For those unfamiliar with the craft, the art of etching or carving designs into whale’s teeth (ivory) or bone is known as scrimshaw, and those who practice this art are called scrimshaw artists or scrimshanders. According to tradition, the term ‘scrimshaw’ originated as an English or Dutch slang word used on whaling ships during the 19th century—often by ship’s captains—to describe what the crew would do in their downtime: waste time. Sitting around the ship for weeks or longer between whale sightings, sailors would kill time by carving images of ships, sea creatures, and other imagery onto whale’s teeth and bone—the byproducts brought on board in the quest for oil.

A Nantucket scrimshaw artist hand-crafts collectible Christmas ornaments.

Nantucket resident Lee Ann Papale has made a successful living from this ‘time wasting’ profession for nearly 40 years, and she says she would like to introduce a new term into the profession’s lexicon. “I’d like to be called scrimshantress, if you don’t mind,” she says.

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

Lee Ann’s mother, Phyllis Burchell, and aunt, Nancy Chase, are scrimshaw artists as well. Another aunt, Susan Ottison, is a basketmaker and sister, Lynne Heyer, is a fisherwoman and stone carver. All are Nantucketers. “We’ve always worked on the sea,” Lee Ann says of her family, whose lineage can be traced back to the island’s original settlers. “I learned this in a family business. I grew up with it.”

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

In a small studio outside her home, which is tucked away on a quiet road in the center of the island, Lee Ann works on highly polished vintage and fossil ivory, employing a sewing needle—and a magnifying glass—to scratch designs onto the surface. Then, she adds ink. “It is so easy,” she sometimes jokes with students, “that sailors did it on moving ships in rolling waves.”

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

The majority of her work involves adding artwork to finished handles and other pieces that will be built into fellow artisans’ woven baskets. Nantucket is known around the world for its basketmaking, and Lee Ann works with “the top echelon of basketmakers on the island,” a group including Alan S.W. Reed, Bill and Judy Sayle, and Susan Ottison, Papale’s aunt.

In the fall and early winter, though, Lee Ann is busy completing orders for her own unique line of Christmas ornaments. During the 1980s, she thought of an idea to capture “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with ivory ornaments—one each for the song’s 12 ‘days.’ For the past three decades, the ornaments have been best sellers with her customers. Many have purchased full sets of 12; one client has her own complete set and has commissioned additional sets for each of her grandchildren.