The twined basket from Kenya, known as the Kenyan basket, or as the kyondo in Kamba, is usually made either from sisal, Agave sisalana, or a combination of sisal and wool or acrylic yarn. Sometimes one sees rather loosely twined baskets of banana fibers. Traditional gems of twined Kamba baskets are made from baobab fibers. These wonderful fibers are not only extremely strong, but soften and turn silky with age. It is the sisal twined basket, however, that has evolved to a greater extent, and that is what I will cover.
Traditionally, the sisal fibers are worked either dyed or not. The traditional red brown (upper row and tassels) is dyed from Ficus thonningii, the sacred tree or (ki)muumo in Kamba. The brown dye (lower rows) is from Euclea racemosa, or mukinyei in Kamba. Fibers are also dyed black with ash. All dying is done in clay or aluminum pots. The traditional basket is quite large, around 15 inches deep and 15 inches wide, with three plaited ropes hanging from where the carrying rope is attached.
The basket is traditionally started with 3 thicker warp threads or spokes and one finer weaver or weft, which immediately is twined around the warp, forming the center of the basket. Additional warp threads are added on the inside of the basket by inserting another thread, bent in half. This new thread is then anchored well by twining stitches and two warp threads are created.
A basic twining stitch is used throughout the basket with some variation in two-color twining to create vertical, diagonal and horizontal rows. Color blocks are often created by twining a “hill” in one color in a selected spot of the basket. An alternate color is then twined over the hill and around the basket. The irregularity created in the basket height is then countered by adding another “hill” in the dips, farther up the basket. The final basket has a smooth top edge. In Kitui, a variation of the soumak technique was introduced, about 15 years ago by a local artist, Geraldine Roberts to create a flat bottomed basket. By working alternately with the two weft threads, a single soumak row is woven. One weft thread circles only every even warp thread, the other weft circles only the odd warp threads. This is described in more detail under two-colored soumak by Peter Collingwood (The Techniques of Rug Weaving. 1978. Watson-Guptill Pub, New York. p. 188). This soumak row allows for a distinct bend in the warp threads. The result is a distinctly flat bottomed basket with vertical sides. This variation on the traditional twined basket is quite common in the beaded and dyed baskets.
Acrylic or wool weft allows colorful rows and patterns in the baskets. Originally made from recycled school sweaters, and now with newly purchased yarns, colorful bags are made. The normal twining stitch consists of two weft threads alternate their places in front of every other warp thread. On the outside, many of these baskets appeared to have been woven in a tapestry stitch, like found around the world, but all stitches are twined. When I saw more than rows, I looked more closely. I was very excited to discover a modified twining technique. This technique is called tāniko by the Maori in New Zealand (Te Aho Tapu, The Sacred Thread; Traditional Maori Weaving by Mick Pendergrast.1987. Reed Publishing Ltd, Auckland. P 14 - 15). I was surprised to find that this technique seems to have evolved independently here among some of the Kamba women. To create words or figures, one weft color is twined around the warp threads and kept to the outside surface while the second color runs behind the warp threads. This stitch takes more skill and time than traditional twining and it is not as frequently found. I have encouraged a group in Salama to weave more baskets, with animal designs, but with limited results. For many village weavers all over Kenya, weaving is more of a way of earning a little extra money; a craft done once all other daily responsibilities are met.