About Nathan Taylor
Basket Maker and Historian
I have been making baskets for more than 4 decades. Until recently all my basket making was done in New Hampshire where I was born and raised. My interest in basketry was birthed of two things. One was my partner, Martha Wetherbee’s interest in them and the second our discovery of a void in the Shaker history.
Due to the happenings of Watergate, my partner’s business as a private investigator evaporated overnight. I suggested that she should pursue an interest as if it were a job with no monetary goals. After all I could support us. Her interest in basketry led us to the nearby Shakers. Over the next couple of years we pursued the knowledge of Shaker basketry with a vengeance. In the end we realized there was no credible information available. It was obvious that the Shakers made unique and beautiful baskets but know one knew which ones in the Shaker collections were theirs. Know one knew what they were made of, when they were made or who made them. At that point we made pursuing this knowledge our life's goal. We sold everything we had which was considerable. We moved into the Sanbornton woods into a cabin which I had built in 6 days. I quit my job with the Telephone Company and we lived without water and electricity for more than two years while we pursued the Shakers basket history. Martha and I taught ourselves how to take the black ash tree apart and make Shaker basket reproductions. It took us 6 to 8 years before we could make baskets worthy of comparing to theirs. Throughout this we traveled America and searched the archives of Shaker Museums. We achieved all of this by carrying letters written by the Shaker Eldresses themselves. With their help we gained access to everything we wanted to see and also got the loan of Shaker molds and tools. To my knowledge no one else has ever been loaned these items. Using these molds and tools in our own shop allowed us to make exacting reproductions. An example of this would be the only existing Mt. Lebanon Puzzle Cathead mold. There has never been found a Shaker basket made on this mold. Because the Shakers had a system and we discovered clues to this system we could reproduce a basket that we could feel assured represented the original. A mold was recreated from the original by one of America’s master woodworkers, Walker Weed, a professor of woodworking at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH and one of only three craftsmen honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen.
Basket making had always been a craft of the folks with the lowest income. We discovered that Shaker basket making went back into the 1790s and became an industry in the 1820s. Their basket making was the craft of the Church Family Shakers which was the lead family and the elders of this family were the Supreme Leader of all Shakers. The Shakers with their 19 communities were the first wealthy basket makers. The Church Family Shakers at New Lebanon, New York wove over 4,000 basket a year with 6 women working 6 months out of the year. This explains the superb quality and why they were known throughout the 1800s as the makers of the worlds finest baskets.
In the early days of our research we were offered by Eldress Bertha Lindsay and Eldress Gertrude Soule, a shop in Canterbury Shaker Village. We opened the first basket shop in a Shaker village in 90 years. For many years we made baskets on original molds at the village while we searched for more of the secrets of the lost craft. On July 4th, 1976 we opened a small shop that I had built in the Sanbornton, NH woods. There we would make baskets for the remainder of the 25 years Martha Wetherbee and I would work together. In the early 80s we were discovered by the American press. We had cover stories in Early American Life Magazine, and center fold articles in Country Home, Country Living and several other national magazines. We were on the map and everything came to us after that.
We had only met one basket maker in the first 8 years. Then we were invited to the Michigan Basket Makers convention where Martha was asked to make the keynote address. There we discovered 1200 basket makers working in reed who understood our passion. Within two years we became suppliers of baskets, kits, tools and education for the making of Shaker baskets. We felt this was the way (making basket makers) to spread the knowledge and give credit to the Shakers for the wonderful product they made. Shaker made baskets were going unrecognized through the 1900s and treated like worthless objects by those who did not understand. Saving these baskets was our end goal. These baskets are so prized today. When its provenance was assured an original Shaker basket brought over $130,000 at auction.
I’ve now spent 40 years rescuing, teaching and lecturing on Shaker basketry. Along the way I saw a need for a good supplier and teacher for Nantucket basketry. The shop began making all the supplies necessary and we in the shop traveled teaching Shaker and Nantucket basketry for the next decade. My love has always been for the Shaker. That is where my heart lies. Now being somewhat retired it is ash splint and Shaker basketry that I hope to spend my time.
In 1986 we wrote and published Legend of the Bushwhacker Basket, Wetherbee and Taylor. It took us 8 years to find who were the makers of these baskets. These were the baskets that were always thought of in the antiques world as being Shaker. Once we had taught ourselves to be woodworking basket makers we knew they couldn’t be. We found these baskets came from West Taghkanic, New York. They were made by people who hid in the woods and were maligned. We wrote and printed, Legend of the Bushwhacker Basket; number one, to give credit to the makers of these great baskets and to show that they were not Shaker made. Number two, we wrote for the antiques dealer and showed them the signature left by the basket makers. All basket makers made all their baskets with the same techniques that are often times unlike others. This book taught people to see the maker in the basket. With this the antiques world came alive in search of these baskets. Following that book we wrote Shaker Baskets, Wetherbee and Taylor. This was the culmination of our 10 year life altering search. For the first time there was authenticity to be proven. Here is a book for people to reference with assuredness. There are 361 photos that you can trust are what they say they are. The hunt for Shaker baskets was on. Needless to say these books were a must for the antique dealer and Shaker enthusiasts libraries. They are still in print and available only at our shop.
My son Eric joined us at the shop full time once he graduated from high school. Baskets had always been a part of his life. He traveled with us to conventions in the summer and also made baskets with us. He was an important part of the shop into his thirties.
After 25 years of exciting discovery and development Martha left the family, the business and the beautiful complex we had built together in the Sanbornton, NH woods. Eric kept the business alive while I repaired by life and found my wife, Kathy. Eventually Sanbornton didn’t feel like home. Kathy and I moved to Warner, NH where all things were convenient and we had found a beautiful home on the river. After 12 years we decided to follow the sun and Tennessee was the obvious choice. Here we purchased a store front for the business, a beautifully landscaped home and a little park land with 5 ponds.