Weaving tradition: Local family has been creating baskets together for 35 years

In 1986, when Ed Drake and his daughter Emily Weil took a basket-weaving class at Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Society’s Pioneer Day in Genoa, they never thought basket making would become a family tradition.

Thirty-five years later, the family, which includes six adult members and three children “weavers in training,” continues to make baskets together as Drake Baskets. The children, ages 13, 6 and 4, are Ed Drake’s great-grandchildren and the fourth generation of basket weavers.

“After that class, we just continued weaving, working on a basket during the night or in the morning one day a week,” Emily Weil said. “My dad would start making one, then I’d continue it, and then I’d pass it on to someone else in the family. Soon, we all had a part in creating the basket. My mom loved to trim, the kids helped sweep and clean up; we all decided on decorations like buttons and ribbons. It truly became a family project.”

Family members involved in Drake Baskets include Emily Weil of Kingston; her two daughters, Eva Johnson of Chicago and Becca Weil of Genoa; Eva’s husband, Lynnaun Johnson of Chicago; Gef Astling of West Chicago and his two sons; and Edwina Beckman of Sycamore and her son. For information about each family member, visit the Meet Our Weavers page on the family’s website, www.DrakeBaskets.com.

The memory of family members who have died are honored with every basket made, and their names are on the back of every basket tag. Deceased family members include Ed Drake, called “Papa” by his grandchildren, who died in 2010; Millie Drake, called “Nana” by her grandchildren, who died in 2015; their daughter, Pat Astling of Kingston, who died in 1998; and Pat’s husband, George Astling, who died in 2018.

The family makes more than 100 baskets a year to sell and to give away to family and friends as gifts.

The rattan baskets come in various designs, styles, sizes and shapes, each with a unique name. Examples include the market basket, a rectangular basket with a single handle over the top; the candy basket, a small round, wood-bottomed basket the perfect size for a candy bowl; or the Plum Creek basket, inspired by a basket seen while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead site of Plum Creek in Minnesota. A listing of the family’s basket designs can be found on their website.

“We love to experiment with different sizes and shapes, recreating baskets we’ve seen or making our own design,” Eva Johnson said. “Papa loved the utilitarian and simple style, baskets that you could use around the house. He had the same idea about pricing, that it shouldn’t be too expensive so it’d be treated like an expensive piece of art sitting in the corner. Pricing should be just enough for people to enjoy our basket and for us to buy more supplies.”

Drake Baskets are sold at two local events each year, the Sycamore Steam Show and Threshing Bee, held the second Thursday in August, and the Genoa-Kingston Christmas Craft Walk.

Since both events were canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the family began selling their baskets online at www.DrakeBaskets.com/shop.

“Growing up, our family always included each other in whatever we did,” Emily Weil said. “We always spent time with each other, and it came naturally to share our interests and hobbies. Basket weaving is something we did together as a family, and it just became the norm.”

For the younger members of the family, making baskets has become a way to weave together family memories and stories, as well as rattan.

“I remember Papa telling me that ‘There is no mistake that can’t be fixed,’ and we used to joke and talk as we weaved together,” Eva Johnson said. “He used to joke about meeting our quota and helped teach us how to weave. We used to work together during the summer, hanging out together in the mornings. It was nice to have family time for a couple of hours.”

Each of the children has kept the first basket they made.

“Papa helped me make my first basket when I was 5 years old, and we called it ‘Becca’s berry basket’ because it was the perfect size for me,” Becca Weil said. “We all have fond memories of making baskets together with Papa, and we still use the skills and methods he taught us.”

Although they haven’t been able to visit with each other as often because of the pandemic, the family chats by video to discuss basket designs and to keep in touch.

“We enjoy being together and working together as a family,” Emily Weil said. “Maybe it is unique for a family to make baskets, but it’s something we all like to do. It’s something we can help each other with, work on together and share together with others.”

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.