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Retired but Still Bold: Basketmaker John Toft

Aug 21, 2009

by JohnToftBasketry handmade and vintage goods

In celebration of today being National Senior Citizens Day, retired Etsian John Toft shares his story of finding basket-making as a young boy and returning to it in his golden years. For John, basket-making has developed into a much-needed meditative outlet when life’s everyday stresses wear him down.

A few years before I retired from teaching high school in the remote gold-mining town of Red Lake in N.W. Ontario, I remarked to my wife, Anne, that I should do more than golf and garden when I retire.

I recalled to Anne my early crafting experience, growing up in a beautiful English village called Cheddleton. There, at around the age of nine, the “top class” was introduced to basket-making in the arts and crafts course. Traditionally this class was one not taken seriously by the pupils. However, my twin brother, Frank, and I had other ideas. We took to basket-making as another sports competition. “I will show him how much better at this I am,” I said to myself as he likewise vowed to do better than I. So avidly did we compete, that basketry supplies at the school dwindled to almost zero.

Anne patiently listened to this story as if for the first time. But that Christmas, a book on basket-making appeared beneath the Christmas tree. So my basket-making odyssey began. By the time I retired from teaching, I had found a supplier of basket-making materials (Kilby’s of Toronto, Ontario) and had given friends, relatives and passing strangers what I now recognize as somewhat crudely made baskets. But I was hooked.

At that time, I had been the Chair of Harmony Centre for Community Living in Red Lake for many years. This agency serves all people with developmental, emotional, and physical disabilities. Our adult son, Adrian, a person with autism, was a fully fledged member of that Community Living Centre from the age of sixteen.

We decided to move to Ottawa with Adrian so he would be near his siblings. They could then supervise his life in that community when we were no longer living. Surely, we thought, we could find Adrian similar facilities in “The Nation’s Capital.”

We moved to Ottawa in October 2001. We soon discovered that Ottawa did not have the facilities and programs our son needed. He had to live with us in our basement — this after eight years of supported independent living in his own apartment through the Community Living Centre. It was then that basket-making for me came into its own as a therapeutic occupation.

From 2001, Anne and I battled to get Adrian the facilities and services he had had in Red Lake. We became founding directors of the Families Matters Co-operative Inc., an organization for and about people with developmental disabilities. I made presentations to the Federal House of Commons Finance Committee, the Ontario Legislature’s Finance Committee, and the City of Ottawa. I was the primary author of a position paper called “Dare to Care” that detailed what services should be mandated to all people with developmental disabilities, nationally and provincially. And I registered my basket-making business as John Toft Basketry.

It was this business that kept me fairly sane. My basket-making skills by then were getting better and better. And people were saying fine things about them and even buying them. I enjoy talking to people about my work. I enjoy demonstrating my work, and I enjoy the relaxation that comes as I sit and make another basket. I have to concentrate when I work. My mind cannot focus on the worries of the world when I am weaving. The cares and tribulations about Adrian vanish when I sit down and get on task.

Lobbying, protesting, letter writing, sending emails to politicians of all levels and parties became my life. And the stresses soon began to tell on my health.

By 2008, Adrian was settled in with a wonderful agency, Tamir. He lives in a group home operated by that agency and takes part in their day programs. Families Matter had become a viable organization, receiving funding for three years to engage a paid Executive Director. It was time for both Anne and me to move on and leave the stresses to others. And it became the time when, for me, basket-making became a larger part of my life.

I was making enough money from my basket sales to cover supplies costs and exhibition entry fees, and then I heard about Etsy. “Why don’t you sell your baskets on this world-wide virtual sales system?” suggested Catherine Gutsche, a.k.a gutsche, a local artist and Etsian I often saw at various shows in the Ottawa area. I took up her challenge. Little did I know what a steep learning curve I was to face in working to become a successful Etsian.

I still remember when a computer appeared on my office desk at Red Lake District High School. “You will use this computer to change students’ timetables, enter marks, keep track of credits earned, send marks to colleges and universities and register new students.” I gulped and then said, “OK.”

For Etsy, the challenges were different, but the learning curve just as steep. How do I create a banner? What is an avatar, and how do I get it to the right size? For these two problems, and others, the cry was “Anne!!!!!” Anne was a computer programmer from the days of punched cards, but she had kept up and developed her skills and abilities in the intervening years. She formatted my avatar and banner. But I still had to learn about photographs, pricing, descriptions, and tagging.

