After decades of honing her craft, Michigan resident Kathleen Myers finds her place among the master lightship basket weavers of Nantucket.
A craft that started at sea off the coast of Nantucket over a 150 years ago is carried on today by only a handful of master craftsmen. One of the remaining weavers, Kathleen Myers, has recently given the venerable Nantucket lightship basket tradition a new spin by completing a spectacular 18-piece nesting basket.
A seasonal resident, Myers happened upon the making of baskets in Michigan, far from the shores of Nantucket during the 1960s. Always interested in crafts, she attended a workshop on basket making. Her first baskets were in the Shaker tradition, constructed of black ash, honeysuckle vine, and white oak. For the next 20 years, she continued to take classes, eventually teaching basket making in the Midwest. In 1984, Myers was bit by the Nantucket basket bug when she attended classes taught by Joyce Gardner, Barbara Clough, and Marie Rankin—all Michigan weavers who had learned the craft from Nantucket masters, Nap Plank and Alan S. W. Reed. She knew then that she had found her real passion.
Myers’s mother loved the Nantucket lightship basket design and became her talented daughter’s first customer. Myers approached her brother Russ, a furniture maker, to help make the molds for the baskets, often the most difficult part of the process. Eventually she met a woman from Nantucket who invited Myers to the island for a summer visit in 1994. During her 10-day stay, Myers took classes from two master basket weavers, Tim Parsons and Karol Lindquist.
For the next three years, Myers apprenticed with Parsons five days a week during her six-week visits to the island, also studying with Nap Plank one day a week. To pay for her trips, she ran a bed and breakfast, gave tours of the island, and ran a shuttle service for people attending basket classes. She came back the next summer and again apprenticed under Parsons. Myers’s ultimate dream to become a master Nantucket lightship basket weaver was realized in the summer of 1996 when Plank gave her a “spot on the bench”: her own designated workstation as a full-time basket maker.
The history and lore of the craft was intriguing to the Midwesterner. The craft evolved from wooden “split” baskets made by Native Americans used for fieldwork and storage in the early 1800s. The tradition was carried through the whaling area when coopers—barrel makers on board—made baskets at sea to pass the time.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.