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Bags and baskets... still the best bet

Bags and baskets have been used since pre-historic times to store a variety of articles. Though they have undergone a transformation over the years, what has not changed is that they continue to remain an indispensable feature of our lives.

EVERYDAY ITEM: Bags are a part of cultures across the globe.

FOR CENTURIES, man has been employed in making bags and baskets, using his ingenuity to create astonishing shapes and forms from material available to him. Baskets are common to countries all over the world, be it exotic Asia or the vast spaces of North and South America. The humble, multi-purpose basket or bag is an everyday item in our lives. But as we sling it over our shoulder, have we ever realised its importance or versatility? A basket can be used to store many things — laundry, waste paper, toys, fruits and more. Bags also have various forms and uses. They can be taken to cocktails and dinners or on trips to the beach, the supermarket or to the workplace.

Over the years there has been innovation with regard to the materials used as well. Grass, leather, fabric, paper, synthetic fibres such as nylon and wire mesh, and almost any pliable material have found their way into a bag designer's workshop in various combinations. The process is not unlike the way Mother Nature's premier basket- makers work. Take a look at the way the weaverbird weaves its nest. It weaves together grass, bits of cotton wool, fabric and any other material it can find to make its home comfortable.

There is more evidence of Nature at work if we look closer around us... a spider's web, a creeper twining itself around a tree, the intricate dams that an otter builds in a stream... However, man's basket to bag to suitcase story probably has its origins in his quest for storage, an efficient way of transporting belongings from place to place and protecting them. His personal items were not meant to be scattered about, and some were most definitely not for display. Nor was it practical to move them around piece by piece. And so the story began.

The earliest baskets known to history probably belonged to hunter-gatherer societies. They travelled light, uncluttered by possessions and were expert at making what they needed from material available at hand. The craft of weaving baskets, intended for long-term use, probably developed 1,200 years ago, around the same time as the first agricultural methods and the establishment of communities. It is in these places that the oldest woven artefacts have been found.

In the forests that once covered the North of America, Europe and Asia, the most readily available materials are bark, twigs, wood and roots of trees. In hot, wet regions of Southeast Asia, the jungles and forest are a rich source of fast growing plants such as bamboo and rattan. In the grasslands of South Africa, baskets and bags are made from coiled and stitched grass. In contrast, wetlands produce reeds and rushes, deserts present fibrous succulents such as the yucca, the Tropics have palms and agricultural land has an abundance of straw. This naturally led to basketry traditions primarily involving the usage of local materials.

However, with developments in transport, there have been many changes and it is not surprising, therefore, that the Asian material rattan is now exported all over the world. In heavily forested North America, split wood is often used to make bags and baskets. Pliant shoots are split into flexible slats that are then woven.

In India, China and Japan, bags and baskets are an indispensable part of life and they are most often made from bamboo. Fine split bamboo is divided into skeins and woven into anything from hats to lunch boxes. Thicker strips are used in the manufacture of larger, crude baskets for heavy goods.

Rattan, from the Philippines and the Pacific, is a tropical climbing palm, and one of the most popular materials. Its roots are also surprisingly strong and flexible but the grasses are more popular.

SAFE KEEPING: A basket can be used to store a wide variety of objects.

In Tripura and Manipur, bamboo stems are woven into furniture and storage containers. Elsewhere, reeds which grow near swamps and marshes, are used to make mats and baskets. Rushes are fibrous and flexible when damp so they can be woven into various forms from baskets to shoes. Most common is the bulrush.

Palm leaf is another material available across India and other tropical regions of the world. Then there are vegetable and fruit fibres such as banana fibre. Paper fibre is used to make bags. So are wool, hair and leather. Wire baskets are also seen across India and hold anything from fruits to eggs and birds!

There are several techniques in basketry but what you can look out for in your bag are some of the most common — plaiting, twining or coiling. The process of weaving a bag or basket uses two interlaced elements — the more rigid and passive one is called the stake and the other more flexible one is called the strand, which is manipulated in and out of the stakes. The elements of a bag or basket are the base, the rim and the handle. These are often made from a combination of materials to add interest and create a pattern or design. Handles are made from stronger materials than straps, which are flexible. Varying the ways the elements are woven helps create new textures. Natural and synthetic dyes can then be added to fibre to provide colour. Modern accessories such as buckles and buttons vie for attention alongside beads and ribbon. Pockets are added to facilitate easy access to your possessions. Sizes vary from luggage proportions, to slim little totes for the evening.

Natural fibre bags are now the current rage and are often seen on fashionable shoulders. They come in a variety of materials such as screw pine, golden grass, the traditional bamboo, and banana fibre. But too much heat causes natural fibres to get brittle and strong sunlight makes the colours to fade. Therefore, regular maintenance involves dusting now and then, wiping with a soft cloth (wet or dry depends on the material — leather, plastic, wool or fibre). All in all, a facelift now and then will ensure that your favourite bag goes a long way with you.

The bag has undergone several transformations from pre-historic times to the fashionable woman's wardrobe where it is displayed in an assortment of colours and styles. What hasn't changed however, is how indispensable it is to our lives, and how much we take it for granted.


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