Birch Bark Basket

A couple of months ago my friend Sam asked if I would like to join him for a Cordage, Fiber & Container Workshop in Algonquin Park. Being the craft junkie that I am, the answer was a resounding "Yes!" 

Our workshop was lead by Chris Gilmour, a professional outdoor educator and wilderness guide and his partner. Chris used experiential education as his teaching method and he was a dynamic and charismatic workshop leader. Over the years I've spent a lot of time in classroom and educational environments. I am very interested in educational reform in Canada so quite a bit of my time is spent considering the best styles of teaching, the most welcoming environments, experiential learning and helping students remember the important aspects of a lesson. I'm certain that it will be a long time before I forget the things I learned from Chris, it was a fun and informative day. 

We began by discussing cordage (or what people more commonly call rope). Chris shared different types of plants that could be used and where to find them. Then we began piecing stalks of milkweed apart and breaking off the outer "bark" so that we could use the soft internal fibers. Once we had enough fiber we began twisting it into unbelievably strong cordage that look a lot like hemp. We also learned how to splice our cordage. 

After we played around with the milkweed, Chris showed us how to make cordage out of the interior portion of cedar bark. This was perhaps this most amazing thing I learned all day. It was hard to believe that something which began as a piece of solid bark could be broken down into fine enough fibers for cordage. Once the cordage was complete, I burned some of the extra fibers  to tidy things up a bit. 

Once we had an understanding of some basic cordage principles, Chris asked us to choose a container style we would like to try and construct. There were many beautiful woven baskets but I was particularly drawn to the birch bark containers. The container I chose to make is constructed from one large square of bark with four folds and another two thin strips of birch bark to reinforce the top of the basket. The folds are made in a warm tub of water which prevents major damage to the bark, although small tears are impossible to avoid.

I chose a piece of bark without any holes or tears which makes the container capable of holding water. Chris also explained that if the container had enough water inside it could be placed in coals to boil water (with minimal damage to the container) or used to make a soup by placing heated stones inside. Unfortunately, I won't have the opportunity to test these theories out because I have already given the container as a birthday gift. 

I left the workshop feeling empowered by my new knowledge and inspired by the nature world. I can't wait to play around with what I know and make new things. Chris allowed me to take home some birch bark he had harvested and I have since harvested some of my own from a couple of felled trees at work. 

A Few Extras:
Making Milkweed Cordage
Chris Gilmour's Website


  1. sam roberson1.11.11

    Great photos!! I love your writing!!


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