Baskets have long been an important element in African and North American Indigenous communities. They have been practical tools for collecting, sifting and carrying crops from fields to homes and markets. They have served as containers to store food, jewellery and household goods. Baskets created from different materials and dyed various colours are also a form of art, expressing both the weavers’ skills and a culture’s uniqueness.
Between 1783 and 1785, following the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), more than 3,000 African Americans migrated to Nova Scotia. Many were slaves or former slaves. The War of 1812 offered another chance for enslaved African Americans to seek freedom in Canada; more than 4,000 fled the United States and over half settled in Nova Scotia. The Black Loyalists added to Nova Scotia’s vibrant African Canadian community, which was centred around the church and the enduring fundamentals of African culture. Part of that culture involved the weaving of baskets.
Edith Clayton was a descendant of War of 1812 refugees. She was born in Cherry Brook, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on 6 September 1920. When Clayton was a child, her mother, Selena Irene Sparks, taught her the maple-splint wood basket-weaving technique. It had been passed down in her family — mother to daughter — for six generations. Clayton weaved her first basket at age 8 and grew to become a highly skilled weaver. She met with local Mi’kmaq women to obtain natural dyes, which gave her intricately weaved baskets unique and stunning colours. Clayton wove many different types of baskets, including church collection plates and baby cradles, but her most popular were large horns of plenty. Her baskets were both functional and works of art. They became a source of income for her family when, every weekend, she sold them in the Halifax Farmer’s Market. Her husband Clifford gathered the red maple wood that she carefully split to use for basket ribs and ribbons. Mi’kmaq dyes arrived every week in the mail. Clayton’s distinctive designs, materials, and colours drew national attention when she presented her baskets at fairs across Canada. In 1977, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal. In 1986, Clayton travelled to Vancouver to demonstrate her technique and display her work in the Canadian pavilion at Expo 86.
Clayton’s fame was enhanced in 1989 when she was featured in a National Film Board documentary by Sylvia Hamilton and Claire Prieto titled Black Mother Black Daughter. The film looked at the contributions of African-Canadian women in Nova Scotia and the importance of passing on their memories, skills and community spirit to their daughters. A scene in the movie shows Clayton, her daughters and other women at one of their regular gatherings at Clayton’s East Preston shop. Under her guidance, another generation learned basket-weaving skills while speaking of their lives and families, allowing not only the weaving of baskets but also the oral tradition of story-telling to preserve and enhance the African-Canadian experience.
Family and Teaching
While working on her baskets every day and travelling to sell them, Clayton raised 11 children and adopted another. Clayton’s daughters Vivian MacPhee, Clara Clayton-Gough, Pam Drummond Wall and Althea Tolliver learned the craft from their mother. They continue to celebrate and perpetuate the African Canadian and Mi’kmaq cultures by embracing the basket-weaving tradition.
Clayton also taught basket weaving at evening classes in Dartmouth for the Department of Continuing Education. In 1977, she worked with Joleen Gordon, a research associate with the Nova Scotia Museum, and published a book entitled Edith Clayton’s Market Basket, A Heritage of Splintwood Basketry in Nova Scotia. It contains pictures of her work and detailed instructions on how to make many of her designs.
Clayton died on 8 October 1989, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, while attending church. She was 69 years old.
Edith Clayton’s baskets are held in museums and homes across Canada and around the world. Clayton was commemorated on the Nova Scotia Black Wall of Fame and recognized by the Black Professional Women. She was made an honorary member of the Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council and the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild. In 1990, Nova Scotia’s Black Cultural Centre paid tribute to Clayton with an exhibition called Crafts: Connections in Our Lives.