Monday, March 11, 2013

The Story of Learning Nantucket Basket Making on the Island of Nantucket and eventually making a Nantucket Purse

Finished Nantucket Purse
Beginning of Nantucket Basket Purse 
 Putting the Staves on the Mold

I learned how to make Nantucket Baskets on the Island of Nantucket off the Massachusetts Coast one fall day in 2004. My husband's construction company had business remodeling a private home and the Nantucket Whaling Museum in both 2004 and 2005. His company rented a home there for the workers and on the weekends they went home so we traveled to Nantucket either by small plane or ferry. We went to Nantucket quite a few times both on week days and week ends over a two year period. 

I loved spending time on Nantucket Island. I loved the cobblestone streets, the architecture, the onion globe lights, and the history and traditions of the island. I loved the Fall and the Christmas season there and we even attended their Christmas Walk one year and saw a charming play in the local church.
After spending some times on Nantucket and imbibing the culture and flavors of the island.  I became intrigued with the Nantucket Baskets in the local shops. I had actually seen them often over the years and I had always been mesmerized by them. They were actually a popular preppy style item during the 1960's and women of a certain gold charm bracelet, Lilly Pulitzer dress style always seemed to have one on their arm. During this trip, I saw baskets in the shops and read that originally they had been made commercially on the Nantucket Lightships which were anchored off shore and used as Lighthouses on the Nantucket Shoals since the 1880's. The older baskets had perhaps originated from some designs or even been been copied from Native American baskets from the whaling days and even before that time on the Island. In the 1940's a talented basket maker named Jose Reis popularized the covered purse style. His original purses which sold for around $15 a the time are very collectible and valuable nowadays.

I picked up a copy of the Nantucket Mirror and Inquirer, the local newspaper that had been in business since 1821. I read the newspaper and it hung around on the table for a couple of days. I couldn't help but notice a 2 col and 2 inch ad on the back page. I looked at it over and over again. It was an advertisement for Nantucket Basket Making lessons from a man named Peter Finch. I rang him and made an appointment to have a lesson to make a basket. Since I didn't have a car I walked a ways to his grey shingle house with a clamshell driveway outside of town on Pollywog Lane. That is where I got my first mold, a 6 inch berry basket. I visited his home a few times for several lessons and even visited him once I had learned making them to show him my baskets. He told me I would never want to give away my first basket and I still have it, a 6" berry basket with a handle.

Last August 2012, I was visiting a friend on the "Cape". In Massachusetts lingo that means Cape Cod. I stayed a couple of days and caught up with her. Her mother had been a Pine Needle Basket Maker and I consigned a couple of my Pine Needle Baskets 

to the Black Whale Gallery in Hyannis ( blog post link ) and when it was time to leave I put the coordinates into my GPS for a place called  D.E.L.S. in Middleborough, MA, famous for making Nantucket Basket molds. I was keen to acquire a purse mold and after an amazingly complicated ride through the back roads of southern Massachusetts, I found the place, spent about three hours there and left with an 8" Nantucket Basket Mold and a few other supplies. I was psyched and on my way to making a Purse.

I tried to weave as tightly as possible over the wooden Mold I bought at D.E.L.S. It sure was hard getting it off the Mold. There must be a trick to it but I just pulled and pulled and it came off, what a relief.

D.E.L.S. - Makes Nantucket Purse Molds
Shaping the Rims

After I got the body off the mold I had to shape the rims. I had bought pre shaped rims from D.E.L.S. but they still needed to be soaked in a bit of warm water and then shaped to the exact size of the basket. I glued them and let them sit for a day or so to dry. Then I glued and nailed them to the rims. I looked everywhere around the house for clamps to use. As you can see from the photos, I had quite a collection.

In the above photo, I am gluing on the rims and beginning the purse top or cover. You have to remember that these baskets were state of the art in the times before plastic bags. Apparently, the tradition on Nantucket Island was that everyone had their own basket and often it would have their name carved in whale bone with scrimshaw which is a technique where designs and writing are scratched into the bone and blackened with India ink. The names on the baskets were so as to identify the baskets  at church suppers. Whale bone was something they had a lot of and they used it for findings on the baskets. The early settlers of Nantucket Island learned about Whaling from the Wampanoag Indians there. They would fish for whales just offshore as the whales passed by Nantucket Island fairly closely at that time. It is also thought that the tradition of the baskets also came from the Indians on the Island who originally weaved them from pine needles. Later, when the whalers went to the far east they brought back cane and rattan to use and it replaced the pine needles. There is still a tradition of making pine needle purses similar to the Nantucket Baskets in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts (see my blog on them:  . 

Eventually with the incorporation of more modern materials in the baskets, such as rattan, cane, and various woods, a very sturdy and practical basket was designed. The original molds for some Nantucket baskets were often woven over old boom and mast pieces from whaling vessels. The older molds are highly prized by the local Nantucket basket makers to this day.
Pictured: The Purse Top Mold with Basket Body Finished just before I lashed the rim with some small cane. 

I really liked the lashing part, like sewing. Something very satisfying about doing it because it made it really sturdy and strong and gave the basket a certain integrity.

I did not have instructions on how to make the top part of the Purse. There is a little cut off mold for it and I was told it was hard to do. I am pretty much a novice Nantucket basket maker but was very interested in trying to do it. With a wing and a prayer I started it and it wasn't too bad.  It was fairly straight forward until I got to the rim part and there was a little bit of pushing and pulling the cane to get it to lay right as I molded the top rims onto the edge or lip of the basket and got it to match up exactly with the bottom.

Weaving the Purse Top. You can see my purse bottom finished in the rear and the lashing done on it.
This is the Finished Basket. I used Bone Findings and a Bone Shell for a decoration on the top. I want to learn Scrimshaw so I can make my own nameplate for the interior and thats one of my next projects. I connected the top and bottom of the basket with leather lashed with cane and sewn into the basket as hinges. I just tried to copy some photos I had seen. I thought it came out pretty well for a novice.

I have used this basket for over 6 months now as my purse. Everywhere I go, people comment on it and tell me I could sell them and that it is beautiful. To tell you the truth, I just couldn't sell this basket as it is my own personal basket. So far it is the only Nantucket Purse that I have made. I have aspirations to make another one soon using cherry wood and a Bone Whale Carving I have procured.

I lined the interior with some 

fabric that is velcroed 

to the basket so it can 

be changed or removed
for cleaning. I used a pretty purple paisley with a nice sheen to it and it is very pretty. I thought about lining it with leather and I can always do that if the other wears out.

I remember as a little girl always wanting to make baskets. I have always been entranced by them for some reason. The whole project of making one is interesting because you get to pick and choose natural materials from nature and the world around you. This practice is actually very meditative and has a spirituality to it that is somehow translated into the baskets themselves. I always had a dream to make a Nantucket Basket and this is a small chronicle of my process. People ask me, how long did it take you to make it? My answer is that it took me a lifetime to make it and only eight years from when I first took Nantucket Basket lessons from Peter Finch on the Island of Nantucket in 2004. It took me 8 years to find D.E.L.S. and buy the mold. However long it took, it was worth it. I feel like it has all my energy and happiness in the basket and there is something so satisfying making something with your own hands. Truly an experience of an Art Form in the highest and best possible way!

Happy Basket Making,
Melissa Abbott

1 comment:

  1. I'm soon to be 70 in a couple months and have just purchased my first mold! I am looking forward to this adventure.