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‘A good example of functional art’: Working Weavers Studio Trail this weekend

  • Chris Hammel weaves a cotton runner on her vintage 1900 loom at her studio at the Arts and Industry Building in Florence. She makes small wall hangings in addition to scarves, rugs and other goods. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marilyn Webster, one of the seven weavers on the Working Weavers Studio Trail, says their goal is to make the trail an immersive experience, even for those who know nothing of weaving. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • One of the items Marilyn Webster works on in her home weaving studio in Conway. “Cloth tends to get overlooked,” said Webster. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Conway weaver Marilyn Webster works on an item at her home weaving studio in Conway. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



For The Recorder
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ever think much about the towel you use to dry off after a shower? Or the napkin you employ to keep food off your lap? How about a table square, the kind you might put at the center of your kitchen table to give it a bit of color?

A group of local weavers and friends would like you — everyone, really — to take a second look at some of these basic household items and consider what goes into making them.

And to help “make cloth visible again,” as they put it, they’re opening up their studios on the same weekend in October and inviting visitors to follow a Working Weavers Studio Trail that runs from one studio to the next.

“Cloth tends to get overlooked,” said Marilyn Webster, a Conway weaver who is one of seven in Hampshire and Franklin counties who will demonstrate how their looms work and cloth is woven on Oct. 14 and 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“(Cloth) is one of those things that’s kind of an afterthought, even when so much can go into making it, because it’s something we use on an everyday basis,” said Webster, who first took up weaving in 2005. “Somehow we’ve lost the ability to see it.”

Her friend Emily Gywnn, a weaver from Shelburne Falls, says one of the biggest attractions of making handwoven items like table centerpieces and napkins — from materials such as cotton, linen, flax and silk — is that they can enhance a meal and kitchen.

“I love making beautiful objects that can bring joy to the home,” she says.

And at a time when so many of those objects, including kitchenware and other household materials, are mass produced in factories, the concept of using a time-honored craft process to make something by hand has particular appeal.

“I sometimes find myself almost transported when I’m working,” said Chris Hammel, a Florence weaver and teacher who uses a loom that dates to 1900. “I imagine (the loom) being used a century ago, and I’m excited to think about carrying on the tradition.”

Weaving as craft or art? One can argue either way: Some point to complicated tapestries, designed to be hung on a wall, as evidence that weaving is very much an art, while others say making utilitarian materials like towels, tablecloths or rugs makes it more a craft.

But weavers like Webster and Gwynn say the definition should be more flexible: a well-made and colorful woven napkin, says Webster, “is a good example of functional art.”

Getting hooked

The seven weavers who are part of the October studio trail have different styles and backgrounds. But all came to know each other over the years, and a few of them have done some events together, such as exhibiting at a craft show.

Webster hoped to do something larger, at a time when visitors on a tour of the studios could also enjoy the fall foliage season.

Their goal is to make the trail an immersive experience even for those who know nothing of weaving; after all, they were all new to it once, too. Webster, for instance, once studied and taught German at UMass Amherst.

But once she had taken some weaving classes, Webster was hooked, so to speak.

“I’d done handcrafts like sewing and knitting and embroidery, but this had a really different feel,” she said. “I love the whole process, the planning that goes into making a piece, and then [using] the loom — it’s very soothing.”

In the most basic sense, a loom puts together two sets of threads. Threads running parallel to a loom’s length are called the warp; those that run perpendicular to the warp are known as the weft and are passed back and forth across the warp.

Gywnn said the preparation for making a piece — from deciding what colors and fibers to use, to figuring out how to create a particular pattern, to lacing a loom’s warp with fiber — can take hours. Finally sitting down at the loom to do the actual weaving “can be so satisfying.”

Like Webster, Gwynn had done some knitting and other craftwork before she took a class in 2014 at Vävstuga, a weaving school in Shelburne Falls. She liked the experience so much that she and her husband, a computer programmer, moved to the town from New York City so that Gywnn could take part in a apprenticeship program at the school; she now runs her weaving business and works part time in a yarn store. (She’s currently learning Swedish as well.)

“I just felt like, ‘This is it — I’ve found my place,’ ” she said.

The Pioneer Valley draws weavers from all around, partly thanks to the beloved and long-standing WEBS America’s Yarn Store in Northampton. Chris Hammel, the Florence weaver, studied Latin at Smith College and then in a master’s program at the University of Iowa. But while in Iowa, she took a weaving class for fun that was held in a private house “in an attic with no air-conditioning in the middle of a Midwest summer, and even with that I really got the bug.”

Today, more than 20 years later — and after a stint teaching high-school Latin — Hammel directs the weaving program at The Hill Institute in Florence. She’s also a veteran weaving teacher (she has taught at WEBS, among other places) and writes for various trade publications on different techniques and fibers.

Weaving, she says, “is a very meditative process. It does something for your spirit. Some people say it can be redundant, but if I’ve had a tough day, I find it’s like a tonic.”

In addition to answering visitors’ questions and showing off some of their wares — Hammel makes small wall hangings in addition to scarves, rugs and other goods — the local weavers hope they might be able to get a few recruits on Oct. 14 and 15. “It’s great to bring more people into this,” said Hammel.

And whether you drive from Florence to Shelburne Falls, or vice versa, to check out the studios, added Gwynn, “Don’t take (Interstate) 91. Take the small roads in between and enjoy the beautiful New England countryside — slow down for a day.”

For more information on the Working Weavers Studio Trail, visit workingweavers.com.