Hidden Symbols Within Our Woven Palm Basket Collection

It’s clear why one of our most popular items from our core collection is our Woven Palm Baskets from Zimbabwe. Each basket is one-of-a-kind, and handmade by a women’s cooperative using natural fibers native to Southern Africa. As an organization, we are dedicated to the preservation of heritage crafts, and we love working with our partners to document their process and explore the origins and meanings behind their work. In doing so, we were surprised (and thrilled!) to discover a whole system of hidden symbols with our Woven Palm Basket collection.

HOW A MANMADE DAM CREATED DIFFERENT BASKET STYLES

It’s interesting to see how Southern Africa is a region full of several different basket varieties that all come from a 54,000 square kilometer area centered in the Northwest corner of Zimbabwe and its border with Zambia. (The area, by comparison, is about the size of West Virginia.) This region is known as Matabeleland, and within it several distinctive basket designs originate, including the more well-known Binga and Tonga styles, as well as more specific related designs and subsets such as Hwenge, Munyumbwe, Ndebele, Pondo and Sina. Up until recently, people in this area intermingled, socialized together, and were closely related to one another, however with the construction of the Kariba Dam in the mid-to-late 1950s, the people became separated by Lake Kariba and different forms of basketry took form.

Meridian | Baskets from Matabeleland in Southern Africa are from a very small region, yet present a great variety in weaving styles and patterns.
Baskets from Matabeleland in Southern Africa are from a very small region, yet present a great variety in weaving styles and patterns.

How the Baskets Are Made

The members of our partner cooperative in Zimbabwe are known for their individual style of basketry that is like no other basket from this region. To create the baskets, our partners gather under the shade of a large tree every day to work together on new designs and techniques. They help each other by teaching and learning from one another. The designs on each basket are a reflection of the specific weaver, memorized, and are often inspired by the nature that surrounds their small town.

A Woven Palm Basket takes anywhere from one week to one month to create. The weavers use natural materials found nearby, including leaves from the ilala palm that they dye using tree bark and roots.

Parts of the Basket

Each basket begins in the same way. Weavers start with a square shaped lattice base in a herringbone pattern that is sturdy enough to hold the weight of the basket’s contents. They surround the lattice by a traditional hem referred to as the dove’s footprints, or kano kanziva.

Another common design element across each pattern is the basket’s rim. Although the rim does appear in several different finishings, most are what is referred to as the leopard design, which is a flat, checked edge made using three strands of ilala palm leaf.

Meridian | Anatomy of a Woven Palm Basket

Some baskets present an alternate rim, which weaves strips of ilala leaves over twigs and sticks. This style is extremely difficult to make, but showcases a beautiful, dark checkered pattern on the outer edge of the basket.

Meridian | An alternate basket rim style uses strips of ilala leaves woven over twigs.

HIDDEN SYMBOLS IN BASKET PATTERNS

The most exciting discovery we made in our research of Southern African basketry is that the individual patterns on each Woven Palm Basket have a long history reflecting symbols of the weavers’ culture and history. Much of this symbolism has been lost over recent generations in favor of creating basket designs that are beautiful for the sake of beauty and, of course, marketable to a more international market. It is our hope in sharing this history with you that we can appreciate the art form even more and help preserve the heritage that comes with each basket.

The most exciting discovery we made in our research of Southern African basketry is that the individual patterns on each Woven Palm Basket have a long history reflecting symbols of the weavers’ culture and history.

Most of the traditional designs contain symbolism and artistic representations of animal forms, providing reference to the significance of animals in the daily life of our weavers and their ancestors.

Several designs within our collection (and a popular style with our Meridian Collectors) show an intricate yet subtle pattern which is referred to as Zebra Stripes. The zebra has played an important role in the lives of people in Matabeleland for many generations. Historically, people used the zebra for both meat and skins, however in contemporary times zebras and humans live together harmoniously.  

Meridian | The Zebra pattern is an intricate yet subtle design that is popular with Meridian Collectors.
The Zebra pattern is an intricate yet subtle design that is popular with Meridian Collectors.

Another popular design we’ve seen is reminiscent of the fluttering of a butterfly wing. You can see this design (below, left) presented by a pattern moving from the center of the basket, with wings stretching outward as if fluttering in the wind.

In our research of the Butterfly Wing pattern, another pattern emerged that was very similar yet slightly different. Like the butterfly, a stacked pattern of a thin “V”-shape with a light/dark contrast emerges from the center of the basket (below, right). This pattern is a reference to a fish skeleton, or kafuwa kanswi. Fish are a major food staple in the Zimbabwean diet.

Meridian | A Butterfly Wing and Fishbone pattern Woven Palm Basket
The Butterfly Wing and Fishbone patterns appear similar to one another but quite different upon inspection of the detail.

We were also able to locate a few examples of a pattern known as the Spider’s Web. This pattern is distinctive because it displays thin, single lines in contrasting light and dark colors.  

Meridian | The Spider's Web pattern is distinctive because it displays thin, single lines in contrasting light and dark colors.
The Spider’s Web pattern is distinctive because it displays thin, single lines in contrasting light and dark colors.

A design known as Puff Adder was an especially interesting find. The design presents as circular stripes surrounding the center lattice. In Tonga folklore, the Puff Adder is a venomous viper snake that creeps underground and emits a smell that attracts its prey. In modern times, the Puff Adder is responsible for the most snakebite fatalities in all of Africa. The design’s color contrast, as well as its circular motion, is especially striking.

Meridian | The Puff Adder basket design references a venomous viper known for hiding in the tall grass.
The Puff Adder basket design references a venomous viper known for hiding in the tall grass.

Another popular design we discovered showcases large design elements on the outside of the circular basket. These designs are likely to be the outlines of a hoof, probably of a zebra or donkey.

Meridian | The Hoof design of Woven Palm Baskets references a donkey or zebra's hoof shape.
All of these Woven Palm Baskets appear to include a hoof design.

As with many traditional art forms, patterns and techniques are often combined to make new designs. On one of the Hoof patterned baskets above (lower right), you may also notice an alternating black zig-zag stemming from the lattice center of the basket. This design appears to be a reflection of a man’s traditional apron (called an inola), which was traditionally worn by men in the ruling or upper classes. While this type of garment is no longer in use, it lives on in the design of these baskets.

Meridian | The zig zag pattern emanating from the lattice center of the basket appears to be a reflection of a man’s traditional apron garment.
The zig zag pattern emanating from the lattice center of the basket appears to be a reflection of a man’s traditional apron garment.

We were also pleased to find another garment-inspired pattern. This all-over / dominant diamond-shaped chain surrounding the center of the lattice reflects traditional Tonga beadwork.

Meridian | This all-over diamond-shaped chain surrounding the center of the lattice reflects traditional Tonga beadwork.
The is all-over diamond-shaped chain surrounding the center of the lattice reflects traditional Tonga beadwork.

BUILDING YOUR COLLECTION

As you begin to dig deeper into your basket collection, consider grouping an odd number of different basket patterns together to create an elegant representation of this traditional craft. We hand select these gorgeous baskets from our artisan partners, and we love that there is hidden meaning in each design.

For more basket inspiration, follow our four easy steps to hang these baskets on your wall.

Meridian | The Hidden Symbols in Our Woven Palm Basket Collection

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