A room full of looms attracts visitors from near and far to Block Island

Fri, 05/04/2012 - 5:38pm

The Gazebo Room of the Manisses Hotel is emptied of its usual complement of dining tables draped in elegant linen and now accommodates eleven floor looms, all made of smooth wood framed by metal components, the same fundamentals that have been used for millennia. They are a far cry from either the heavy timber that once took up great spaces in small houses or the terrifying powered mill-looms that still deafen and demand the sacrifice of body limbs in some parts of the world.
They are portable, a relative term but a loom big enough to make a rug can be folded and transported in a small(ish) car.
In the adjacent dining room, Crickets, or rigid heddle looms that sit on tables or stands, are in use, many newly purchased for the event. They are being worked by weavers some new, many returning to the craft. Weavers have their own language: “Have you noticed a run on bobbin winders?”
The set-up was part of two weaving and knitting retreat weekends sponsored by the island’s mini-mill, North Light Fibers. Hotelier Rita Draper greeted guests and checked — without ever appearing to do so — to be sure everything was in order. She paused to comment, “My mother would be thrilled.”
A few will remember, when the 1661 Inn was newly opened, a photo in a Providence newspaper story about the enterprise, which showed Rita’s mother, the late Joan Abrams, holding a hand-crocheted shawl, one of the items available in the Inn’s tiny boutique.
Anyone at all familiar with the changing face of hospitality on Block Island over the last 45 years will recall the role played by Joan: advancing, promoting, conceiving and achieving the impossible.
Still, it is hard to believe even Joan could have imagined all the pieces would fall into place and cause the Manisses to open two weeks ahead of schedule, in a spring when the shad bloomed early and April shone like May, to accommodate this contingent of knitter and weavers. They came from as close as mainland Rhode Island and as far away as St Louis, Missouri, drawn by the love of these still — or newly — traditional crafts, and the desire to see Block Island in the springtime, a “wish fulfilled” for a lady from Philadelphia.
They came to use fibers homegrown on the exotic animal farm Joan’s husband Justin began with a few goats and llamas, and has carefully tended and expanded over the years, so that it now includes more fiber-friendly creatures, such as a yak, alpaca and camels, as well as the decidedly non-fibrous, such as kangaroos and lemurs. They came to use fibers not only home grown, but home processed in North Light Fibers, the mini-mill overlooking the Abrams Animal Farm, that Sven and Laura Risom opened just last year. They came for lessons by Jane Patrick, creative director of Schacht Spindle Co. in Boulder and author of a number of books on weaving, and Fran Curran, master weaver of the Hartford Artisans Weaving Center.
The first retreat weekend, April 20 to 22, was for a group of knitters known as the Rhode Island Hook and Needle Guild, who work out of the historic Slater Mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A quarter of them had never been to Block Island. Others spoke of childhood trips on the slow boat from Providence, recalling that, “We came for a lobster dinner and never saw beyond the dock and restaurant!”
The idea for the retreat was born last fall when the group’s leader, Pat Philben, out on an annual trip with friends from college, visited North Light Fibers and met the Risoms in the mill shop.
The weather cooperated, at least at first, and they had an opportunity to tour the island and came back filled with ideas, all related to fiber, imagining newly cleared fields out by Rodman’s Hollow filled with sheep. They laughed about the animals and spoke in glowing terms of Joan and Justin’s grandson, Seth, who had given them a tour of the farm, coaxing the winter shy animals out to be petted.
They are dedicated to their craft, these women, most of whom had similar stories of having knit years ago and having picked it up again as their lives shifted. Donna spoke of an elderly grandmother who “saved my summer” with lessons while all her friends were away; Jane laughingly said it was one more thing to keep her “from cleaning the house!” The weather turned, the skies opened up, but they left talking about plans for coming back next year.
The weavers arrived the next Friday in renewed sunshine. A larger group, larger still as many brought partners, spouses, friends and grown children, for whom additional activities were offered over the long weekend. They came through connections with the Hartford Artisans Weaving Center and the Hand Weavers Guild; after reading of the event in online newsletters and brochures, or on bulletin boards in arts centers. They came to learn, to see Block Island, and most of all, to weave carefully fashioned fibers into rugs, scarves and samplers, all weekend projects.
