Gram J’s Nets

Stephanie Crossman’s reinterpretation of the traditional fisherman’s bait bag is setting the fashion scene on Vinalhaven — and beyond.

By Thomas Urquhart / Photographed by Erin Little

Using tools that belonged to her husband’s great-grandmother, Stephanie Crossman makes colorful netted bags, shawls, and eyeglass cases on Vinalhaven island. Her sculptural butterflies, moths, and fish, set in shadow boxes, were accepted into the prestigious Smithsonian Craft Show.

Stephanie Crossman’s hands don’t like being idle.

“Do you mind if I keep netting while we talk?” she asks as she greets me at “the red house behind the library.” More than a hint of a Southern accent comes as a surprise here on the island of Vinalhaven. As does Stephanie’s youthful bearing and impish smile — that is, if one expects that only a grandmotherly type would take up traditional knotted netting. Seated happily now at her work table, Stephanie picks up the needle and twine, and the rhythm of repetition, soothing as telling a rosary or reciting a mantra, takes over.

Just off the main road through Vinalhaven’s downtown, the Crossman home is corporate headquarters for Gram J’s Nets, a business whose origin goes back to Stephanie’s first visit to the island 30 years ago. That’s when, at 25, she became engaged to a Vinalhaven man and met his 92-year-old great-grandmother. Gram J, as she was known, was making pudding bags and pickle nets, and Stephanie was fascinated. Crafts — crocheting, quilting, stained glass — run in her family; Stephanie herself had been an art student. After she married Matthew Crossman and came to live on the island, Gram J taught her how to net.

Netting has been an art all over the world since people first found shoals of fish to pursue. Different conditions in different places made for different techniques and products. On Vinalhaven, knotted netting was indispensable for seines, bait bags, and lobster traps, and also for fly nets for horses: beautiful, intricate coats designed to swing with the horse’s gait and brush off the flies. A factory down the hill from the Crossmans’ house made them. Gram J, who learned to net when she was 7 years old, started working there at 12.

In those days, the art of netting was taken for granted, but once nets became mass-produced — not to mention the decline of fisheries and the use of horsepower — hand-netting on the island seemed to have no future. When Gram J died at age 102, Stephanie was the only netter left on the island. “It’s a miracle that she’s carrying on the tradition,” says Phil Crossman, another of Gram J’s great-grandchildren. “No one else in the family wanted to.”

Stephanie still uses — and treasures — her great-grandmother-in-law’s hand-carved needles and mesh boards, the short wooden rods that govern the size of the mesh and range in thickness from a couple of inches to the size of a toothpick. Her basic material is the white nylon twine used by fisherman, which she dyes with classic Rit dye once it has become a bag or scarf.

Her first product was a string shopping bag, which she sold at the island’s weekly flea market. Netting worked out nicely for a young mother; she could take the kids with her and let them play while she talked to customers (and went on netting.) Pretty soon, everyone had at least one of her shopping bags, so she launched a new line in pocket bags, which is still her most popular. Now colorful netware by Gram J’s Nets — big bags, little bags, shawls, eyeglass cases — are as much a part of Vinalhaven style as Nantucket baskets are on that island.

On an island, you need to come up with something new every couple of years.

Two years ago, her first tiny net sculptures appeared in Vinalhaven’s New Era Gallery, owned by Elaine Crossman, her sister-in-law. Set into dramatic black shadow boxes, jellyfish, sand dollars, and sea urchins in close-knit white mesh seemed to glow from the depths of the sea. At the show’s opening, most had a little red dot on them: sold.

The sudden switch from function to decoration had a reason. Stephanie holds up an elegant steel needle about 6 inches long, originally used for fancy lace. “I found this in Gram J’s bag of netting tools and started experimenting with making jellyfish.” Three-dimensional netting was a whole other process, one she had to make up as she went along. The twine had to be stiffened; white glue, plus trial and error, did the trick. For the right shape, each one needed a form (sometimes cardboard, sometimes clay) that had to be retractable — the reverse of the ship in the bottle whose masts must be raised after the hull has been inserted. How to mount them? An old cardboard shadow box had been lying around for months before Stephanie realized it was the answer. Now she orders them custom-made from a carpenter in Liberty.

Last year, Stephanie had the opportunity to take her handiwork to the Smithsonian Craft Show. Gram J’s Nets have long been a staple at craft shows nationwide, averaging two or three a month during the summer (not so much in winter, when a storm might cancel the ferry from the mainland). But the Smithsonian is the craft artist’s Holy Grail. “I just applied,” Stephanie says, still amazed she was accepted.

The bags and shawls still do a booming business, but now Stephanie spends a lot of time studying and sketching critters. “If I can draw it, I can make it,” she says, “but every new design has a new design problem I have to figure out.” New species are added all the time: birds, fish, flowers, copepods.

Copepods? The idea came from a zoologist who visited her booth at the Smithsonian.

Gram J’s Nets combines ancient and modern, practicality and fun, and, above all, color and creativity. That a Southern belle from South Carolina is keeping an ancient Yankee craft alive with these new applications doesn’t strike Stephanie as strange. “It’s called shrimp netting where I come from,” she says with a smile.

Says her brother-in-law, Phil, “If my great-grandmother could see what Stephanie is making now, she’d be blown away.”

As I leave Stephanie’s workshop, I ask about a curious piece, like a Joan Miró, hanging a little out of the way. Another smile. “That’s a mouse’s brain” — inspired, she says, by images on the Jackson Laboratory website. Gram J would be blown away, for sure.