Like Penelope

I am (age 11) doing a weaving demonstration at a local crafts fair while my brother looks on.

When my peers were taking piano lessons, I was taking weaving lessons. My family placed a premium on the arts and the more esoteric crafts, and when my parents realized that we had a professional weaver living down the road from our weekend house in the country, my fate was sealed. Not that I protested: even as a kid I loved knowing how things got made.

My teacher was a stately octogenarian named Hazel Warren, whom my father had the temerity to call “Hazel-baby.” I called her Mrs. Warren, because, well, I was ten. Hazel Warren was a craftswoman of extraordinary skill–and a fondness for Eisenhower-era colors (mustard yellow, lima bean green, Wedgewood blue). Every Saturday morning for three years I spent two hours with her, learning to weave on a four-frame floor loom.

Mrs. Warren’s weaving studio–a small barn attached to the farmhouse where she and her dapper husband Harry lived–held perhaps half a dozen floor looms, lengths of woven fabric, skeins of cotton and wool. There was a sign over the door with a winged shuttle (in that way that you don’t register the what of something for years, I was well past my weaving-lesson years when I realized what that image was). I don’t remember much about the actual tuition; what I recall is the quality of sunlight on those Saturday mornings, and reaching my toes down to work the treadles that moved the different frames up and down, and (when I got the pattern wrong) having to figure out where I’d gone wrong and undo the weaving. Mrs. Warren was soft spoken and patient, but inexorable. If you messed up, you fixed it. No kissing-it-up-to-God and forging onward.

On one memorable occasion she taught me how to string the loom (up to that point I had been all weaving and no set up). It involved an unbelievable amount of arithmetic, and confused me. In the end it got done: the actual work was long and painstaking–thousands of feet of cotton thread, all threaded through the tiny eyes of the frames–but not technically difficult. Except for the arithmetic. Fifty years later, if forced at gunpoint to set up a loom, I could probably figure it out (except for the math).

Among my peers, if the subject ever came up, I suspect this was just another reason I was weird. But I made placemats (everyone makes placemats), and a set of five ties (I gave one to my eighth grade teacher, on whom I had a bit of a crush), and I don’t know what all else.  Curiously, when we moved up to Massachusetts from New York full time, I had stopped weaving–perhaps we couldn’t afford the lessons, or maybe Mrs. Warren had got out of the business.

But weaving wasn’t done with us. When I was in high school my mother bought a four-frame loom and had it strung with a spring-green wool, with the intention to weave curtains for the living room.  Bear in mind that the entire west face of the Barn was windows, each about seven feet high and five feet across. Weaving fabric for curtains for all of them would have been a breathtaking amount of work, even for someone who had been weaving for years. And it was my mother’s first project. I think, over the next five or six years, Mom managed to weave about two yards of 48″ wide fabric. Ultimately the wool began to crack and break (wool left wound on a loom for long enough is subject to the slings and arrows of climate and light, with predictable results). I cut the two yards of fabric off the loom and it became a shawl of sorts, and a dress-up item when my daughters were of dress-up age.

And the loom? It stood, unthreaded, in the front hall of the Barn, for another twenty years, until I sold the place. At which point I disassembled the loom, packed it carefully, and had it shipped out west to California. It is still upstairs–I checked the other day. Perhaps, when I am no longer working a day job, I will bring it down and reassemble it–that in itself may be an interesting task) and find someone to help me string it, and I’ll try weaving again. I remember it, as an activity, with great fondness.

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Posted in Crafts, family Tagged permalink

About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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Like Penelope — 11 Comments

  1. I’ve never used a loom of that type, but I still have a couple of inkle and tablet looms up on the top shelf in my closet. I should get one of them down and see what I can do . . . though because they can only produce thin strips of fabric, the number of things you can make with them is pretty limited.

  2. I have always wanted to learn how to weave. (Also bonsai, hang gliding, puff pastry and making noodles from scratch.) Never had the space or the money; there were always other things to be creative with.

      • Weaving isn’t on my list, though I saw some lovely small looms at the Maker Faire on which someone had made some beautiful scarves (or some such) of a very tight, fine weave. I admired them.

        But noodles, or more specifically, spaghetti and soba noodles are. I have a source of incredible flour and want noodles from that, but so far my efforts have been mediocre. Perhaps when Brenda comes out we can have a class at your house. Also, do you perhaps have a recommendation for spaghetti roller (unless you do yours with a knife)? I would like a hand-cranked one, but I am overwhelmed by the online options.

        • I have an Atlas pasta machine that my father gave me as a gift years ago. It is nuthin’ fancy, but it works fine. My favorite pasta recipe is from an Italian cookbook that my kids gave me mumble years ago. And my noodle recipe descends from my great-grannie: flour, an egg, an “egg-shell full of water”* and a pinch of salt…

          *when I asked what measurement an eggshell-full was supposed to represent, the best answer I got was “Oh, maybe we just couldn’t afford to use two eggs.” Other times.

  3. My Finnish grandmother had a loom in her basement. She would turn out rugs from strips of salvaged fabric. Simple as far as weaving went, but still a Talent manifested, and I wanted to learn. But since I was a boy, I didn’t sense that I could even ask to participate.

    Decades later, doing genealogy, I came to understand that on my mother’s side (the non-Finnish side), I come from a line of weavers. Weaving was the main family skill, and part of the reason why my clan, the Starrs and the Weitzels and the Straders, thrived as they moved westward from North Carolina to Ohio to Illinois to Wisconsin. They were not just farmers and hunters. They wove. The women set up loomhouses. The men earned spot cash as tailors and shoemakers.

    My grandma didn’t like to teach. She liked to “do.” Even so, I wished I’d pleaded with her to make an exception in my case.

    • It’s a shame you didn’t get to learn to weave because boys weren’t supposed to do that. And, of course, in other cultures, men did the weaving. It’s all so silly.

      • Actually, both men and women did weaving in this culture, too–if your surname is Weaver, then a male ancestor did the deed, and if the name is Webster, then it was a female.
        (I would love to learn about noodles, too–maybe that’s an idea for your next post! And, though I don’t think I know a whole big bunch about weaving, I’ve done it on and off for some time and actually taught a beginner’s class. If anyone is interested, I’d be happy to pass along basic instructions/advice–I enjoy warping up a loom at least as much as I enjoy the actual shuttle-tossing.)

        • You see, I knew I had friends out there who knew this stuff. I need to find a place to put the loom, then I need to rebuild it… then, I will come calling on you…