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Finding Inspiration in Traditional Crafts

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A matching beaded vest and dance apron with bison and flowers. A woman is partly visible in the photo as she holds the apron in her lap.
Salish beadworker Adelaide Parker Matt at her ranch near Arlee, Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana. This shows a vest and dance apron, beaded on deerskin, made for Mrs. Matt’s grandson’s dance outfit. Photo by Barre Toelken, 1979. Montana Folklife Survey Collection, Library of Congress. Find the archival scan at the link.

One frequent piece of advice for helping to keep our sense of well being as we need to stay home and stay safe during the pandemic is to find ways to be creative. Arts and crafts provide one way of doing this. I grew up with arts and crafts of all sorts as members of my family were creative. So I have gotten out my art supplies. It doesn’t matter to me if I come up with a masterpiece. It is fun getting back to old arts and trying out new ones.

For this blog I will focus on utilitarian arts, with inspiration that can be found in items from American Folklife Center collections. The difference between arts and crafts is an age-old debate, and a distinction that folklorists know is not seen the same way by all cultures. I tend towards the view that beautiful utilitarian objects bring art into everyday life and everyday use.

A Western style saddle on a horse with a saddle blanket and hand braided riata (lasso).
Saddle, Grayson Ranch. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, June 1978. Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada Folklife Collection, Library of Congress. Find the archival scan at the link.

Saddles may hold strong meanings although they are also practical objects. Some are highly decorated, while others have beauty in the leather and the craftsmanship alone. The western saddle as we know it came to the southwest from the Spanish, who were influenced by Native American saddles. For a close look at the art of saddle making, read about “Saddlemaker Ken Tipton” in this blog by Carl Fleischhauer in Folklife Today, 2014. I am always interested in what people who know an object well have to say about what they feel makes a good one. In art these are aesthetics, though with functional objects it is often simply expressed as what is “right” or what works. When Rancher Les Stewart explained what he thought was the best kind of saddle, he began talking about what is best for the horse. Not what it looks like, not whether the rider is comfortable, but the comfort and well-being of the horse. As someone who spent a lot of time in the saddle far from the safety of home, he knew that his welfare depended on the welfare of the horse. Listen to him talk about saddles in this video from the presentation Buckaroos in Paradise: “Saddle Rigging and the Latigo Knot.”

A young woman carves a flower into a heavy wooden board. A chisel and wooden mallet rest on the board she is working on.
Sandy Zifchock carving a wooden sign. Rhode Island Folklife Project collection. Photo by Kenneth S. Goldstein, 1979. Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress.

Woodworking is found in American Folklife Center collections, from small items for the house to entire hand built houses and churches. Examples of antique furniture, looms, and spinning wheels can be found in the Maine Acadian Folklife Survey Collection, such as these examples found in the Fred Albert House, which is now an exhibit at the Madawaska Historical Society, Saint David, Maine. (It was moved there from its original location in Maison Daigle-St-Jean, Clair, New Brunswick.) In the Rhode Island Folklife Project collection the work of woodworker Al Zifchock can be found with an interview and photographs by folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein. Zifchock carved many signs for the town of Chepachet, Rhode Island, as well as other works. At the time of the project (1979) he was passing on his skills to his children. Pictured right is his daughter Sandy who is carving a sign. This documentation shows how skills are passed down to the next generation. The New Mexico Folklife Project Collection focuses primarily on the creation of religious art, in Santos and the documentation of a chapel. A small carved box is there as well, which I find appealing as an object that might be used in the home. It uses traditional Hispanic carving techniques and has iron bands for its hinges and clasps like a large old Spanish-style chest. It was made by Roberto Lavadie of Taos. Unfortunately it is not known how it would have been used, as it was part of a gallery exhibit.  Perhaps it was for sacred objects or jewelry.

The meaning of a handmade object often extends far beyond its functional use. I am fortunate to have the long baby gown my father wore the day he was given a name, sewn and embroidered by either his mother or a grandmother. Garments that mark passages in life or important occasions may be put away and kept, or, when possible, may be worn throughout life for special occasions. Wedding cloths and head coverings for religious services are examples. These have meanings for the community to which the wearer belongs, but they also acquire personal meanings for the wearer that may change over their lifetime.

A woman sits at the table outside sewing a seed bead border on cream buckskin with two toddlers beside her.
“Luanna White beading the buckskin chaps that her nephew, Steven John (asleep on ground) will wear for his first Crow Fair parade, while another nephew, Todd, is in a playpen.” Photo by Michael Crummett, 1979. Montana Folklife Survey collection. Find the archival scan at the link.

