59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum

EOD2015

c. 1864-1905

Unknown Aleut craftswoman

Aleutian Islands, probably Attu

Rye grass, silk thread

Gift of S. Prescott Fay


As hunting depleted the whale population, whalers voyaged farther from their homes and spent longer periods of time away from the Vineyard, sometimes even overwintering in the ice of the Arctic in order to be on the spot when the whales returned in the spring. Captain Charles W. Fisher of Edgartown made seventeen voyages to the north Pacific and the waters around Japan between 1864 and 1905. It was during one of these that he picked up this finely woven example of Aleut basketry.

These twined baskets are among the most delicately woven in the world. Made of rye grass split into fine strands by the fingernails of the craftswomen, they resemble linen more than basketry. They were made for the souvenir market, with designs derived from magazine illustrations, wallpaper patterns, and printed textiles. With about thirty-four rows per inch, a basket this size would have taken the woman two weeks to weave, if she did not need to take time for household chores.

Captain Fisher died in 1912, and this basket came into the collection of Samuel Prescott (Pete) Fay (1884–1971). Remembered as an explorer, naturalist, and mountain climber, Fay worked in manufacturing and investment counseling in Boston. He had a summer home in Edgartown and enjoyed hunting waterfowl here. He published articles on Martha's Vineyard bird life, collected locally made decoys, and established personal relationships with well-known carvers Keyes Chadwick of Oak Bluffs and Elmer Crowell of Harwich on Cape Cod. He donated many decoys from his collection to the Museum in the 1960s.