To Nantucket in a Handbasket

Bristol resident weaves style into traditional craftsmanship

The Bay Magazine ·

Long associated with cocktail parties and summer compounds, the Nantucket Lightship Basket is an iconic fashion accessory. For Bristol resident Helen Lee, her award winning baskets and home accent pieces reflect traditional craftsmanship while being stylish and modern for today’s living.

Originally from the Big Island of Hawaii, Helen and her husband Sandy, a Rhode Islander, returned to the East Bay settling in downtown Bristol in 2004 after spending 25 years living around the country.

Helen’s interest in American crafts began at the Handicraft Club in Providence in the late 1970s where she first learned the art of weaving. “I love weaving but I wanted a craft that was more portable and obviously with a loom that’s impossible,” she says.

Her collection of Passamaquoddy Indian Basketry inspired her to learn the craft from Native Indian basket makers in Maine, where the couple has a second family home. “I just liked it immediately. It is the same discipline of weaving involving specific patterns, but I could be artistic with it.” Helen’s influence includes the use of leather magnetic closures and creating different shapes. The rectangle basket is her signature handbag which is a challenging shape to manipulate.

Helen’s current entry exhibited in the Newport Art Museum Members Juried Show is an example of her own artistry: a kidney shaped Nantucket Lightship Basket made of cherry staves and natural cane weavers featuring a lid embellished with glass sea shells which she had a glass designer create.

Helen realized the appeal of her work one day when a store owner in Boston asked where she had bought her small shoulder strap style basket. “I was a little embarrassed as it was one of my earlier works and I had since improved my technique.” By the time she left the store she had an order for a bag and from there word of her work grew. Today Helen’s Nantucket Lightship Baskets and home accent pieces are sold across the US and in Europe.

A hobby has evolved into an unexpected passionate second career for Helen who only participates in one show a year now, the prestigious Neighborhood House Arts & Crafts Annual Invitational in Maine. It takes months to create the inventory which sells out within hours.

This craft, which has evolved since the late 19th century, requires uninterrupted focus and patience. Helen spends an average of eight hours a day, five days a week over three to four weeks to create a piece. Her customers are also patient. When asked how she keeps up with the demand for her work, Helen says, “My customers are happy to wait.”

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