The garments worn by Native American young people as they participate in ceremonies within their cultural group or in public powwows often have profound meaning. A great deal of work often goes into making these garments and they carry the meaning of the events they are associated with for those that made them and those that wear them. This photo taken at the Crow Fair in Montana in August 1979 shows Luanna White beading the buckskin chaps for her young nephew, Steven John (the child seen asleep on ground) to wear for his first Crow Fair parade. The parade event at the Crow Fair allows participants, young and old, to display their pride in their families and their culture. Small children often ride horses with their mothers or female relatives as they gain their first experiences in this tradition. The collection includes documentation of the 1979 parade.

As young people grow they graduate to new roles within the community. Also in the Montana collection is an example of a Salish beadwork dance outfit vest and apron set Adelaide Parker Matt made for her grandson. Fieldworker Barre Toelken, who took the photograph at the top of this blog, thought to ask the meaning of the bison represented in the beads and reported that he was told “buffalo were hunted farther east by the Salish, who had to pass through enemy (Blackfeet) territory to get there, thus [the] design symbolizes bravery, tenacity, cleverness (in addition to [the] automatic power of the bison).” It is an example of the kind of meaning often put into such items symbolically. People in a community may know what the symbols refer to, but a folklorist must ask to find the deeper meanings of a piece.

A display of 13 mittens showing various geometric designs and colors.
Lithuanian knitting by Mrs. Stase Tallat-Kelpša, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas, 1977. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, Library of Congress. Find the archival scan at the link.

As I talk about handmade garments I should mention that I have written about textile arts before in Folklife Today, and I will put links to related blogs at the end of this post. But recently some additional documentation of traditional textiles has been put online with the Chicago Ethnic Arts project and is now more readily searchable. These include Lithuanian knitted mittens with a wonderful variety of traditional geometric patterns (right), and we did not previously have examples of knitting online. These examples were made by Mrs. Stase Tallat-Kelpša of Chicago.

A traditional woman's costume with skirt, vest, apron, and blouse incorporating hand woven fabrics and decorative bands in the blouse and belt.
A traditional Lithuanian costume made with hand woven fabrics and ribbons by Aldona Veselka of Chicago (detail). Photo by Jonas Dovydenas, 1977. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, Library of Congress. Find the archival scan at the link.

Fine examples of Lithuanian woven fabric, decorative bands, and ribbon are also available in the collection. Documentation of Aldona Veselka’s weaving includes traditional designs for traditional costumes, pictures of her working at her loom, and abstract woven art made to hang on the wall. Kazys Bartašius is documented weaving at his loom and examples of traditional fabrics were documented. There are interviews with both of these weavers in the collection as well (select the links on each of their names for lists of materials in the online collection). These arts were being created in the 1970s because of a revitalization of Lithuanian textiles in the United States, as people of Lithuanian heritage found they wanted to wear clothing with traditional designs and to be married in traditional costume. Changes over generations in cultural communities often includes revitalization of traditional dress that then creates a demand for the work of skilled artisans.

An African American woman holds a tray made of pine needles and another plant fiber that looks like cane.
Inez Lawson Sharpe holding a pine needle tray she made. Photo by Beverly J. Robinson, 1977. South-Central Georgia Folkife Project Collection, Library of Congress.

I have always admired the beauty of well-made baskets. Whether made for purely utilitarian purposes, or with added decoration for household decor or storage of special items, a careful basket-maker creates useful containers of natural materials, each having their own beauty. Coiled baskets are an art of  unknown antiquity. They are found in many parts of the world. Bundled materials are sewn together, building up a coil that can be made as a mat or curved to create a container. African coiled basket styles came to the American South with slaves. The styles of baskets made in the Carolinas and Georgia today reflect the shapes of baskets still made in West Africa.

Materials used for baskets made by African Americans in their earliest known form were rushes. These were practical baskets used for work on plantations. The rushes tended to be heavy, but strong for rough use.  Baskets made for home use at some point came to be made of different materials. Sweet grass and the needles of long leaf pine were favored as the material bundled to be stitched together. These might be sewn together with some string or yarn, or a narrow strip of river cane might be used to bind the bundles together. It seems to me that it may not be an accidental discovery that led to the use of the natural materials chosen for the best baskets. Native Americans in this region use the same materials for basket making. In this region Indians were enslaved before Africans. When African slaves arrived they were sometimes in the same households where Indians were still kept as slaves. There was also some intermarriage. So it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that knowledge of the uses of native plants might be shared among people in close proximity to one another and passed on through the generations. No one knows for sure, but there is some circumstantial evidence that this could have happened. It was not until the later 19th century, when freed slaves needed to find ways to make a living, that sweet grass baskets and pine needle baskets became the most prevalent type of basket made by African Americans. This was because these were made for use in the house and sold well.