I soon began developing my blog as a promotional device for my Etsy shop and my baskets. On my blog, I share a great deal about basket-making, and a wide variety of other topics that take my fancy. It also includes occasional posts about our current joys and successes, as well as our trials and tribulations with Adrian as he reaches his 40th birthday this November. The basket-making, the blogging, and Etsy Chat Rooms help me through the day-to-day stresses. When I retired I never thought I would become a chat room addict!

I am a member of the Etsy for Autism Team and I find solace in sharing with members some aspects of our life. I donate 10% of my sales revenue from Etsy to the Geneva Centre for Autism, Toronto. This world-famous research institution for autism is the institution that taught Anne, Adrian and I, his teachers, and the staff at Harmony Centre how to cope with the devastation that autism brings. The donation is one small step I can take to say thanks.

Retirement’s challenges have been many and varied so far. What new challenges will come for us, Adrian, and Etsy? Who can tell? But basket-making will continue to help me survive these challenges as it has done in the past.

Looking for more This Handmade Life posts? Check them out here.

More Posts about Autism or Retirement.

Browse Items from the Etsy for Autism Team.

Rib basket, Fanny style, with brown willow handle, collecting basket
Rib basket, Fanny style, with brown willow handle, collecting basket
Vintage Woven Brown Leather Basket Flats
Vintage Woven Brown Leather Basket Flats
Nellie Table Lamp
Nellie Table Lamp
French Bread Basket Coiled Gourd Natural Brown Terracotta Earth Tones Unusual Practical
French Bread Basket Coiled Gourd Natural Brown Terracotta Earth Tones Unusual Practical
Large Basket Weave Stoneware Pitcher
Large Basket Weave Stoneware Pitcher
12 Small Black Walnut Slices- FREE SHIPPING
12 Small Black Walnut Slices- FREE SHIPPING
yellow summer 4x6 Fine Art Print
yellow summer 4x6 Fine Art Print
Hand Embroidered Birdie Design Pouch 7.5 x 4.5
Hand Embroidered Birdie Design Pouch 7.5 x 4.5
SALE,  Basket Horsehair Twist
SALE, Basket Horsehair Twist


  • aBreathofFrenchair

    aBreathofFrenchair said 7 years ago

    I am a sucker for handmade baskets! Beautiful! Thank you for donating to the research on Autism. I have a sister that has autism and research is greatly needed.

  • SimpleJoysPaperie

    SimpleJoysPaperie said 7 years ago

    Wonderful article ~ beautiful baskets!

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 7 years ago

    I am so deeply touched by this story! John Toft is an immensely caring human being. Thank you for sharing your poignant story and giving inspiration to us. Yes, creating really does make the cares of the world vanish for a time and nurtures the spirit.

  • zeropumpkin

    zeropumpkin said 7 years ago

    :) what a grat article , seen JohnToftBasketry b4 when his in the chat room..great stuff :)

  • foamywader

    foamywader said 7 years ago


  • GreenVioletVintage

    GreenVioletVintage said 7 years ago

    What a wonderful story, Jon! I'm so glad you are part of the Etsy community!

  • BellaVintageANDmore

    BellaVintageANDmore said 7 years ago

    That is a wonderful story. I believe that scrolling through Etsy is a stress reliever, also. Your baskets are beautiful.

  • LaLah

    LaLah said 7 years ago

    thank you for this article...

  • sillylittlelady

    sillylittlelady said 7 years ago

    A wonderful story, thanks so much for posting! I've been needing a new picnic basket ;)

  • anda Admin

    anda said 7 years ago

    I love basketweaving!! I have such lovely childhood memories of my mom's brief obsession with this craft...a bowl of water on the floor full of soaking reeds, how she would hum while she worked, the way the wet reeds snapped through the air. Hehe, maybe she'll see this and comment. :D

  • sandali

    sandali said 7 years ago

    AWESOME article ~~ Old is most definitely gold in this regard !! Happy Days ;)


    HAREandDRUM said 7 years ago

    Wonderful story! Just this summer visit in my home town in Poland I learned of the death of a wicker basket weaver who was a tremendously admired character. His craft was excellent: to prove it he would stand and even jump on his baskets turned upside down to show durability. I commissioned some very special baskets with him that safely transported my inherited china into the US. He retired some 5 years ago and his little shop was turned into a cafe. On the occasion of John's story, I would like to mention him, too: his name was Jerzy Ulcyfer. He was 78. I miss him, his little shop, and all the tall tales he always told about his work. :(

  • thebestvintage

    thebestvintage said 7 years ago

    Great article!

