This is part II of Ryder Ziebarth's essay Nantucket Dream Weaving. Part I can be found here.
Around 2001, something happened to the baskets I saw in some of the Main Street shops. The looked too shiny. And the brass tacks on the rim had disappeared. The hinges and toggles were…plastic. Merchants were being subverted toward “The Fakes” – Lightship style basketry copied and mass produced overseas -- and they were slowly infiltrating gift shops Island wide. And why not? They were selling like the Downy Flake’s hotcakes on a summer morning in August. Affordable pieces of Nantucket’s moniker every tourist could take home. Purses hung from the rafters of every gift shop on the wharf. So well made, who would know they were woven in a sweat shop in China?
I caved and bought a few “serving pieces” gifting them with an apology. These aren’t real. I usually got a curious look. Who cares? Chip and dip bowls, trays, cocktail napkin holders, soap dishes, bread baskets — all shameful reminders to me, I had ‘sold out’ and been priced-out of the genuine item. These were pretty baskets, but there was no Island connection to them, no local lore.
Although I couldn’t compete with the rising tide of Island collectors willing to spend many hundreds of dollars for one basket, neither could I wholeheartedly give up my penchant for collecting them.
The only solution I could think of was learning to make one myself. The following summer I signed up for a class with weaver Tim Parsons, and by the end of a two week vacation, I had a good-sized, somewhat lopsided basket to give to my sister for Christmas. It was hard work. My fingers bled every day as I’d catch them on the edges of the 1/8 inch razor sharp rattan. Under and over, under and over, in an endless cycle of cane to wood stave.
Tim eyed me suspiciously and reminded me that the project was ‘all mine’ and he would not be finishing it for me, if I didn’t complete it by the time I was to head off-island. He had tried to warn me away from the 10 inch mold I choose, that looked like big, wooden hat stuffer.
“Awfully ambitious for a first timer,” he said.
Assuring him I would get it done, I took my materials to the beach each morning after class, and while the rest of my family sunned, swam and read, I sat under the umbrella with a bucket full of water, soaking my weavers and pushing the stands under and over, until the sun began to set and it was time to start dinner back at the cottage.
Then one triumphant day, it was finished, right down to the wood burned signature on the bottom -- “Merry Christmas, Love, Ryder, 1998”.
The experience of making my own basket wove Nantucket even tighter into my life. I felt connected to Ed and Henry and others I had bought baskets from in a way I hadn’t been able to. We now had something deeply in common and I could finally say I feel like a Nantucketer. I know many Nantucketers who would argue with me, as I was born off-island, “in America”, they teased. Islanders who have lived most of their lives on Nantucket take great pride in that status. They don their native armor every summer and at every celebrated event which draws the in-coming from the Mainland, keeping the tourists at arm’s length, while welcoming their deep pockets. The year I became a basket maker, marked the end of my tourist status. I felt an enormous connection to the Island by mastering one of its most enduring attributes.
In 2007, I bought a lovely, reasonably priced purse from a display case in a New Bedford shop, finally realizing that whether made on Nantucket or not, weaving as an art, is still beautiful and I have nothing to prove by the size of my collection. The weaving on my purse is tight and fine, a ‘Henry Trademark’, and the wood, similar to the choices on the baskets made by Ed. I designed the decorative scrimshaw, a cluster of shells, and had them carved by a New Bedford scrimshaw artist. I bring it out of the cabinet each December, placing it on a table in the front hall of my farm house, near the linen press. Soon I’ll flip back the lid and put in some pine and holly to brighten the table for Christmas. It will be the first thing I see when I come home at night and the last thing I see, along with some stars when I turn out the lights, from now until the New Year.
Ryder Ziebarth is a free-lance writer living in Bedminster, NJ and Nantucket.