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Weaving gifts

Self-taught artisan makes baskets

December 24, 2011
By RODNEY MINOR , The Leader Herald

GLOVERSVILLE - While other people have to buy gifts, William Wilson has gifts he can make himself.

Wilson, 82, has been handmaking tightly woven baskets for more than 20 years. He has given them away as gifts for special occasions to friends and relatives that entire time.

"It interests me," Wilson said at his Fifth Avenue home in the city Tuesday. "Not just the baskets, but the history [of the craft]."

Article Photos

William Wilson of Gloversville works on one of his tightly woven baskets in the workshop of his Gloversville home on Tuesday.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

A former tanning company executive, Wilson's interest in wooden crafts go back to at least the 1950s and 1960s, when he was making wooden decoys.

However, Wilson has made a name for himself over the last 20 years or so with his fly tying, fishing poles, hand-painted figurines, and a couple of "guideboat"-style watercraft.

Wilson said his retirement from Peerless Tanning Co. -which he co-owned with his brother, Lawrence - gave him more time to tackle a variety of projects, including the baskets.

It was in the 1980s when he took his first stab at handmaking a tightly-woven basket. Since then, he has made about 30 smaller, "personal" baskets, and about 25 larger, "gathering" baskets.

Wilson said he tends to make one of each and presents both as a gift for a special occasion. For example, two baskets went to a grandson who got married recently. He laughed and noted he will have to start making another pair of baskets for a different grandson who also is set to get married.

Wilson said he has given a number of baskets to the wives of his hunting and fishing buddies over the years.

"I thought they'd like them," he said.

However, Wilson has made other baskets, including a number of Nantucket Light Ship Baskets. The name for such baskets comes from the sailors of old light ships off the coast of Massachusetts who used to try their hand at making baskets during down time at sea.

Wilson and his wife, Marie, were traveling in Michigan in 1987 and were enchanted by these special baskets. Wilson said the store wanted $1,000 apiece, but he had another idea. "I said, 'Hell, I can do that.'"

Wilson went about cutting down an oak tree and utilizing a little book learning to get the job done.

Wilson and his wife also were traveling in 1988 - this time visiting a bed and breakfast in Vermont - when he spotted a woodworking magazine in the library of the establishment.

Using what he has learned over the years, he makes his baskets: making the form, cutting the staves, bending them into shape and crafting the rim.

Catherine Mueller, the executive director of the Senior?Citizens?Service Center of Gloversville & Fulton?County, received a basket about a year ago from?Wilson.

Wilson had brought some of his forms and work to the center, she said, and Wilson noticed her admiring one of the baskets.?So he gave her one.

"What a wonderful gift," Mueller said. "They truly are [sturdy.]"

Mueller said baskets are an appropriate gift for Wilson to give. He is always making something for someone else or helping them, she said.

As an example, Mueller said, or the past six years Wilson has gathered pine boughs to help make wreaths for the center.

"He's always doing something for someone else," she said.

Working Tuesday in his basement workshop, Wilson explained how black ash trees work best for the baskets illustrated in one book he has about Shaker-style baskets.

He noted that not only are the baskets durable, they also can be surprisingly light. To illustrate his point, he lifted up one of the larger pack baskets - roughly 3 feet by 2 feet - with one hand. Because the basket keeps its shape, he said, it can be used for transporting fragile items also.

As he worked with the pieces of wood, he talked about the history of basketmaking, what baskets were used for and unique regional variations on baskets here in the United States.

He said it's not only that larger history, but the smaller one - how different groups of people have changed baskets as they saw fit -that he has an interest in.

"Everyone who does baskets has an idea of what they should be," he said.

The self-taught artisan said when building something such as a guideboat, there can be a significant cost savings; with baskets, it's not quite the same.

"They just make nice gifts to give to people," he said.



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