They introduced themselves with the same self-deprecating humor of the knitters the week before. Bonnie from Cambridge confessed to being “a junkie for fibery things” and told of a friend’s child’s reaction to her apartment: “I didn’t know you lived in a yarn store!” Sandy from St. Louis has a shop where she sells spinning wheels and Crickets. Linda, from Connecticut, said that when she finally confirmed her spot in a class, she immediately drove to Webs (“America’s Yarn Store” in Northampton, Mass.) and said “I need a loom!”
The weavers immediately went to work setting up their looms, be they on loan from one of the Connecticut Guilds, newly purchased for the retreat or brought from home. Then there was yarn to be selected from the North Light Fibers stash: the big “bumps,” fiber wound around a solid core, for making floor loom rugs, or three skeins of finely milled wool, alpaca, silk and camel blends in an array of muted colors, for making scarves. One enthusiast, finally settled with her color trio, declared she would called her weekend’s work “sea glass.”
Then came what appeared to untrained eyes and hands an arduous task of stringing warp, the long yarns that would be laced with weft — or in England “woof” — the yarn or thread woven from left to right and back again to create pieces of material, over this weekend scarves and rugs. Apparently, though, it could have been worse: the “Rigid Heddle Loom Extravaganza” class offered instruction in a lickety-split method to make warping faster, while participants in “Weaving a Rug” were provided pre-measured warps.
The day shone, companions went off on adventures in the late April sunshine, nature walks, bicycling, additional visits to the yak named Justice who claimed so many hearts; the weavers worked in a sunlit space, light years from the places most of the fabric we use is produced. There was little noise beyond the beating of weft into place, allowing for easy conversation throughout the day.
The vicar of St. Mary’s in Portsmouth, while looking over her work to the ten other looms working, commented that it is usually a solitary pursuit. Like so many of the weavers, her response to “How many looms do you have?” was an evasive, “Too many!” Someone else said she had, “a living loom, a dining loom, a guest loom .…” A lady from Simsbury, Connecticut, a dedicated weaver who whips out woven wedding gifts the way the rest of us whip up a batch of cookies, brought her grown daughter, first time Block Island visitors, who confided that her mother has had as many as 14 looms.
A gentleman working in the middle of the room, literally surrounded by women, said he had been trained as an engineer, then gone to night school, earned an MBA, and worked in Hartford as a stockbroker. Looking for a retirement hobby, he found he didn’t care for golf, was a terrible painter and a worse carpenter, but he loved colors and, so, started weaving when he was 59. Sixteen years later he has better things to leave to his children and grandchildren than a handful of golf trophies. Mr. Weaver (yes, Mr. Weaver) said his wife was around somewhere but, no, she was not working any of the looms, she was just along for the trip.
As shuttles wound with weft flew through “sheds” created when the harnesses or heddles through which the warp was strung were raised and lowered, the pattern of the rugs grew from the variegated bump. As lengths of scarves emerged it was increasingly apparent there were no bad choices among the colors offered by North Light Fibers.
Watching the ease with which even new weavers accomplished a few quick lessons in creating impressive patterns on these Crickets increased the temptation to take the plunge and buy a loom. But, remembering that I’d missed the lickety-split warping lesson provided a necessary reality-check, and reason prevailed.
As the looms were packed, the larger ones loaded on a truck to be transported to the boat, the rugs, complete but for hemming, rolled and packed into plastic bags, the scarves carefully folded for packing, the place had more the feel of Labor Day evening than the beginning of the season. There was a last minute visit to Justice, a scramble for final purchase of fiber, and, of course, talk of coming back.
Laurie, from New Hampshire, scarf and loom packed away, glowing with a sense of accomplishment over a weekend well spent said she learned of the retreat from an e-mail. The weekend had more than met her expectations, she said. “A Schacht loom at a discount, a weekend on Block Island, meeting Jane [Patrick] — what’s not to like about that?”