Artisans at work

by: Brian Bushard

photography by: Ray K. Saunders

Between rows of wooden molds, hickory staves and carved ivory, at the back of Susan and Karl Ottison’s lightship-basket workshop, the traditional craft
of basket-making is alive and well. The word artisan is overused, but in this case no other word can define the couple, who have been maintaining this legacy for half a century.

“I learn a lot from the old baskets,” Susan said, from the Orange Street shop overlooking the harbor salt- marsh, known as the Creeks.

Susan Ottison weaves a basket in her workshop. Susan and her husband Karl have been practicing the craft of lightship basket making since 1968.

Lightship-basket making started in the mid-1800s as a way to stave off boredom in the doldrums of an otherwise uneventful shift on a Nantucket lightship, stationed off the shoals south of the island. Crew-members on the floating lighthouses took to weaving rattan baskets for their family to pass the time.

At first, they were practical. Nearly 100 years later, they were the go-to gift for girls graduating from Nantucket High School. They became increasingly decorative, with ornate ivory and scrimshaw lids, or per- sonalized wooden bottoms individually made in a handful of workshops.

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