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History About the Lightship Nantucket Basket
What is a Lightship Nantucket Basket?

The elegant Nantucket Basket - exceptionally unique and stands apart from all other forms of traditional basketry. Owing its lineage to the Nantucket Island coopers, or barrel makers, the Nantucket basket is an exclusive part of New England culture, known throughout the world.  The following is a brief history about the Nantucket Basket and the evolution of the Nantucket Lightship Basket and the Nantucket Basket Purse or Pocketbook.

The Nantucketers learned to make baskets from the Native American Indians. Indian baskets were for the most part fragile; used for berry picking and lightweight activities. These antique Indian baskets had bottoms woven into a spider web effect and were made of thin strips of ash, hickory and oak.

Farming needs required sturdier baskets for heavier duties. Basket weavers began to use a wooden bottom for their baskets.  Wooden ribs, also called staves, were nailed to the piece of wood. The nails would act as an abrasive and over the years this would weaken the wood. To solve this problem the wood bottom was grooved. The staves of the basket were pounded into the groove for the most secure fit. They were then bent to the shape over the wood mold by pouring boiling water over them and tying them into an upward position.

The original baskets were called "farm baskets" and with the introduction of rattan as the weaver, "rattan baskets." In 1856, the No. 1 Nantucket Lightship was anchored 24 miles south of Sankaty Light.  According to Nantucket history, the men who manned the ship had little to do but clean the lamps and stand watch. These men made some of the best baskets ever seen and sold them through the shops on the island. This period produced the name "Nantucket Lightship Basket." The last Nantucketer to work on the Lightship was Charlie Sylvia in the year 1905. Although Nantucket basket making aboard ship had ceased, the name Nantucket Baskets remained.

The whaling industry sent Nantucketers traveling to the Philippines, China and India. There they were introduced to rattan, or cane. It is very probable that they saw baskets being woven using cane. The sailors & whalers brought rattan cane home for the Nantucket basket makers to use to craft their baskets.

Another distinctive process in the making of the Nantucket basket was the use of molds on which to weave the basket. This allowed the Nantucket basket to remain steady and produced accuracy in sizes so nests of Nantucket baskets could be made. Molds were usually made from wood and sometimes ship masts. Later, round molds were turned on a lathe for increased accuracy.

The Nantucket Basket has evolved into a variety of styles and uses. The traditional Nantucket basket ranges in use from household containers and decorative display, to purses, shoulder bags, contemporary creel purse baskets and hand bags. Originally designed for practical use and sturdiness, the Nantucket basket is surprisingly elegant and offers beautifully delicate details.   Today, the Nantucket basket has become a valuable sought after and high-end collectable.

Movie actress Audrey Hepburn, well-known for her beautiful & elegant clothing,  frequently carried a Nantucket Basket Purse.

The small island of Nantucket is located several miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  In the early 1700's, it was bustling port with activities revolving around the whaling trade.  Lightships were put into commission long before the advent of modern day electronics and were manned by a crew of ten sailors whose sole duty was to keep the lights going.  Many sailors, to fill empty hours, took up crafts.  Some sailors used the materials made available on these ships for making baskets.  

The hallmarks of the Nantucket basket design are the solid wood grooved disc base, the symmetrical ribbed staves, tight weaving techniques, and the use of molds (like the Shakers) to create a perfect shape.  While different craftsmen have their own style, materials and shape, those basic tenants of the Nantucket basket remain the same.

In 1945, Jose Formosa Reyes came to Nantucket from the Philippines. By 1948, he was crafting the famous Nantucket basket. It was his idea to use a woven lid attached to the basket with leather in the back and leather front closures to form the handbag. This was the beginning of the Nantucket Basket Purse as it appears today.

Instead of oak, hickory or ash staves, Reyes used wider rattan or cane in his Nantucket baskets. Other basketmakers began to make the Nantucket handbag but continued to use wooden ribs. Today on Nantucket Island, some basket makers use wood and some rattan staves, but all weave with rattan weavers. The Nantucket Basket Handbag or Nantucket Pocketbook of today is much better described as exquisite rather than crude. The Nantucket basket is commonly made with 1/8 inch or less cane or wood staves and the finest rattan weavers to achieve the best detail.

The Nantucket Lightship basket is not simply a basket or handbag or pocketbook. It is an emblem that says "Nantucket." It is a useable collector's item that increases in value as it takes on a golden-mahogany hue that comes with age, which is called a basket's patina. It is the only handbag a woman can own and use for 10 or 20 years that actually increases in value. The Nantucket Basket Purse Handbag is a family heirloom and a piece of American craftsmanship that can be passed down from generation to generation.

Additional information on qualities to look for in a valuable Nantucket Lightship Basket or Nantucket Basket Purse can be found here.

New one-of-a-kind handwoven and artist signed collectible baskets are added regularly to Simply Baskets.  Since these are one-of-a-kind baskets, when they're sold, they're gone forever. Don't wait to purchase the unique basket you love - buy the basket today before someone else does!

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