Basket Case: School head uses pine straw to calm fidgets

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Living in the country has its perks for Lamar County School Superintendent Tess Smith. One plus that makes her husband, Ray, happy is the lack of neighbors because they would see his wife in the yard sorting individual pine straws.

Tess Smith has been weaving pine straw baskets for about eight years, and she is particular about the materials she uses. To people who don’t understand what she is doing, it could look a little strange.

“My husband laughs and is glad that we don’t actually have any close neighbors,” she said, “or they would see me out there sorting my pine straw.”

A self-professed “fidgeter,” Smith comes by the weaving habit naturally.

“I had probably one of the first fidget spinners in Hattiesburg because somebody gave it to me as a joke,” she said. “I wear this ring right here because I almost lost my wedding ring one time because I was spinning it around. So, I take this one off and flip it from finger to finger in my attempt not to distract other people.”

When Smith heard that a class on making pine straw baskets was starting up, she went.

“I learned from one of our gifted teachers about six or eight years ago when we had the gifted school in front of the middle school campus,” she said. “She taught several of us, like the assistant superintendent that retired, Stacie Pace; and Christy Harvey, who was in gifted at the time. She taught all of us how, so we actually went to that festival in Alabama just over the Bay and we ended up winning.”

The name of the group of weavers was “The Basket Cases.” “At the time, it was two counselors and a gifted teacher,” she said.

With two sons participating in baseball, Smith spent her time in the stands with a bundle of pine straw.

“I sat through many a ballgame making baskets,” she said. “Even in the winter, I’ve got a pair of gloves that I can use to work on the basket and they keep me warm. When I’m sitting at a ballgame, I’ll pop one of these (pine straws) in and you don’t have to worry about the mess you trim up afterwards.”

Smith said learned how to crochet from her grandmother.

“My great grandmother tried to teach me how to quilt,” she said, “but I didn’t really have the patience for that. Crocheting and making baskets are some things that I can sit and work on. Like last night, the boys were over for dinner, so I sat down and worked on this while they were chatting. I like to listen to other people talk. I will chime in, but I’m not sitting there on my phone. I’m being a little bit productive and I can still jump in on the conversation.”

Each basket is unique, Smith said, because she doesn’t have a set pattern to follow.

“There’s no set thing for each basket,” she said. “I just told the person who bought (the antler handle basket) to just be careful with it and hold it by the bottom. Don’t put anything like rocks in it.”

Some baskets have lids, and Smith attaches a pine cone to the center of each lid.

“The beads are just regular beads that I like,” she said. “I have a tackle box where I keep my supplies.”

As far as the basket bottoms, her husband usually cuts the wood and Smith will stain it.

“That’s actually a piece of leather on the bottom of that one,” she said. “I liked it because it made almost an Indian look on that one. It’s weird; unless someone asks me to make them one specifically – like that one that I started – I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. It will develop as I go along.”

Some basket bottoms have their own beginnings.

“That’s a sliced walnut (in the middle of one basket),” she said. “There are lots of things that you can put in the middle. I try to find things predrilled. We have a fish camp, and I was thinking about doing a fish tray. It has these predrilled holes, so it’s easy to get started with. You can start with just pine straw, but it’s a little bit harder and you have to make sure it has to be wet.”

The thread Smith uses is actually artificial sinew.

“When you want to finish it, you want it to be all different sizes and you let it just naturally run out,” she said. “Then you tie it off. If I run out of string, literally all you do is go back a few and start feeding it back over the top of your string until you double it up.

“It has a little bit of a waxy texture because it goes through the straw better. Longleaf pine is the absolute best just because it’s longer, but any of it will do.”

Smith said she hasn’t counted how many baskets she’s made.

“Oh gosh, I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t always take pictures of them, then Ray and the boys said I needed to start taking pictures of them. I used to take them to a store in Oak Grove, but now I just give them as gifts. I have a basket that I made for the boys so that when they come home in the evening, they just toss their keys and their wallets in it.”

Smith said the process of making each basket is not difficult.

“If you can sew, you can do this,” she said. “You have to keep working with it. Sometimes when I finish one – depending on what they are going to use it for – I will shellac it. You can also use green pine straw, and it’s kind of cool to watch them change to brown over time.

“As you are working – you work it all the way through – you have to keep it pretty tight. Tension is a very big deal. You keep the tension on it and you want it to line up and lay pretty.”

Making row after row and basket after basket brings improvements, Smith said.

“It’s like anything else; you get a little better as you go along,” she said. “You just have to be patient with it. I started it because I thought it was really cool to start with. I never thought that I would ever really be able to make something.

“I can’t say how many I have made sitting at Lamar County ballgames. I try to be really subtle about it, but people will keep coming by. It’s really easy; if you can work a stitch, you can do it. This is actually very, very simple.”