Nantucket Arts Nantucket History & People

A Nantucket Tradition in Craft

by Suzanne Daub

Judi Hill has a fine eye for art and an excellent sense of Nantucket history and design. In the G.S. Hill Gallery at 40 Straight Wharf, along with the original paintings and giclees by her husband and partner Greg Hill, Judi also has a beautiful selection of Nantucket Lightship baskets: traditional and historically significant baskets as well as new designs created by basket makers weaving today.

Judi works closely with the craftspeople she represents in her shop, often suggesting designs, and one she’s been partnering with for more than two decades is Maggie Silva.

On a lark in 1984, Maggie Silva took a basketweaving class while working as an Early Childhood School Psychologist. Now, 40 years later, she has become known far and wide for her creative designs and beautifully woven Nantucket Lightship Baskets. She teaches the craft, writes about it, lectures on it, and this spry, bright octogenarian is still creating new designs and weaving.

When Judi Hill came up with the idea of a lightship basket holder for salt and pepper shakers, it was Maggie who made Judi’s vision a reality. And it’s Maggie Silva who weaves the gorgeous miniature baskets that are available in the G.S. Hill Gallery. These tiny masterpieces are exquisite and often become heirloom Christmas tree ornaments.

When Maggie first started weaving, she was making reed baskets. She loved it! “After I made three of them, I decided to teach it…if you can teach a first grader how to read, you can teach anyone anything,” she chuckled. “My mother did all kinds of crafts, so I grew up learning to do them, too.”

Twenty years ago, after retiring from her job in the school system, Maggie decided to devote her time to weaving Nantucket Lightship Baskets. “I always wanted to make a Nantucket basket… by this time I had made hundreds of reed baskets, and I was tired of them.” Once she found a teacher and the proper supplies, she started making full-size baskets. The miniatures came later: “over the years, narrower weaving materials have become easier to find. I like the look of a finer weave, so on the minis I use 1mm cane, it’s like ribbon.

“The first mold I used was from a Tupperware lettuce container: I made my first Nantucket basket from that,” Maggie explained. “My husband was a custom cabinet maker, so [after that] he made my basket molds…now my son does.” She adores the craft and takes great pride in her work. “I emphasize the quality…I sand the bases and handles, and I do four coats [of finish] on each to build up the pores instead of just adding a coating…when you pick up the basket, you want to feel it… smooth as a baby’s bottom!”

Maggie started with traditional Nantucket Lightship Basket styles, then started tweaking the designs. “Because I have a background in reed basketry, I would sometimes incorporate what I learned in that craft in my Nantucket baskets. Some adaptations were on purpose, some serendipity. Usually in miniature baskets you only see round ones and ovals, but I have miniaturized a lot of my designs.” Creating a full size Nantucket Lightship Basket usually takes Maggie several days. The minis she makes in stages: “I cut and shape all the ribs, insert them into the base, and then let them sit overnight. Then I weave the next day.”

When asked which of the dozens of different styles she has woven in her miniature Nantucket Lightship Baskets she likes the best, Maggie simply said “I love them all. Once I get started, that one is my favorite!”

A new selection of Maggie Silva miniature Nantucket Lightship Baskets are now available in the G.S. Hill Gallery. When you stop by, ask Judi about Nantucket Lightship Ring Bearer Baskets. The gallery is open daily for the 2022 season.

Some of Silva’s baskets are also in the collection of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum, founded in 1997 to preserve the rich history of this island craft.

Articles by Date from 2012