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Decoy Magazine, March 1998 Issue

The Art of the Creel

By Hugh Chatham and Dan McClain

Photographed by Gretchen Duykers

Reviewed by Joe Engers

        For those who aren’t fly fishing aficionados, a creel is basically a basket, one with a lid with a hole in it, that holds a sportsman's catch as he continues to cast into the running waters of a trout or salmon stream. But due to recent introduction of "catch and release" streams, creels, now seldom seen in action, no longer serve much of a contemporary purpose. Yet the creel, reproduced in many corporate logos, has become an icon of the modern fly fishing industry.

        "The Art of the Creel" now provides a historical and photographic treatise of the wide variety of vintage creels and their makers, from the earliest 18th century European creels to those still fashioned by craftsmen today. The over 200 creels are beautifully presented in full color photographs that place them in a scenic and natural environment without detracting from the artistry of the creels themselves. The majority of the creels are from the authors’ collections, most purchased from creel maker and collector Daryll Whitehead to whom this book is dedicated.

        The book is divided into 14 chapters. The opening chapter presents an overview of the history of creel making and illustrates examples fashioned from varieties of wicker, leather, and wood. There are also a couple of helpful drawings that detail the different weaves employed to make a basket.

        The next two chapters concentrate on Native American creels. Two distinct schools emerge here: the beautifully woven and decorated baskets of the West Coast, particularly the Pacific Northwest, and the classic split-creel checkerwork and birch bark creels found in the Eastern Woodlands particularly upstate New York and Maine. By the early 20th century, the authors tell us, a small group of collectors had already elevated Indian baskets to a collectible and desirable art form. The wicker creels presented here are every bit as good as the best of Native American baskets, maybe even better. And many of the top basket collectors are unaware of their presence. Many of the Native American creels, from either coast, were made for trade with American or European sportsmen.

        Chapters four through nine cover the leathered wicker creels that were made after the angler moved west. The coarser terrain of the Pacific Northwest demanded a sturdier creel, so leather trim was added too reinforce the corners. Leather reinforced creels were used in the United Kingdom in the later 1800's, but the American West, particularly Oregon, became the center for this industry.

        The authors credit the George Lawerence Company of Portland for setting the standard for leathered creel. The company, established as a saddle and harness business in 1857, advertised creels from 1923 to 1953 in their catalog. Initially they simply applied leather reinforcement to Japanese wicker baskets. Eventually they employed an embossing machine to decorate the leather-trimmed creels, then added custom pockets with zippers or snaps. By 1929 Lawerence offered at least six styles of creels in a variety of sizes.

        Perhaps the most beautiful and desirable of all the leathered creels are those made by W.H. McMonies & Co., another Portland firm. Visually impressive, the quality of craftsmanship in their work has no compare. McMonies, famous for their horse collards, utilized buckstitching, a technique of threading a leather lace through the leatherwork, in all their creels. They stained their baskets in browns, reds, and greens and were actually the first to add zippers to the tops and pockets. The leather was often embossed and a variety of designed sometimes decorated the front pockets. Since so few are alike, it's assumed that most of the work was custom made.

        The John Clark Saddlery C. and the E.P. Peters Company, two more Oregon businesses, also got a full chapter of coverage. Clark is noted for the complicated leather construction and intricate design used on some of their creels. While Peters specialized in golf bags and leather sporting goods, its creels exhibit superior craftsmanship. One interesting feature on some of Peter's creels is a leather flap that snaps shut over the lid -guaranteeing that one's fish out of the basket! There's also information on a few other miscellaneous makers and a chapter illustrating some fine examples by "maker unknown."

        Of course there's a chapter on the wicker work creels, the most common of a ll manufactured creels. The authors credit Nick Mousel of Yakima, Washington as being the finest of the known basket weavers, yet most of the makers will remain anonymous. Some of our favorites were made in the Shaker communities from Kentucky and Ohio to New York and New England.

        The authors devoted two chapters to non-native creel, those made in Europe and Asia. The English provided the earliest creels and most were produced and distributed by the major dealers of the day-Hardy, Farlow, and McPhearson. Creels were also made in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Portugal, and Italy. Before World War I, most of the wicker baskets leathered in America were produced in Asia. After the war, the Asians began leathering their own.

        There's also a chapter on metal creels. Often metal was used for lids on creels, some containing built-in bait cans or tackle trays. After World War II some companies manufactured checker worked aluminum creels made of aircraft aluminum splints.

        The last chapter is basically a tribute to Daryll Whitehead, one of the first collectors of vintage creels, and Freeman Mariner, a decorative leather worker whose creels are modern-day masterpieces of art.

        As have other early sporting items, creels have become transformed into collectibles. They symbolize a romantic attraction to sport a and an era. They are a reminder of the companionship, solitude and refreshment that fly fishing has provided generation of anglers. These functional and utilitarian objects are also great examples of American folk art. If you'd like to enjoy them as much as I have, I guess you better run out and ouck up this book.


The Art of the Creel
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