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In 1856, lightships were commissioned off the coast of Nantucket to warn passing ships of the dangerous shoals to the south of the island. With little to do during the day, the crew of 10 turned to weaving rattan baskets to pass the time. The famous lightship designs were adapted from these earlier baskets. The wooden bases of the baskets were made on land, while the weaving and assembly took place on the lightship. Over time, the intricate baskets became treasured symbols of Nantucket.

Woven in Time

“The craft had almost died out. Then in the 1940s, a man named Jose Reyes came to the island from the Philippines and married a Nantucket woman,” Myers says. Reyes began making the baskets as souvenirs for tourists. He developed a lid for the baskets, embellishing the designs with antique ivory pieces sculpted in the shape of whales, sailors, sea stars, or other sea-inspired elements. Reyes also added the art of scrimshaw to the handles and tops of baskets. He called the baskets “friendship purses” and the designs became popular with young women both living on and visiting the island.

Woven in Time

Myers loves the process of making the baskets and is also intrigued by the craft’s rich history. “I like that there was a lot of woodworking involved,” she says. Today, the baskets are made on molds with solid wooden bases. The staves (a term originating from coopering or barrel making) are formed around the mold and rattan is woven through these staves.

Woven in Time

“The earliest baskets had bottom boards made of plain pine, but later woods including maple, cherry and oak, often with incised rings,” notes Nantucket historian Paul Madden.  “The basket rims were made of heavier caning or bendable local woods such as hickory and ash. The carrying handles were usually made of hickory, oak, and woods that could be shaped and bent.”  Basket sizes varied from about four inches to 20 inches in diameter and were either round or oval. Nests of baskets did not exist before 1860.

Woven in Time

After seven years of working with Nap, Myers opened her own basket making business. Today, she spends half the year on Nantucket where she is a full-time weaver and she runs a bed and breakfast for visiting basket makers. In her shop on the island she creates open lightship baskets, handbags, and nested basket sets for collectors. Customers often like to personalize their baskets with scrimshaw pieces. Myers works with Lee Ann Papale,  a local scrimshander, to customize the baskets.

Today, most of Myers’s work is by commission. Her beautifully crafted 18-piece nesting collection of baskets took over two years to prepare and several years to execute. She began the pieces with a cherry burl. “It is amazing you can make something so beautiful out of a log,” she notes. “Everything in the set is made by hand.” The baskets are half a millimeter smaller in succession, so the math had to be very accurate and precise.

Woven in Time

“Each rim has its own mold as does each handle—it’s very labor intensive,” Myers explains. She uses a whipped stitch, an old sailing technique and dates the bottom of each piece. “It takes a whole year to finish one—you don’t want to hide a single piece,” she says with a laugh. The craftsman in her explains some of the differences between a well-executed basket and one that is not. “It’s all in the details of the whipping, or lapping of the weave, the finish on the wood, the weaving pattern, or whether the cane is invisible,” she explains.

Myers remains very active in the Association of Michigan Basketmakers (AMB) where she was  president for eight years. She has been recognized by three Viewer’s Choice awards at the AMB convention. Her fine work has been pictured in many magazines and is displayed in annual exhibits at the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum, where she currently serves on the board of directors as vice president. With her masterful skills and love for the island’s best-known craft, this transplanted mid-westerner has become an integral part of Nantucket’s distinctive creative community.

 

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Stephen Spewock is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications

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