April 12, 2013
Bill Hill uses nothing more than wood and water to create a product that outlives most anything made today. At the recent Somerset Historical Center’s Mountain Craft Days he demonstrated his craft, propping a white oak log on its end and using a big-bladed tool to split the wood and wrench it apart.
"I'll continue to lever this wood apart," he said, his knuckles turning a little white. White oak has lots of fibers, a big reason why it's so great for weaving baskets—and also why it can be a bit of a bear to separate. Hill laughed, "You don't have to go to the gym when you're doing this kind of work."
Hill has been working with white oak for 60 years, since he was an 8-year-old kid growing up in Alabama. He helped his grandpa put seats in two rocking chairs for his mother. "That's the first time I actually handled spits and helped hold them in place and helped weave," he said.
But now even at Mountain Craft Days, a festival celebrating traditional crafts, Hill's seen as a sort of relic. "A lot of basket makers today buy the prepackaged, machine-made materials, but Bill starts with the tree," said event organizer Mark Ware.
For Hill, the process starts in the woods where he looks for a tree without knots or twisted bark. "You want to search for that tree where the bark feels kind of crumbly on it. That tells you it most likely will be good wood—it's not going to be too brittle," he said.
When he finds it, he cuts the tree down and splits the wood until the pieces are thin enough to weave. Getting slivers as thin as a 16th of an inch is delicate work. Hill uses a small knife blade and peels the wood apart with his fingers. "While it doesn't look all that difficult, there's a certain feel to it that you get with practice," he said.
Hill can now recite patterns he's used for years. He talks about the intricacies of making a square versus a round basket, and of double lashing the handle so it's good and strong. "Then finally I finish it off with the decorative braid here that's sort of the signature. And then you have a basket that will last you, well, I have some 150 years old," he said.
And those 150-year-old baskets aren't relics tucked into a museum, either. They're fully functional—used for eggs, cotton, or berries, he says.
Hill doesn't spend much time on the farm anymore. Today he lives and works in Munhall, PA. So where does the tradition go from here?
"Historically it was passed down generation to generation, but in this day and age, it doesn't necessarily follow that anymore," said Mark Ware of Mountain Craft Days.
This is even the case in Hill's family. He's the youngest of four boys and the only one who actually started making baskets. "My other brothers never took an interest in it," he said.
This is half the reason Hill wanted to demonstrate the process at Mountain Craft Days. He wasn't selling baskets, he was just showing people how to make them, because ultimately, that's what he wants his audience to do.
He said there is still a smattering of people around who have grown up with the trade. "Some in Virginia, some in Florida, some in the Ozarks, some in Tennessee." But there aren't all that many.
Still, Hill is confident the tradition won't fade away, so he spends time demonstrating throughout Pennsylvania, a state where white oak trees are among the most common. "Of course the name Pennsylvania, Penn's Woods, it's a great place to have great forests and resources," he said.
Hill may be a man of tradition, but he's not opposed to new tools. Now he's online, using facebook to reach a new audience.
A version of this story was first published on October 13, 2012.