When we were approached by customers to make baskets another experiment was needed. We used ‘imizi’ (giant Cape sedge in English) for the rush hangings and sleeping mats. No good for basket making.
The only other free rush material available was ‘umkhanzi (bullrush in English). All the rushes were considered weeds and farmers were only too pleased to allow me to arrive in my battered 5 ton lorry loaded with female workers armed with sickles to cut, bundle and take the rushes away. Everyone assured me that bullrush is too flimsy to use. But I needed to make baskets and reminded the nay-sayers that that the Holy Bible tells us that Moses had been placed in a basket made of bullrush .
We set about finding how to handle bullrush. Like the imizi we had to open up and spread our cut bundles of wet rushes all over a paddock to dry. Once dry the bullrush was too brittle to handle. It split into pieces when we tried to plait it.
Eventually I hit on the idea of soaking the dried bullrush in water overnight. This did the trick. The soaked bullrush becomes as pliable as fabric. I plaited long ropes of rush and sewed the ropes into a basket. It was certainly not a thing of beauty but was a basket. To test the longevity of a basket made of bullrush this experimental basket was left out in the sun and rain in the back yard of our farmhouse. All and sundry were requested to kick it as hard and far as possible whenever they could. After 6 months of this the basket, although looking the worse for wear, was still intact.
How my faithful workers whinged and complained – about having to learn another craft! It was only after I ‘closed’ the rush hangings operation because we had 300 as yet unsold hangings hanging from the rafters of the disused trading store which doubled as our warehouse and office/meeting/whatever premises.
When they realized that their income was going to be curtailed their ‘foreman lady’ told me they had decided they would like to try the basket making.
As we expanded our range we made umkhanzi baskets of every size right up to large laundry baskets with lids. We plaited the bullrush in the main.
I had a rule that all ideas were welcome and not to be derided or ridiculed. Any idea we could use in the business was rewarded with a ‘baso’ the equivalent of the payment for the making of 2 door hangings.
One of the male workers on the farm came up with the idea of simply twisting the rush into ropes. Magic!! From then on most of the basket ware was made this way.
We experimented with masonite . We made trays using masonite bases. Tea trays, small oval florist trays, TV trays with an oval cut-out portion to fit around a stomach, office trays, all sizes some round some oval. I bought a bandsaw saw to cut the trays. Jim did most of the sawing but I became adept at it too. We bought our masonite in large sheets and used up many a consignment. All the trays and the umkhanzi plaiting surrounds were carefully coated with marine quality varnish.
A catering firm in Port Elizabeth asked us to make large customized trays to fit into their VW Combi van set up with shelves all along three sides. These trays were packed with eats at their premises, transported to venues and placed on the tables as they were. The trays had to fit exactly.
I am happy to report that they used the first batch of trays until they were looking too tatty for use and re-ordered new sets at least twice more.
Tea tray with hessian hold
er. Decorations printed forest leaves with wooden curtain ring
Only photo I have of a TV Tray. The dolls pram also had a masonite base.