Traditional Knotted Netting
Stephanie Crossman is one of a handful of artists throughout the U.S. using traditional knotted netting to create art. She learned the technique in 1992, when she visited Vinalhaven and met her future husband’s 92-year-old great grandmother. Gram J was using netting to mend fishermen’s nets, as was the island tradition. An art student at the time, Stephanie was studying sculpture and watercolors, but became fascinated with the process. She started learning from Gram J. who was hard-of-hearing, so Stephanie had to shout her questions.
Stephanie took a week to learn how to make a bag, and then did nothing for one year.
When she returned to marry and live on Vinalhaven, she took a job making six-foot long “puddin’ bags” with a local company. The company only lasted another year or so, but Stephanie learned she loved the process, and began making shopping bags on her own and selling them at local farmers’ markets.
She inherited Gram J’s stand, wooden needles, and tiny metal needle. She found she was adept at doing fine work and was intrigued by discovering just how fine she could go. At one point, she used a toothpick and fine thread to knot a jellyfish. The piece was limp, but she used glue as a stiffener, found a shadow box at the dump, and framed the piece.
“That started it all,” says Crossman.
The artist and her environment
By this time, she was doing craft shows and selling bags and wearables that appealed to women. However, Stephanie wanted to make something that attracted the eyes of men passing by her booth. She believes that most men “don’t believe that women can see in three-dimensionality,” so she started making sculptural pieces and moving towards making art. She created bugs, birds, fish, starfish, trees and lobsters using knotted netting. Men—doctors doing tiny sutures, engineers, and bio-researchers—were fascinated.
In the late 1970’s when she started out, “few people worked in fiber.” Says Crossman, “Everyone considers it ‘women’s work,’ and not as valuable as paintings, etc. It took me 30 years to get to the art. One has to know the techniques behind it and what will or won’t work. I’m constantly experimenting with my work to learn something new.”
Before, fishermen were the only ones “who would get” what she was doing. Most people thought she was doing knitting or crochet, and that they themselves could do it. But Stephanie always pointed out that her work was composed of many, many knots and was unique. In all the shows she has done on the East Coast from Maine to Florida, she has never seen anything like it. She knows of only five people across the country who do traditional knotted netting.
The knotted artistry of Stephanie Crossman
View the images below larger by clicking on one of them and see a slide show you can click through. (Photos by Luke Eder and Christine Macchi)
Today, she sells just about everything she makes whether through craft shows, galleries, or the showroom attached to her Vinalhaven studio. Because the work is so time-consuming, she has little time to teach. Also, learning the skill is a long process and Stephanie feels that people she encounters “do less and less handwork.” “Nobody,” she says, “sits down with a grandmother anymore. Many people do not learn to sew.” Stephanie believes the pandemic many have helped people start exploring their craft interests, so “trends might be heading in other directions. We may be on the cusp of having interest come back.”
To learn more, Stephanie recommends three books: DOWN EAST NETTING: A History and How To of Netmaking, by Barbara M. Morton; NETS THROUGH TIME: The Technique and Art of Knotted Netting, Jacqueline Davidson; NET MAKING, Charles Holdgate