I was turning a piece of wood in my shop one day. I thought I heard a feeble knock on the door. Did I? I opened the door and there stood a stranger with two little pieces of wood in her hand. They looked like something she had picked up on the scrap woodpile. Maybe something that was made from a piece of pallet wood.
And she said “could you make me some bases and lids for my baskets?” and I said, “well, I don’t see why not but, they might look a little different than those. I sand all the things that I make”. She laughed and said “well, OK.”
That was the beginning of my association with Nantucket Baskets. I had never heard of one.
Anyway, she loved what I had made for her. She wanted more, all sizes, shapes, etc. About 3 or 4 weeks later, I was again turning wood in my shop when I heard 3 or 4 little knocks on my door. Wow, I’m getting popular. I cut the lathe off and opened the door, and there again was a small lady holding her couple pieces of wood.
She said “By any chance would you be John Coffman?” I said, “Well, I’m one of them, could be, there are several hiding around this area”. She said, “I’ve been trying to track you down for weeks. Me and several others take a basket weaving class and our teacher showed us her basket lids and bases that she had gotten somewhere but she won’t tell us where she got them. With small bits of information that we could get, we tracked the footprints up to this door.” Now I understood what was happening. The game of keeping it all to ourselves.
She and everybody in the class came to get bases, lids, and molds. “I was real busy” is an understatement.
As you know, there is an island off the coast of Massachusetts called Nantucket. As the story goes, there were not enough lighthouses on the island in the 1800’s toward ships away from the rocky coast. They came up with the bright idea to moor ships at these places, to use as lighthouses
Then the problem arose, they had to hire people to live on these ships to light the lanterns in the evening and cut them off in the morning. In between morning and evenings, the people got bored, having nothing to do all day long. They started weaving baskets and the baskets had a very distinct look. They evolved into the Nantucket Lightship Basket.
Fine cane was used for the weave and reed for the rims and staves (ribs). These baskets were woven on a mold and used a thin board for the bottom. Some had lids and some did not. Before long I was designing all sorts of Nantucket baskets and selling weaving kits. Soon people were encouraging me to attend basket conventions.
One year we borrowed my daughter, Joni and her husband Tony Biller’s camper and went to the big basket convention in Raleigh, N. C. At the last minute before the doors opened, I remembered something I had forgot in the camper and went out to get it. When I got back inside they had already opened the event doors to the vendors. What a sight that met my eyes! People were crowded around my booth holding armfuls of things they wanted to buy and clutching their money in the other hand. People were so thick I could barely see my wife, Kay, let alone get behind the counter to help her. That was chaos at it’s best. With me there, to help her we finally got the people waited on. I don’t know how the people knew what we were selling because everything was covered up as it was brought in the building.
I was the only one selling Nantucket items of that quality. The other vendors were selling items like the two women had that came to my shop door. Pine and unsanded. Mine looked like fine furniture in very unusual wood. We grossed over $2000.00 at that show, just selling weaving kits and molds. That was in the 90’s. After that, I really had a lot of knocks at my shop door.
I don’t weave baskets. I just make the wood parts. These baskets shown here were woven by a professional basket weaver. I made her a deal…anything you want is free if you do all my weaving.