Containing Tradition

Asheville artist weaves time-honored techniques with contemporary sentiments  
Heather Gillespie weaves together influences culled from Cherokee and Southeast Asian basketry, and makes the look her own with a dash of fresh, modern color.
Photo by Colby Rabon

If necessity is the mother of invention, then boredom is a second cousin. Just ask Heather Gillespie. 

Two years ago, amid pandemic lockdowns, Gillespie was running out of ways to entertain herself. So, like many other impounded Americans, she planted a backyard garden and began learning to forage. But then she ran into another issue: How would she transport vine-ripened tomatoes and scavenged dandelion greens back to her kitchen?

The solution presented itself, quite naturally, on Instagram.

Photo by Colby Rabon

While scrolling, Gillespie happened across an Adirondack tracker pack. For centuries, hunters in the rugged mountains of northeastern New York have lugged supplies around in these basket backpacks. But in recent years, urbanites have co-opted the packs, stuffing them with laptops, locally brewed kombucha, and other commuter accessories. 

Photo by Colby Rabon

“I wanted one,” Gillespie says. “But really, there are only two ways to get an Adirondack tracker pack: You can either find one in a vintage market, or you can pay hundreds of dollars.”

Not keen on antiquing during a global pandemic or dropping loads of money, Gillespie set out to make her own. “That was the first basket I ever wove,” she says. 

Jewel tones splash out, distinguishing Appalachian Woven as a new brand of basketry.
Photo by Colby Rabon

Shortly after, Gillespie launched Appalachian Woven, an online marketplace where she now sells an assortment of baskets. Her inventory includes miniature plant baskets, cross bushel baskets, braided trinket baskets, and, of course, Adirondack tracker packs. 

Photo by Colby Rabon

Though entirely functional, Gillespie’s packs don’t look like something a red-blooded trapper would carry while summiting Mount Marcy. Rather, these natural reed totes incorporate chevron weave detailing and adjustable cotton webbing straps. Many of the baskets are also painted in jewel tones. One basket, for instance, is rainbow-colored in honor of LGBTQ+ pride. Another is blush pink and soft blue for transgender pride. 

“I come from a painting background,” Gillespie explains, “so I love to incorporate color.”

Gillespie’s innovative basketry includes turtle vessels and the coveted “Adirondack tracker pack,” a hippie-haute style of backpack.
Photo by Colby Rabon

When Gillespie talks about her painting background, she’s not referring to art school. Rather, she’s referring to her childhood in Upstate New York — an idyllic upbringing in which she was encouraged to pursue all sorts of creative endeavors. 

“Anytime I had any interest in any medium, my mother would go to the library, take out books, and teach herself,” Gillespie remembers. “Then, she would teach me.”

Photo by Colby Rabon

As a kid, Gillespie was also introduced to the traditional Southeast Asian style of basket-weaving by her grandmother. But she didn’t think much about the medium until seven years ago, when her friend accepted a job at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

“My friend asked if I wanted to move with her to Asheville,” says Gillespie, who was living in Scotland at the time. She had just finished her Master’s in marketing at Edinburgh Napier University. “I moved to the mountains on a whim.” 

Once in Western North Carolina, the New Yorker began learning more about Cherokee baskets, which are traditionally made using splints from the Black Ash tree, and from rivercane and other natural materials. Today, her weaving style is an amalgam of Southeast Asian and Cherokee influences, with a dash of contemporary charm.

“Baskets are practical objects; you can interact with them every day,” says Gillespie. “They’re functional pieces of art — that’s the appeal for me.”

Heather Gillespie, Asheville, Gillespie will vend at the Big Crafty, happening at Pack Square Park (1 North Pack Square, Asheville) on Sunday, July 10, 12-7pm,

0 replies on “Containing Tradition”