  • mythunderstood

    mythunderstood said 7 years ago

    This gives such an immediate sense of peace and gentleness that seems to be sorely needed right now!

  • dvinedesigns

    dvinedesigns said 7 years ago

    love the basket weave! great store!

  • beachhouseblues

    beachhouseblues said 7 years ago

    I would love to learn to basket weave. Such a great craft!

  • RockPaperSilver

    RockPaperSilver said 7 years ago

    Great story...thanks for sharing your "basket journey" with us John! Your baskets are amazing!

  • steinschmuckdesign

    steinschmuckdesign said 7 years ago

    Thank you for sharing, such Great work!

  • TheCottageCheese

    TheCottageCheese said 7 years ago

    John and Anne, you are an amazing (and talented) couple. Thank you so much for sharing your touching story!

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts said 7 years ago

    Great story. Congratulations. Great baskets.

  • VintageBookStore

    VintageBookStore said 7 years ago

    What a great Story. Beautiful Baskets too!

  • 1AEON

    1AEON said 7 years ago

    exciting!! what a great B&W photo at the top!

  • OffTheHooks

    OffTheHooks said 7 years ago

    what a great story- i love the connection between social activism and craft/art- it truly is a refuge in a sea of chaos. Congratulations on all your acheivements, and beautiful work!

  • strandsoflight

    strandsoflight said 7 years ago

    I am in awe of basketmakers and weavers of every ilk. This is a great story and I love every item in this collection!

  • lizroca

    lizroca said 7 years ago

    Wonderful article and beautiful work. Thank you.

  • Waterrose

    Waterrose said 7 years ago

    I love baskets and this is such a great article. Wonderful representation of baskets!

  • MeghanT

    MeghanT said 7 years ago

    Wonderful story. I can relate to you when you talked about using your work to escape worries. I get overwhelmed with ideas, thoughts and feelings sometimes and sitting down and doing wire work really helps me calm and center myself. You almost go into a meditative state and it's very relaxing. I am always glad to hear stories about someone with ties to Toronto. I live very close to this amazing city. Your baskets are gorgeous! Thanks for sharing with us. :)

  • shopgoodgrace

    shopgoodgrace said 7 years ago

    wow! Such a great story ~ love the competition between John and his twin brother, Frank. And so sweet of his wife to give the gift of the book at Christmas. Such a talented artist. And kudo's to both Anne & John for their tireless efforts in raising awareness and getting the services for their son ~ and in effect, for other people with Autism too. (P.S. A big thank you to John for his years of teaching, as well!)

  • GreenTease

    GreenTease said 7 years ago

    WOW what an inspiration an amzing talent!!!

  • LittleStudioJewels

    LittleStudioJewels said 7 years ago

    Congratulations John, I am so happy you have found your 'niche'. Congratulations on the article, it is certainly well deserved! Go Ottawa Team Go!

  • bythewayside

    bythewayside said 7 years ago

    What a wonderful story! You are an inspiration, thanks for sharing!

  • BabbidgePatch

    BabbidgePatch said 7 years ago

    wonderful article! nice to read!

  • workingforpeanuts

    workingforpeanuts said 7 years ago

    Thanks for your awesome story! Best wishes and more success to you and your family.

  • lindesigns

    lindesigns said 7 years ago

    Great story! Thanks for sharing that! Love midnightcoiler's and bazketmaker's pieces!

  • MentaEra

    MentaEra said 7 years ago

    His baskets would be great for harvesting!

  • BlackStar

    BlackStar said 7 years ago

    Wonderful article and beautiful baskets!

  • midnightcoiler

    midnightcoiler said 7 years ago

    John, your journey has brought tears to the corners of my eyes. What wonderful work both in your basketry and in your advocacy. Nice to "meet" you! Etsy, thanks for this great feature on John and his life in basketry. I'm truly honored to have my french bread basket shown here.

