Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Acclaimed NJ pine needle basket weaver uses native materials for crafting

Mary Carty, 61, owner of Pinelands Folk Music and Basketry Center located in the Mill Race Village section of Mount Holly, will not tell anyone where she gets her materials for her award-winning pine needle baskets. But she will proudly tell you that the needles are handpicked from a longleaf pine tree that dates back to the 1920s. The tree, which is considered indigenous to North and South Carolina, is said to have been planted in the area by a family that had used it as a bald Christmas tree. Though no one expected it to survive, the tree has continued to flourish year after year, allowing the artist to make exceptional basketry with materials that are native to the area.
“It’s a renewable source. Every year the pine tree loses its needles,” said Carty.
Photo by Kelley Anne Essinger
Mary Carty crafts pine needle baskets at the

Pinelands Folk Music and Basketry Center in Mt. Holly.

Longleaf pine needles, which reach up to 12 inches in length, are much longer than the loblolly pine needles indigenous to the area, which are roughly 6 inches in length. Using a longer needle makes weaving the material into a basket much easier, Carty said. A good pine needle basket has no give to it, she added.
“It gives you more material to work with. You could weave a basket with these, but it’s a little more work,” said Carty while rummaging through a pile of freshly picked loblolly needles.
Longleaf pine needles are also easier to dye compared to loblolly needles, which do not absorb color well due to their waxy, resin-like nature, said Carty.
Carty’s basketry, which also includes gourd and woven baskets handcrafted with an array of natural fibers such as rattan, split oak and even antlers, can be found all over the world. Her basket weaving expertise has been displayed at the Tuckerton Seaport. She and her family, seven generations in Burlington County, are also featured in Legendary Locals of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, which was published this year.
Photo by Kelley Anne Essinger
Carty uses needles from a local 
pine tree to craft her handmade baskets.

Carty is a descendant of the original Native American inhabitants of the area, the Piney-Lenape, and brings that heritage into play with her handmade baskets, something she said “just comes naturally.”
“My mother always said that as a child I could go out in the yard and take a pile of shit and make it into something,” said Carty. “She used to always tease like that. I was crafty from the beginning. I even got caught one time building something with white, petrified dog poop,” she added, laughing.
Carty, who said she learned from the “college of hard knocks,” took up basket weaving in the early 1980s after her husband, Richard Carty, was hired to play his mountain dulcimer, a stringed instrument generally played on the lap by plucking, at Kentucky Music Week. It was there she was introduced to the "old-time crafters" who taught her how to weave baskets and encouraged her to teach classes.
After delving into night school courses and purchasing pricey basket weaving kits, Carty decided to gather her own materials and teach her own classes.
“When you’re a basket maker, you’re always looking for something you don’t have to buy to keep your costs down. So I started getting into trying to collect the natural stuff,” she said. “You’re putting labor in to gather your own materials. It takes time, but it’s fulfilling, too.”
Hickory run, honeysuckle, grapevine, driftwood and sweet grass are just some of the many materials Carty and her family gather.
Although there are no other known ancestors who took up basket weaving in Carty’s family, she believes her grandmothers guided her to the art.
“I’m one of those weird people who believes my grandmothers are all standing right behind me, all the way back. And I’m sure that one of them has helped me because sometimes when you’re weaving something you feel like ‘Oh, I’ve done this before.’ It just comes so naturally,” she said.
Carty’s son, Steven Carty, 38, decided to take up basket weaving full-time after losing his job in 2010. He and his mother coordinate classes at the center. Although they teach students how to weave the same baskets, they have different weaving styles.
Steven specializes in driftwood and sea grass baskets, but credits his mother for teaching him the craft. He is heading to Puerto Rico for the winter to learn how to work with different, tropical materials.
Carty’s pine needle baskets are more for decorative purposes. She said she likes their more delicate features and the fact that they are a great representation of the Pine Barrens-area. Weaving pine needle baskets requires a lot of work, using fine motor skills.
“You have to not be intimidated by sewing,” said Carty. “If arthritis sets in, I think you’d have a hard time doing this,” she added.
Carty and Steven are big believers in trying out different classes and techniques to better hone a special niche.
“I’m not territorial. There’s going to be something that I said that you didn’t grasp hold of that the other teacher will say and a light bulb will go off,” Carty explained.
“Develop your own style. There’s nothing wrong with doing a pattern a little differently,” added Steven.
A little bit like a grandmother herself, Carty hopes that her students will go on to become “basket makers, not makers of baskets.” She said she loves teaching all ages and is willing to share her expertise with anyone interested in the craft. Of course, she said she wouldn’t give up her secret pine needle tree no matter what.
To learn more about Carty and her beginner and specialty basket weaving classes or workshops offered at Pinelands Folk Music and Basketry Center, visit pinelandsfolkmusic.com or call 609-518-7600.

–Kelley Anne Essinger

This article was published in The SandPaper.

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