Elsie Welch Watty (b. 1935) is a master Cherokee basket weaver who specialized in making white oak baskets and was known for creating her own designs. She was born in 1935 and lived and worked on the Galamore Branch in the Big Cove community near Cherokee. Although her mother and grandmother each wove baskets, neither of them taught her the craft. Instead, she learned by observation and began to make baskets when she was ten years old. In 1977 her work was exhibited at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual artisan cooperative. While she was an active basket weaver, she is said to have made 100 baskets a year.
Elsie Welch was born and raised in the Galamore community, off Big Cove road in the western North Carolina mountains. As a child, she went to the Big Cove Day School, walking two miles each day to and from school. She and her two sisters watched their mother make baskets and learned by observation.
My mother was a basket weaver and so was my grandmother and great-grandmother. But my mother didn’t teach us girls anything about making baskets. She told us we would have to learn ourselves. So I stood by and watched her while she made baskets. And when I was 10 years old, I took some of her splints and made a basket and kept right on making them. 1
She and her sisters would go with their mother to cut white oak. Together, they would quarter it with a wedge before bundling their harvest and carrying it down the mountain. Throughout her life, she used the same technique, “I get my own oak now,” she said. “I cut a chip out of an oak tree to see if the grain will split right before I fell the tree. If it’s not right, I go looking for another tree.” 2
In 1946, Cherokee craft workers got together to organize Qualla Arts and Crafts, a cooperative that purchased baskets outright for resale. This provided Cherokee artisans with an outlet for their work.
We would make a basket; Mother would take it out to sell. If we did not make a basket right, Mother would bring it back and tell us what was wrong, and we would fix it, and then she would take it out the next time and sell it. After I did learn how to make baskets, it was really a lot of help to me. It gave me some money to buy clothes and things when I went to school. And then when I got married and started having a family, I could pay bills with the money from my baskets and usually make enough to buy groceries. 3
Married to Samuel Watty in 1959, the couple raised seven children, four girls and three boys. After her children were in school, Watty began working at the co-op half a day. She encountered encouragement from Qualla Arts and Crafts Manager, Betty DuPree and Stephen Richmond, Indian Arts and Crafts Board field representative. In the 1960s and 1970s, Richmond interviewed and photographed many craft workers, and organized exhibitions of their work. Watty laughingly recalled that he came with her to gather white oak, but that he could not keep up, becoming tired by the steep walk up the mountain. 4 Watty tried other basketry materials, but returned to white oak. She did not like using honeysuckle, because it was too narrow and lacked strength. She noted that in making her white oak baskets, she made the bottom splints thicker than the sides to give her baskets strength and durability.
White oak picnic basket
White oak storage basket
For many years, Elsie Watty made large, white oak picnic baskets with fitted lids and sturdy handles. She is one of a few basket weavers who preferred butternut to walnut. This gave her basket designs a stronger contrast, the pale color of the white oak standing out against the “bright black” of splints dyed with butternut root. Like her basket shapes, Watty’s designs were original. “The designs on my baskets are really my own. I would think up things for basket designs, and if it came out all right, then I would continue using these designs.” 5
In 1977, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board organized an exhibition of Watty’s work. The exhibition brochure described her baskets as “masterpieces of art” and noted that she blended “natural resources into utilitarian and decorative objects.” Describing her as “dark eyed and raven haired,” journalist John Parris called her baskets collectors’ items, “finely-woven” with “richly-patterned native dye designs.” He estimated that she “turned out hundreds of baskets, averaging a hundred or so a year.” Watty concurred, “I wouldn’t know how many I have made, but it’s lots. And I figure to go on making them as long as my hands hold out.” 6
Excerpted from Cherokee Basketry: From the Hands of our Elders,
Published by The History Press, 2009
1. John Parris, "Work of Basketweaver Now Collectors' Item," Asheville Citizen, May 1, 1977.
2. Parris, 1977.
3. Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Elsie Watty, Basketweaver (Cherokee, NC, 1977).
4. Elsie Watty Interview by Anna Fariello, July 24, 2009, facilitated by Teena Watty.
5. Indian Arts and Crafts Board, 1977.
6. Indian Arts and Crafts Board, 1977; Parris, 1977.