  • StellasKnits

    StellasKnits said 7 years ago

    What a beautiful story. Thankyou so much for sharing.

  • Mymothersgarden

    Mymothersgarden said 7 years ago

    John, what a beautiful and touching story. Wishing you much success in all that you do!

  • bazketmakr

    bazketmakr said 7 years ago

    Hi John, what a wonderful article! My congratulations on your success and your continued growth as a basketmaker and an etsy seller! I enjoy your blog very much, as a basketmaker myself and a person who lives with autism every day, just as you do. I, too, am honored to have one of my horsehair baskets displayed here. Great going! Pamela

  • MagnetGames

    MagnetGames said 7 years ago

    John, I commend all of your efforts to further the services available to persons with disabilities in your area. Good luck with your shop!

  • VixVintage

    VixVintage said 7 years ago

    Thank you John, beautiful story and baskets.

  • slumptown

    slumptown said 7 years ago

    What a wonderful touching story. Thank you for sharing and best of luck in your future endeavors. Your baskets are beautiful.

  • Balanced

    Balanced said 7 years ago

    Wonderful Article John! I recently acquired one of Johns basket tray making kits and it was my first try at basket weaving of any kind. It's a great way to get started or just try something new. and it's tons of fun!

  • LisaFerinDesigns

    LisaFerinDesigns said 7 years ago

    What a great article--beautiful work John!

  • odiliafu

    odiliafu said 7 years ago

    Beautiful!! Great article!!

  • birdie1

    birdie1 said 7 years ago

    Wonderfully inspiring!

  • nomadcraftsetc

    nomadcraftsetc said 7 years ago

    Congratulations! I am so happy that this article was made! It made me teary eyed to hear that John is following his heart and doing something he loves! Good for you! Off to check out your shop!

  • rakubuttons

    rakubuttons said 7 years ago

    There's a lot of good basket cases.... erm... um... I mean basket items on etsy to choose from.

  • embellishedlife

    embellishedlife said 7 years ago

    Splendid article! Thank you for featuring diverse etsians!

  • EJPcreations

    EJPcreations said 7 years ago

    What a great story!!!

  • JosiesBeadedJewelry

    JosiesBeadedJewelry said 7 years ago

    Fantastic article - I loved hearing your story! I took a basket making class when I was 12 - it's a craft few people get to experience. Keep up the great work!

  • FluteTeacher

    FluteTeacher said 7 years ago

    Thank you for sharing your story. Beautiful baskets!

  • raghousenternational

    raghousenternational said 7 years ago

    Lovely story. Beautiful treasury of baskets! Ren

  • xtinavox

    xtinavox said 7 years ago

    John, thank you so very much, more than I can say. My son Charlie is 12 and autistic. Like Adrian, I am 40. Like you, I am an educator. I started spending time on Etsy's site----browsing through the many beautiful creations of makers, reading the stories about the handmade life here on the Storque---as a means to alleviate stress. I write to deal with this but---this is the happy influence of many fine Etsians like yourself---have thought more and more that I need to start making _something_ to help my family through some difficult moments and many worries (especially about what happens when my son is an adult---he is already 7 inches taller than me). Thank you for sharing your story. And your baskets!

  • salsainside

    salsainside said 7 years ago

    Very interesting. I would love to learn to weave baskets. Such a nice story.

  • bijougirldesigns

    bijougirldesigns said 7 years ago

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing. I LOVE baskets.

  • Krystyna81

    Krystyna81 said 7 years ago

    oh wow. what an incredible story. Truly inspiring. My nephew has autism, and I can only begin to imagine the struggles of dealing with it on a daily basis. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story!

  • nestables

    nestables said 7 years ago

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your baskets are beautiful! All the best to you and your family!

  • moonovermaize

    moonovermaize said 7 years ago

    What a wonderful article. You, your family, your baskets are so very beautiful and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  • MyMoms

    MyMoms said 7 years ago

    Wonderful collection with so many favorites, thank you!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 7 years ago


  • evihan

    evihan said 7 years ago

    woww what a storyyy thank you for sharing with us:-)

  • reiter8

    reiter8 said 7 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your story. It really speaks to the joy and purpose that craft can bring to our lives at any age as well as the support that we can find though this diverse community at Etsy. All the best to you, your family and your business!

