Zulu Wire Baskets

Intricate baskets made from outdated technology

This little work of art is from one of our Beehive sales. If you are unfamiliar with these unique Zulu baskets, you’d be surprised at how heavy they are. Their unusual weight and vivid colors come from the recycled copper and plastic they are made from, specifically, plastic-jacketed copper wire salvaged from out-of-service telephone lines. They are an unintended but charming side-effect of perpetually obsolescing technology.

Telegraph, the first electrical communication system, began in 1840s. It sent short text messages between two geographically separated offices connected by overhead wires spanning the landscape via utility poles. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, so phone lines quickly joined the telegraph lines. The copper wires were insulated, first in lead, later in colored plastic, and bundled into large cables. First long distance phone service came in 1881. By 1915 we had the first transcontinental phone line and copper wire was snaking out across the globe like an invasive species.

But then the more efficient fiber optic cable (which uses laser light zipping through glass instead of electrons zapping through copper) was invented in 1952. And, by 1979 cellular network service started in Japan.

Over the next decades when satellite-supported cell phones spread around the world, the amount of copper telephone wire in active use steadily decreased, although in rural areas and less-developed countries, many land-line phones still use copper wire. The varied colors of these telephone wires is not random, they identify individual conductors when wiring telecommunications into buildings. The major colors are white, red, black, yellow and violet; the minor colors are blue, orange, green, brown, and slate.

It was Zulu security guards working graveyard shifts in South African factories who first wove these colorful salvaged wires together to reinforce their nightsticks grips. And, since the Zulu tribe was already famous for making beautiful baskets from plant materials, the leap to wire baskets was a short one.

Unlike most baskets, wire weaving is done from the top down. A thick wire forms the top rim of the basket, then the weaver works their way toward the bottom, pulling each wire taut against a form to create the basket’s shape. Most are made by men due to the hand-strength required.

Zulu wire baskets vary in size, design and price. A small basket takes a few days to produce, medium-sized baskets may take thirty days and large, elaborate baskets can take more than six months. New, a Zulu wire basket can cost anywhere from $24 to $375. Each Zulu basket is unique in shape, size, color and design. Some weavers are prolific enough that their basket-making provides a livable income, for others it’s a side gig.

The Zulu call themselves ‘the people of the heavens’. They are one of the original inhabitants of their region, having settled there thousands of years before it became the country of South Africa. Traditionally fierce warriors, they historically lived in protected homesteads made of wood with thatched roofs. Today there are over nine million Zulu people, the majority living in KwaZulu-Natal. As time and technology marches inexorably forward, some Zulu weavers have had to replace phone wire with similar-looking annealed steel core wire as the outdated phone wire becomes scarce.

But, you can still find lovely phone wire baskets at QBO Estate Sales. See you soon!