Caring for Cahuilla Baskets

Caring for Cahuilla Baskets

Cahuilla Baskets

Cahuilla baskets are highly regarded around the world for their fine weaving and beauty of design. Many people have prized baskets made by family members, acquired as gifts from friends, or purchased for private collections.

The monetary value of a Cahuilla basket is based on its age, condition, quality of manufacture, beauty of design, and the information available about its maker. They are worth giving special care and consideration in order to protect and conserve their historic, aesthetic, and monetary value.

Potential Damage

Baskets are subject to damage and deterioration in many ways. Thought should be given as to how they are displayed and cleaned to minimize the effects of aging and to maintain their beauty and value. Many factors should be considered:

  • Exposure to light fades and changes colors, and designs begin to disappear.
  • High or low humidity causes swelling, shrinking, and breaking of basketry materials. Recommended humidity levels are 40% - 60%. Indoor relative humidity levels here in the desert are about 35% and sometimes drop much lower; however, stable humidity is more important than the actual percentage.
  • Aerosol products such as cleaners, perfumes, and hair sprays can inadvertently affect nearby baskets.
  • Soiling can attract insects and molds that damage baskets.
  • The manner of displaying baskets can also contribute to damage. Stands, mounts, display cases, and hangers should be carefully selected, as some may cause permanent warping of the basket.

Cahuilla Basket


Boxes and packing materials may also cause warping of the basket shape and may even crush the rim and sides. Museums store baskets in temperature controlled rooms away from light and rapid humidity fluctuations. Acid-free tissue is used as a wrapping material to prevent contact with surfaces that may let off gas. Inert foams that do not off-gas damaging fumes are used to construct supports and mounts when needed.

Many of these techniques can be adapted for use with private collections. For example, always keep your baskets indoors out of extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations and away from direct light. Acid-free tissue and boxes can be purchased from dry cleaners who prepare wedding gowns for long-term storage or from archival supply vendors. Plastic bags that are made for use with foods are safe for storing baskets. Bags should not be tightly closed, but left unsealed or have a few holes punched in them to prevent moisture condensation inside the bag while protecting baskets from dust and soil.

Cleaning Baskets

Although it may be tempting to clean your basket, not all soiling is dirt or dust, some soiling may actually be culturally important material to researchers, such as food particles. By keeping these food particles on the basket, museums, conservationists, or researchers may be able to test these particles to find out what foods Cahuilla people were processing and eating, the nutritional value of these foods, and how they were prepared.

Never wash baskets in water! Fibers swell, then dry and shrink. The wrapping fibers will shrink first while the coils inside are still swollen, causing the wrapping coils to stretch and break. Embedded soil is not removed, but creates a muddy solution that is absorbed into the fibers. Soaps and detergents, and even water, remove natural oils, drying out fibers and leaving harmful residues.

Never use waxes or oils to treat baskets, they can cause direct damage. They also attract and hold dust and soil, and can change the dyes and natural colors of the basketry materials.

Do not attempt to clean or vacuum a basket which you suspect might have mold on it. This is dangerous and should only be done by a trained conservationist with proper tools and supplies (i.e. blue nitrile gloves, repertory breathing mask, hepa-filter vacuum, goggles, etc.). Click here to learn more about the work done by a UCLA conservation graduate student on a mold basket from the Museum collections. If you are in need of a conservationist, you can look in your local yellow pages or Google search "professional Native basket conservationist."

Baskets should be cleaned of dust periodically. The most efficient method is using a soft paintbrush to whisk dust toward the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Cover the nozzle with a scrap of nylon net or pantyhose and secure tightly with a rubber band. Set the vacuum on low power if available. Use care not to snag the basket with the paint brush and never use the vacuum directly on the basket. This method may not remove all soiling, but remember that a dirty basket is better than one deteriorating from water, soap, or other cleaning methods.