Hannah Leary makes baskets out of lobster rope at her home in Harpswell. Photo by Kelli Park

HARPSWELL — Hannah Leary is an island girl with a big idea. Leary has spent her 12 years growing up in a fishing family on Orr’s Island. She is tied to the island in a way that transcends her age; her family has built their lives on the rocky shores of Lowell’s Cove for six generations, depending on the surrounding waters for survival. Ingenuity and resourcefulness come naturally to a fishing family and are traits that flow through Leary’s veins and thoughts like the changing tides. With an island heart and a business mind, she makes the most of her surroundings in a way that goes above and beyond most 12-year-olds.

Leary’s entrepreneurial endeavor began with an abundance of lobster rope from her father, a commercial fisherman, and a table in her family’s driveway. Leary began making and selling lobster rope baskets as a self-employed artist last year to fund her interest in horseback riding.

“That’s really how I started — sitting on the side of the road. People would stop by. And they’d come back,” Leary said.

Leary’s baskets are hand-woven creations made with recycled lobster trap rope used to connect traps to buoys, composed of polyester, nylon, and polypropylene. Her baskets come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors; they range in price from $30 to $75, depending on the size. They are used for decorative, functional storage and are popular among both locals and tourists who wish to add an authentic nautical flair to their homes.

Having grown up in a fishing family with four younger brothers, Leary is no stranger to hard work. The young entrepreneur is homeschooled and hauls 40 lobster traps by hand over the course of the summer; she has a diverse range of interests, including (but not limited to): horseback riding, writing stories, riding bikes, swimming in the ocean, studying Greek mythology, pet-sitting, and making herbal remedies with her mother, who is also self-employed.

Leary thrives on staying busy and being productive, and recognizes that she is unique among her peers.

“Everybody calls me bossy. I just do better working independently,” said Leary, who is mystified by kids her age who spend their time on social media. “I don’t like sitting and doing nothing — it’s not my thing. There’s so much I don’t understand sometimes…why would you guys sit at home on your phones all day? Ride your bikes!”

Leary approaches business with a grassroots philosophy that is a natural fit for island life. Over the past two summers, Leary estimates that she has made hundreds of baskets of all different sizes using rope from local fishermen and found along nearby beaches.

She taught herself how to make the baskets after realizing that “nobody wants you to know how to make them” and she uses old, worn rope instead of brightly-colored new rope because it has more character. Old rope is also easier for weaving baskets because it’s softer and more flexible; new rope is more difficult to work with because it hasn’t been worn by saltwater and “hurts your fingers.” Leary is quick to point out, however, that she has a set of criteria when evaluating rope for its basket potential.

“Some of the rope that my dad brings home has sea moss on it, and I’m like, ‘Dad, I can’t work with this.’”

After taking care of business, which consists of analyzing her inventory, tracking orders and calculating figures for her personal bank account, Leary begins the creative process. She selects rope primarily based on color and texture. Then she cuts and measures piles of weathered, multi-colored rope (different lengths for different sized baskets), fuses together lengths of rope with a rope burner when necessary, and uses a special pattern to weave pieces of rope together in a way that looks like second nature.

She has perfected her craft over the past year and can see a visible improvement in her handiwork, and she knows exactly how long it takes to make each basket (1-4 hours, depending on the size). Leary taught her brothers how to make baskets, but claims that they are of little assistance with measuring rope (due to shorter arms) and has accepted that this is generally a solo endeavor.

After noticing a lack of lobster rope baskets at Island Candy Company this past spring, Leary is now the sole supplier of baskets there and has since begun to sell at other locations, including: Watson’s General Store in Cundy’s Harbor, Panacea School of Integrative Health in Hallowell, and Swallowtail Farm Cafe in Portland.

In the past two years, Leary has earned $2,000 through her self-employment efforts, including lobster rope basket sales, lobstering, and pet-sitting.

“Sometimes I get a lot of orders and it’s stressful, but then I think, I’m one step closer to a horse,” she said.

She hopes to diversify her inventory in the future by making lobster rope rugs, dog leashes, and large baskets for a local realtor. Leary has also done pop-up shops at Island Candy Company and plans to sell her products at Common Ground Fair next year. She is playing around with the idea of creating an online presence, but is currently enjoying the busy process of supply and demand at a local level.

Leary is eager to continue evolving and expanding her business in ways that fit her lifestyle and background.  She speaks with a quick candor that comes alive when asked about her life on the island and ideas for the future. She plans to continue embracing all that she loves about her life: riding her bike to Land’s End, swimming off the wharf, collecting rope along the beach, hauling traps with her dad while arguing about the length of lobsters with her brothers, exploring her potential and running a successful business.

“Lobstering is not my favorite thing to do, but my whole family revolves around it,” she said. “This is my way of showing that I’m part of a fishing family. It’s just really good to have something that I like to do as part of my family’s way of living.”

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