About the Nantucket Lightship Basket Tradition
In the early to mid-1800s, Nantucket Island in Massachusetts was considered the whaling capital of the world. Whaling expeditions took sailors off shore in clipper ships on hunts that could last for years. During this same time period, lightships acted as mobile navigation stations, upon which the sailors manning them would also have to live for long stretches of time. Both forms of maritime work were adventurous, dangerous, and filled with adrenaline bursts mixed with long stretches of boredom.
Thus, between riding out a big storm in a lightship or harpooning a whale from a clipper ship, sailors would often carve whale bone and weave baskets. When the baskets came home to Nantucket, they started out as purely utilitarian, and grew to become family heirlooms, passed down through generations.
Today, Whale Tail Weaving honors that history and offers modern pieces of wearable art that hold true to America’s whaling and lightship history. Our Nantucket basket bracelets, necklaces, and accessories are hand-made in the classic tradition.
I have vivid images of our kitchen counter growing up, where there was often an upside-down hard wooden mold with lots of thin wooden “fingers” sticking out, untamed and spread wide open. I recall steaming-hot towels burning my mother’s hands as she tried to squeeze those fingers down around the mold. There may have been a swear word.
There were other thin pieces of wood that lived curled up like spaghetti in a large open oval basket on the floor. There were simple tools like clamps and hammers, plus a belt sander in the mud room. Every week, especially throughout Cape Cod winters, my mom would gather up her supplies and visit her “Basket Ladies”. These Basket Lady sessions intrigued me, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned to weave myself. I now have a sense of how important that activity was to her — socially, as well as for the satisfaction and joy of creating something beautiful with your own hands.
Today, I weave in my mother’s footsteps to keep this American art alive.