks. Remember the journey begins with the first step! Teaching a young child to braid sounds like the best use of time and energy there is. Good luck to you both! πŸ™‚

  25. Hugely resourceful. I had no idea you could use Iris for this! Very crafty.

    Thanks Rob. You never what can be used for anything until you try! πŸ™‚

  26. Ginny says:

    I am tempted to print this out and store it away for the day when I have enough irises and enough time to try it. I love braiding and baskets – and irises, too, of course. Long ago I made a wreath out of cornhusks. Though no braiding was involved, it seems that handling the materials was similar.

    Hi Ginny, thanks for visiting. Do it! I like to print out directions as well for a later date, who knows when you can find it again? Most things work like this with some soaking to make them pliable. Cornhusks are fun too, but especially for tamales! πŸ™‚

  27. James A-S says:

    Frances, this is very clever. You would be extremely useful to be stranded with on an island. All sorts of shelters and rafts would be quickly whipped up from anything lying around. It would be good if you were trapped in a tall tower like Rapunzel: instead of using your hair you could make an excape rope out of Irises. This is a massive technological advance on the daisy chain.

    Hi James, thanks for that. Even an expert braider would have trouble finding iris leaves in a tall tower I would think, unless there was a nice penthouse garden on top! On the deserted island post, we did name willow as one of our three plants, for the reasons you have stated. πŸ™‚

  28. Rose says:

    Frances, you never cease to amaze me with all your talents. Basketmaking is an art I’ve never attempted; I had no idea you could use so many different materials. I may never get around to weaving iris leaves, but you have given me a very practical idea for next year–plants gourds next to my compost bin! At least there they wouldn’t take up valuable veggie garden space.

    Hi Rose, thanks for that. Basketmaking is quite fun, but time consuming and you are busy enough with the garden. So am I! I just thought since it was the perfect time to harvest the iris leaves and braid them that a how to post would be fun to write. It was. Good luck with the gourds. I have a lifetime supply, never need to plant them again! πŸ™‚

  29. pixilated2 says:

    Frances, I found your post through the Old Bulbs Gazette this morning and I love it. If there is one thing I have an abundance of here on our property it is Iris. Now when I clean up I can do something constructive with the remains. My favorite of your pictured baskets is the tall one with the Money plant in it. Simply lovely! Thank you for the great ideas and instructions, Lynda

    Hi Lynda, thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you enjoy the process of weaving the iris leaves into ropes to use in basketmaking, or any other idea you might have for them. It can be messy, since the leaves need to be wet, but it’s fun to do and uses something that is free and in abundance for many. I do love Old House Gardens!

  30. Carolyn Melf says:

    A friend asked if I would be interested in this project. I have hundreds of iris but never knew their leaves could be put to good use. I own several varieties of iris: pseudacorus, siberian and spuria. Have you tried these varieties for weaving?

    I have only used the bearded type of iris to weave, but feel anything could be braided and used. Good luck!

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