  • FlanneryCrane

    FlanneryCrane said 7 years ago

    John: Thank you for sharing with us. I so much enjoyed reading your experience. I can totally relate to the peace that hand crafting brings as floral design is my therapy. Thank you for contributing to autism research, and I wish you much continued success in the basket making business. Lovely work! Thank you so much! Joy @ FC

  • TreeHuggerStudio

    TreeHuggerStudio said 7 years ago

    Congrats on your success and bless you for helping a great cause.

  • RomanceCatsAndWhimsy

    RomanceCatsAndWhimsy said 7 years ago

    That was such an inspiring article - I got lost in it!! Such caring parents and to do all that you did in retirement -- wow. It's good for all of us to see that we can do so much more in "retirement" than just travel and play. Thank you so much for sharing - I really enjoyed your article.

  • BayMoonDesign

    BayMoonDesign said 7 years ago

    Lovely baskets!

  • legacylinens

    legacylinens said 7 years ago

    Beautiful baskets coming from a beautiful person - thanks for sharing your story!

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 7 years ago

    love the woven square necklace!

  • katsummers

    katsummers said 7 years ago

    Thank you for this touching and inspiring article John. I am the mother of a profoundly autistic son, Sean. He will be 14 years old in two weeks.

  • patspottery

    patspottery said 7 years ago

    Wonderful article that I could definitely relate to. I am also retired from being a dietitian to being a potter. My life as an artist/potter is so fulfilling, I wish I had discovered it many years ago:>)

  • Bunnys

    Bunnys said 7 years ago

    Great work!!!

  • littletank

    littletank said 7 years ago

    looks like my next hobby!

  • sophiemomo

    sophiemomo said 7 years ago

    How lovely!!

  • tcbaskets14

    tcbaskets14 said 7 years ago

    John, Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart and makes me want to create something new!

  • SimpleTraditions

    SimpleTraditions said 7 years ago

    Very Cool!

  • LemonLimeVintage

    LemonLimeVintage said 7 years ago

    Such a lovely story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

  • goldcrestbags

    goldcrestbags said 7 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing. It is such an inspiring story.

  • adVintagous

    adVintagous said 7 years ago

    What an awesome story!

  • Kniftyhooksneedles

    Kniftyhooksneedles said 7 years ago

    John this is a wonderful story, glad there are great people like you out there working hard to make this country a better place for some of the less fortunate. Good luck on your new venture weaving baskets they are a beautiful product.

  • spacejam

    spacejam said 7 years ago

    love your article John +))

  • BirdWatching

    BirdWatching said 7 years ago

    LOVE your work, always have! Great article!

  • sharonclancydesigns

    sharonclancydesigns said 7 years ago

    What a great article, I really enjoyed it! John sounds like a truly awesome guy. How wonderful and the baskets are gorgeous!

  • Artulia

    Artulia said 7 years ago

    An inspirational article with gorgeous woven baskets. Also featuring the work of some very talented artists- love Xanadu2You's crocheted basket

  • twolefthands

    twolefthands said 7 years ago

    Beautiful story, beautiful baskets!

  • gutsche

    gutsche said 7 years ago

    Great article John. Thanks for mentioning my introducing you to Etsy. Its a fun place to sell and network, isn't it? See you at the show in October, we'll chat face to face then.

  • myrtleturtleartworks

    myrtleturtleartworks said 7 years ago

    Beautiful story! Basketry is one of my favorite crafts which someday I know I will explore again. So mediative, slow and unlimited in form and materials. Thanks for sharing your experience and inspriation.

  • wiresNpliers

    wiresNpliers said 6 years ago

    Hi John and Anne, I'll probably be the final commentor on your article (hopefully not), but I wanted to tell you how much we enjoy your time with us at team Etsy For Autism, including how proud we all are, of you both. You're an asset to our team and a wise two-some with hands-on experience to share with our younger members as their kids grow in age. (Your image with Adrian between you and Anne reminds me of my husband and I sitting with Sarahbushka, between us. Similar postures, isn't that interesting? Thanks so much for your article. Loved it!) Carol

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