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Pine needle artistry

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The six women learning to make pine needle baskets from Ruth Ann Hake were so focused on their work they refused to take a break. The class was offered through the community education department of Delta-Montrose Technical College.

A craft show on HGTV inspired Ruth Ann Hake to try her hand at pine needle basketry.

"I was just fascinated," Ruth Ann said, "so I bought a couple of books and that's really been my only instruction."

Since then, she's taught herself how to make about every type of basket, but pine needle basketry continues to fascinate. She formerly lived in Pennsylvania, where she had to special order the long Austrian and Ponderosa pine needles used in her baskets. Now that she's moved to Colorado, she's surrounded by Ponderosa pines, as well as the antlers that are sliced thinly to form the base for the baskets.

"I really lucked out when I moved to Colorado," she said.

She recently taught a class at Delta-Montrose Technical College, teaching six women how to make a small basket out of natural materials indigenous to Colorado in just two evening sessions.

On the first night of class, Ruth Ann handed out supplies -- pine needles (some of which had been dyed), an embroidery needle, artificial sinew or waxed linen, water to soak the pine needles, scissors and a sliced black walnut or sliced deer antler for the bottom of the basket. Small holes were drilled into the antler for the needle to pass through.

The first step is attaching the pine needles to the base with sinew or linen. That was definitely the hardest part, the women in the class agreed. "It seemed like I was all thumbs," said Pat Ostrom.

But once she and her classmates had a few coils stitched and secured, they were able to add shape to the basket. Ribs, handles, lids and accessories completed the basket -- or not, depending on the student's preference and ability.

The technique is really quite simple, said Kathy Koeltzow, who carpooled with Pat Ostrom from Arrowhead. "It's just straight sewing. You can do it sitting in front of the TV."

It's also possible to make a basket without the antler/walnut base, using pine needles instead. Ruth Ann shared that technique with her class during the final session.

The baskets are free-form, which means they're essentially one-of-a-kind. The two class members from Arrowhead said they had no idea what the finished baskets would look like -- they were just intrigued by the description of the class, so they signed up.

"You never know what you're going to get, and you can't make two the same," Ruth Ann said.

Long-leaf yellow pine needles, measuring up to 20 inches in length, are also used in pine needle basketry but must be special ordered. "They're like gold," Ruth Ann said. Some Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina residents bale and sell the needles to basket makers.

The finished baskets are small works of art, but are not really useful for storage and transportation, which were the primary uses of early baskets.

A preschool teacher for 17 years, Ruth Ann has also taught a teddy bear-making class for adults. In March, she's doing a class in crocheted rag rugs at Delta-Montrose Technical College. She'll teach participants how to transform cotton fabric scraps into rugs, hot pads, doilies and even hats. "I teach how to tear, roll, join material and keep the rug flat," Ruth Ann said. "No crochet experience is needed ... just patience."

It's a great way to use of fabric scraps to create beautiful home accessories that simply don't wear out. Ruth Ann has had some of her handmade rugs for 20 years, and they're not tucked away on a shelf. They've been walked upon and washed, and walked upon again, but they still hold up. Two of the rugs are laid out on her kitchen floor.

Ruth Ann, her husband and adult daughter have lived in Delta just a year and a half. When they left Pennsylvania, they joined their son in Lake City. Ruth Ann worked as a preschool director and her husband was a county employee.

For continuing education, Ruth Ann took several early childhood education classes at Delta-Montrose Technical College, so she was familiar with the facility. In addition to classes geared toward professional development, DMTC offers community education classes. Some take just one afternoon or evening. Topics include Beginning Stained Glass, Creating Cartoons and Children's Story Illustrations, Creative Writing, Zentangle, Fused Glass Jewelry and Sew What? A complete schedule can be found on the DMTC website, www.dmtc.edu/community-education.

Photo by Pat Sunderland While walking her dogs, Kathy Koeltzow came across a tiny pine cone she incorporated into her basket, along with a kokopelli charm. The basket is about 2 inches in height.
Photo by Pat Sunderland Ruth Ann displays two of her free-form baskets.
Photo by Pat Sunderland Creating pine needle baskets requires as much patience as skill.
Photo by Pat Sunderland Ruth Ann explains how to make the sides of the basket flare out as coils are added to the tiny base.
Photo by Pat Sunderland Ruth Ann Hake also teaches folks how to make crocheted rag rugs like the one above.
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