So, About Those Needles…

People often ask where I get the needles for my baskets. I live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, where longleaf pines are not very common. The clay and frequent ice storms are less friendly to their growth and survival, even where development hasn’t been the primary hindrance. There are specimen trees near me, including a most beautiful one that graces church property in Raleigh, but these singular trees are not easy to access nor enough to maintain the stockpile I need to complete a number of projects each year.

The Sandhills and eastern regions of the state are much more renowned for their longleaf pines. The golf communities of Southern Pines and Pinehurst are especially known for their showcase beauties. I’ve gathered needles in those towns before, but it takes some guessworks to know when the time is right to find freshly fallen needles.

A man I know owns a longleaf farm near Kinston, NC, where he and his family hand-bundle needles to sell for landscaping purposes. Farms like these offer healthy revenue for their owners and make an important contribution to longleaf conservation efforts. But I have found it difficult to cull healthy, unbroken needles from landscaping bales. I prefer the slow, arduous process of picking the needles up from the ground by hand, or occasionally, with the gentle stroke of a rake.

Needles gathered from eastern NC.

My favorite place to harvest needles is Goose Creek State Park in Beaufort County, NC, where rangers are undertaking a major longleaf restoration project that includes active cultivation, controlled burns, and invasive species control. I make several visits annually. I park near an accessible stand of trees and spend an hour or two beneath them, combing my fingers through long grasses and brambles, pulling up all shades of gold and brown needles, choosing the prettiest to stow away for the drive home.

An hour stooped on hands and knees yields only so many needles, but the amount is less important than the pleasure of the process. Each handful requires my undivided attention and not an insignificant amount of patience for the culling and sorting. It’s a deliberate activity and meditative process to choose each needle, to be present in the moment and on the land as both a consumer and a steward. To me, coiling a basket begins with this process, with appreciating and honoring the gifts from the longleaf trees.  

Hues of Blue

I generally prefer to use natural needles when I coil, but it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to dye needles when green ones become easily available. It’s never good practice to take green needles directly from a tree, or to cut branches for the purpose of harvesting those needles. But from time to time a branch may fall, or in the case of my friend Geoff, who owns a nursery, pruning a longleaf is not out of the question.

This is how I came to have a stockpile of green needles that I let dry in my sealed crawlspace (shhh, don’t tell the fire inspector). When left to dry in the dark, green needles will turn from vivid green to pale green or very light brown, allowing for greater uptake of dye.

Some people use fancy textile dyes that do a great job, but I’m not a pro at it so I do small-batch experiments with regular old Rit. Greens, blues and black are my preferences, although I have seen baskets made with vivid yellows, pinks and reds.  

Today I tried an indigo color, doubling the amount of dye the directions call for, and adding both a cup of salt and a cup of vinegar to the dye bath. I don’t boil the water, but I do make it quite hot and keep the burners on low heat throughout. Once I like the color, I rinse the needles in cold water until the water runs clear and then let them dry in the sun.

It took this batch more than an hour to fully take the dye. The result was a rich dark blue with a nice sheen. I think I have a ceramic center that will be just right for the batch, so watch this space!