Originally from Franklin, Massachusetts, Susan Langley moved to Chester, Vermont in 1990 with her husband and two kids. She has always been “crafty” with sewing and quilting, but learned about Nantucket baskets in 1999. She quickly found out that she was a natural after taking a few classes. Having grown up in New England, it seemed appropriate that she would love the craft that originated off the coast of Massachusetts on the tiny island of Nantucket.
History of Nantucket Baskets
In 1659, when the first white settlers came to Nantucket, they had a need for something to help with storage and transportation of their household wares. Basket making was one of the many skills that the friendly Wampanoag natives taught Nantucket’s new settlers. These early baskets were made with materials that were readily available at the time such as ash, oak, and hickory. The woods were made into splints by pounding and separating the wood along the annual rings of the trees. This style of weaving baskets is the origin of many style of baskets still produced today – Shaker baskets are probably the closest to the original methods and materials used then.
In the 1830’s, as the whaling industry started to flourish, ships sailed further and further from their home ports as the local whale numbers decreased. When these ships sailed into the South Pacific, they brought back a material used for basket construction by natives in that part of the world – rattan. Rattan is a long vine-like jungle plant that grows in Southeast Asia and looks much like bamboo except that it has a solid core. From this long vine, natives would cut the outer bark off in long strips, and use this strong yet pliable material (cane) for many things, including basketry. Many of the men stationed aboard the whaling vessels were coopers – wood workers who made barrels to hold the whale oil. A barrel has a wooden base, ribs or staves, and a wooden rim much like the Nantucket Lightship Basket.
Around 1854, after too many shipwrecks off the coast of Nantucket, the US Government ordered a ship with lanterns attached to its mast to be positioned 25 miles off the south shoals of Nantucket. The Nantucket South Shoal Lightship was anchored year-round to protect and warn vessels sailing near these dangerous shores. The sailors were stationed there for many months at a time, and had little to do but clean the lamps and stand watch. They fought the isolation and loneliness of life aboard the Lightship by weaving wooden-bottomed, wooden handled baskets from cane. They made the baskets for their families as well as to sell on Nantucket as receptacles for everyday use. By the turn of the century, the Lightship Authority recognized that their employees were “moonlighting” on company time, and they forbade the manufacture of baskets aboard the ships. Soon, more Nantucket Baskets were being made on the island of Nantucket that on the Lightships themselves.
Small baskets were as low as $1.50, and went up to $50.00 for larger ones in the beginning. Those baskets were mostly sold to Islanders, but a tourist trade quickly developed. The craft of basketmaking was passed on from one basket maker to another. After retiring from the New South Shoal Lightship, William Appleton continued to weave baskets on Nantucket, teaching A. D. Williams, who in turn taught Ferdinand Sylvaro. Each of these men established notable reputations as weavers. One of the best known basket weavers was Mitchell Ray, a third generation who for many years kept the art of basket weaving alive. It was Mitchell Ray who introduced Jose Reyes to the unique craft of Nantucket Basket making. Mr. Reyes was familiar with basket making having learned general weaving techniques in his homeland of the Philippines. He designed the first basket with a lid to be used as a purse, and the first Friendship Basket Purse was created! Mr. Reyes, along with many other famous Nantucket basket makers, wove hundreds of baskets over the course of their careers. Their creations are now collector’s items, and treasured family heirlooms.
The “Nantucket” is a usable collector’s item that commands high prices at shops, antique shows, or estate sales. They increase in value as they take on the golden-mahogany hue (patina) that comes with age. True Nantucket Baskets currently start at about $500.00, and can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.