A woman holds a coil of pine needles in her lap.
Alma Hemmings at home and with baskets, Dobson, Surry County, North Carolina (detail). In this photo she is making a coiled pine needle basket. Between her fingers a metal tube can be seen that is used to keep the group of pine needles in place until they are stitched to the growing coil of the basket. Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1978. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection.

A photo of Inez Lawson Sharpe (above, right) holding a pine needle tray she made in The South-Central Georgia Folklife Project caught my eye. She said that she learned both basket-making and quilting from her mother. The materials and technique of the basket are old. She sewed the pine needles together using what looks like river cane and also completely bound some of the bundles of pine needles at intervals to create a decorative pattern. There is a small open circle at the center of the basket, which is unusual for pine needle construction. So the materials she chose have been used for basket making for a very long time, by Native Americans before African Americans adopted them.  The design of the basket is much more contemporary, with sharply turned sides. African American trays that hark back to West African styles are shallow discs. So this is her design and combines both ancient and modern elements, with beautiful results.

European Americans also learned to make coiled baskets. In the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Alma Hemmings showed the fieldworkers many kinds of baskets she made. Among them are pine needle baskets. In this photo (left) she demonstrates a common method of keeping the bundles even as she sews them together with thread.

Three vases decorated with swirling patterns.
Ceramic vases decorated in Trypillian style motifs made by by Mr. Michael Huminiak, at his home in Roselle, Illinois. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1977. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project (detail, see the link for the full archival scan).

Containers like baskets are useful objects that often may be made in ways expressing ethnic traditions and personal artistry. The type of containers I have the most experience with myself are ceramic pots. The varieties of ceramics around the world are interesting to explore. I am fascinated by the variety of traditional pots and there are many examples documented in American Folklife Center collections.  The Chicago Ethnic Arts project has examples of Ukrainian pottery with elaborate slip decoration. The examples in the photo were inspired by the ancient pottery of the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture in 4300-4000 BCE in what is now Ukraine. The artist, Michael Huminiak, updated the shapes of the vases for modern use, but the slip patterns recollect the ancient style. A series of photographs of the many styles of Huminiak’s pottery can be found at this link.

The South-Central Georgia Folklife Project collection includes photos of pots made by Meaders family at a gathering at the Library of Congress. For me these pots show off the clay they are made from in a delightful way. The Meaders are famous for their traditional face jugs, a Southern tradition that goes back many generations. The jugs were usually used for whiskey and the story is that the scary faces on them were intended to warn children not to sample the contents. They became popular for their whimsical looks and were made by both European American and African American potters for sale. The images available in the South-Central Georgia Folklife Project collection document an event so these are not close up images of the pottery, but the Smithsonian Institution website has close-up images of a variety of face jugs.

The usefulness of taking up an art in a time of stress was discussed in a recent Veterans History Project event that featured veterans who chose ceramics as part of their journey to recover from post traumatic stress. In this video, artists Judas Recendez, Matthew Krousey, and Ehren Tool discuss their ceramic art and process in relation to their military service with moderator Carol Sauvion, creator of the PBS series “Craft in America.” Many images of the works of these creative potters and sculptors are presented as part of the panel. These veterans talk about how their artistic works are and are not tied to their wartime experiences. They also have some interesting things to say about functional art and the joy of making art that people hold in their hands and use in everyday life. Matthew Krousey, in particular, talks about creating meaning in his functional pieces and how that is different from making sculptural pieces intended for display (he is introduced at about 21 minutes into the video).

If you are looking for inspiration for traditional crafts to help carry you through the current crisis, or any future time when you find you need to make time for art for your creativity and well being, there is a great deal to be found online in American Folklife Center collections. May your creations enrich your life and that of others.


Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress.

Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, Library of Congress.

Fleischhauer, Carl, “Saddlemaker Ken Tipton,” Folklife Today, October 15, 2014.

Hall, Stephanie, “Caught My Eye: Reading a Quilt from Maine,” Folklife Today, March 30, 2020.

Hall, Stephanie, “Caught My Eye: The Girl in the Elk Tooth Dress,” Folklife Today, November 21, 2018.

Hall, Stephanie, “From Thread to Fabric to Art,” Folklife Today, March 29, 2017.

Maine Acadian Folklife Survey Collection, Library of Congress.

The Mary Sheppard Burton Collection, Library of Congress. Hooked rugs by Mary Sheppard Burton and their stories.

Montana Folklife Survey Collection, Library of Congress.

New Mexico Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. This collection includes documentation of makers of Santos and religious art in New Mexico.

Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996 (online presentation of quilts and quilters from the Lands’ End All American Quilt Contest Collection and the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress).

South-Central Georgia Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress.

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