INDIGENOUS TO THE Southwest, where long-needled Torrey pine trees flourish, pine-needle baskets are gemlike in their beauty, precision and polish.
Unlike the sturdy Eastern baskets woven of willow, split ash and twigs, pine-needle baskets are coiled tightly, often resembling the baskets coiled by the Hopi and Navajo tribes, and are usually much smaller than their Eastern counterparts. Most pine-needle baskets are made in the shapes of rounded bowls, lidded containers or flat platters.
Pine-needle-basket artist Betz Salmont of Manhattan Beach prefers Torrey pine needles--native to the San Diego area--for her baskets. "I like the weight of them" she says, "and their fascicle end (the tiny clump at the base of the needles that once attached them to the tree) is decorative." Canary Island pine needles are also good, lighter in weight and a little more flexible, Salmont says.
Pine-needle baskets are among the most expensive modern baskets available--a 5-inch-diameter basket can cost $150--because the work is time-consuming, requiring great patience and no small amount of dexterity.
The needles are first soaked in water to make them flexible and then coiled, each succeeding row sewn in place with raffia threaded through a large needle. The fascicle ends can be arranged--in the hands of an expert--on the outside of the basket to create parallel spirals or other decorative patterns.
The needles and the raffia can be dyed; one particularly beautiful combination is deep-rusty-red needles with black raffia.
Pine-needle baskets are sold at Gallery 8 in La Jolla and at Del Mano Gallery in West Los Angeles.
Classes in pine-needle basketry are conducted by Judy Mulford at the Museum of Natural History, Exposition Park in Los Angeles; by Misti Washington at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park in San Diego; and by Marcie Stone at the Shepherdess in San Diego.
Mulford's book, "Basic Pine Needle Basketry," is available from the author ($11.50 postpaid) at 2098 Mandeville Canyon Road, Los Angeles 90049. Other publications specializing in basketry are the News Basket ($18.50 for six issues), P.O. Box 220, Bayside, Calif. 95524, and the Basketmaker ($12 for four issues), 38165 Carolon, Westland, Mich. 48185.