Susan and Spencer Peterman: Lightship Baskets and Wooden Bowls
Graceful, pleasing shapes and sturdiness of constuction are some of the reasons why Nantucket Lightship Baskets are highly prized as collectibles. S & S Lightship Baskets uses traditional methods and materials, with locally kiln-dried figured cherry, birdseye maple, tiger maple, black walnut and mahogany, and other woods. The finest finishes elevate these baskets to elegant pieces of art.
For his wooden bowls, Spencer Peterman seeks out wood from fallen trees replete with character. Hidden in the moss and dirt covered trees are special features that Spencer will bring to life with the lathe in his wood shop. In particular, the fungus behind the wood's transformation leaves behind a marbled appearance and bold, black lines that form graphic patterns for the spaulted bowls. The trick is to work the wood at just the right time, before decomposition has gone too far.
The spaulted wood must be dried at high temperature to ensure the fungus invading it is completely killed. Peterman uses the kiln of a nearby lumber company where his wife works. The wooden bowls are finished with shellac that is fully FDA approved and may also be applied to food items such as fruit and candy. This shellac has the effect of making the wood look older.
The bowls are made from a variety of wood. The natural edges on the oval spaulted bowls are difficult to make but are especially popular. Each bowl is one of a kind.
History of the Nantucket Basket
The Nantucket lightship basket is the result of a long history of basket making on Nantucket island off the coast of Massachusetts. The Nantucketers learned to make baskets from the Indians. Indian baskets were for the most part fragile, used for berry picking and lightweight activities. These baskets had bottoms woven in a spider web effect and were made of thin strips of ash, hickory and oak. They were actually woven with long strips of wood pounded thin. Farming needs required baskets for heavier duties. A wooden bottom was added to the basket and wooden ribs were nailed to this bottom. The nails would act as an abrasive and over the years this would weaken the wood. To solve this problem the wooden bottom was grooved. The ribs of the basket were pounded into the groove for the most secure fit. The ribs were bent in shape by pouring boiling water over them and tying them into an upward position.
The whaling industry sent Nantucketers traveling to the Phillipines, China and India. There they were introduced to rattan or cane. It is very probable that they saw baskets being woven using cane. They brought the cane home for Nantucket basket makers to use.
Another distinctive process in the making of the Nantucket basket was the use of molds on which to weave the basket. This allowed the basket to remain steady and produced accuracy in sizes so nests of 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. It is widely accepted that if it is not made on a mold, it is not a Nantucket basket.
The baskets are also the product of an isolated community where everyones work was highly visible. Each basket maker, striving to make a better basket, added to the perfection, preciseness and quality manifested today.
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 basket making aboard ship had ceased, the name of the baskets remained.
In 1945, Jose Formosa Reyes came to Nantucket from the Phillipines. By 1948, he was making baskets. 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 bag as it appears today. Instead of oak, hickory or ash ribs, Reyes used wider rattan in his baskets. Other basketmakers began to make the handbag but continued to use wooden ribs. Today on Nantucket, some basket makers use wood and some rattan ribs, but all weave with rattan weavers. The handbag of today is best described as exquisite. Some baskets are made with 1/8 inch wooden ribs and the finest rattan to achieve the best detail. Most baskets are adorned with some type of ivory decoration such as a carved whale, seagull or seashell. Many have solid ivory tops with scrimshawed scenes.
The Nantucket Lightship basket is not simply a basket or handbag. 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. It is the only handbag a woman can own and use for 10 or 20 years that actually increases in value. It is a family heirloom and a piece of Massachusetts craftsmanship that can be passed down from generation to generation.
As Mitchie Ray's (an early basket maker) label used to read: "I was made on Nantucket, I'm strong and I'm stout, Don't lose me or burn me, And I'll never wear out."