Baskets were first made on Nantucket by Native Americans of the Wampanoag nation. It is believed they inspired the crew members of the lightship stationed on the Nantucket Shoals to create their own version of a basket in the early 19th century. Deployments aboard the lightship could last up to 30 days, and crew members were often looking for ways to pass the time, hence the appeal of basketmaking. Men would often make baskets for their spouses, or sell the baskets they created aboard the ship. The baskets were used while shopping to carry products or store vegetables. Eventually the baskets began to be worn as purses in the 1900s, and today baskets are widely popular for storage, fashion, and decorative purposes.
In the 1940s, José Formoso Reyes, a Filipino immigrant, moved to Nantucket with family, and knew he had found his new home. Unable to find a teaching position, Reyes turned to the basketweaving he had learned in the Philippines as a possible money-making venture on Nantucket. His new career took off, and he eventually developed the popular Friendship Basket pocketbook, which symbolized long-term friendship and soon became a sought-after graduation gift for Nantucket high school girls.
These days, Nantucket’s not the only place to get the sturdy carrying baskets. The Nantucket Basket Co., owned by Grace Bocicelio and Joan Pinney, is based in Edgartown, and makes updated versions of the traditional Nantucket baskets here on the Vineyard. All of the company’s baskets, handbags, and home furnishings are carefully handmade with attention to detail. They use solid hardwood — ebony, cherry, maple, or oak in the bases, adorned with handles of braided leather, satin cord, or a bendable wood such as hickory, cherry, ash, or oak. All are finished with solid brass nails, and hinges are leather wrapped in cane.
The open totes they offer have leather or fabric liners, and their staves (the skeleton of the basket) and weavers (the strands that go over and under to complete the basket) come from the South Pacific, where the original Nantucket whalers of the 1800s found a long, vinelike plant called rattan for basketweaving.
The baskets of today have three elements in common with the older baskets: They are made with a solid wood base, the use of a wooden mold, and the use of rattan in the weaving process. Aside from these three distinct parts, there are countless new design executions.
What sets the Nantucket Basket Co.’s baskets apart is that Grace and Joan hand-dye or paint their staves and weavers — a lengthy process that produces bags and baskets in a wide range of colors as well as shapes, sizes, and styles. Some of the company’s products are embellished with mammoth ivory, bone, ebony, sterling silver, gold, and wampum. The Nantucket Basket Co. also makes wrist cuffs, sewing kit cases, picnic baskets, ice buckets, and wine coolers, and they’re designing a line of home furnishings which will debut this winter (including highly-anticipated bassinets).
The Nantucket Basket Co.’s products are available at Claudia’s on Main Street in Edgartown or by contacting the company at 508-904-0481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit nantucketbasketcompany.com.