Art Beat: A life alive with color

Last modified: 2/25/2016 9:14:58 AM
Turning onto Bascom Road off Lampblack Road in Greenfield and winding your way down the curving road into Gill is like driving back in time.

The narrow road, tunneled with trees, opens surprisingly into a broad expanse where two traditional New England farmhouses with barns, fields and pastures sit diagonally across the road from each other. At the second farm, two donkeys gaze with curiosity over the fence, while cattle search for grass under the snow with their noses.

People sometimes call the area “The Hidden Valley,” says weaver Kathy Litchfield, who lives and works in one of the farmhouses in Bascom Hollow. She and her husband, Ivan Ussach, work together with two other families to raise vegetables, cattle, pigs and chickens. And when she’s not doing farm chores, Litchfield is in her second- floor studio carrying on the centuries-old tradition of weaving clothing and kitchen linens by hand on wooden looms.

Litchfield first encountered weaving as a nine-year-old girl on a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village. She fell in love, she says.

“I saw the weavers working and I got to throw the shuttle. I also got to card wool and see the whole process, and I was just fascinated. I thought, ‘Wow, someday I’m going to learn how to weave.’”

Decades later, Litchfield’s dream has come true—and then some.

After years of working as a journalist and marketing consultant, work she still does “on the side,” Litchfield took her first class with weaver Donna Cavagnac in 2005. She started selling her work in 2011, and has gone on to become a production weaver whose Firecrow Handwovens—shawls, wraps, ponchos, scarves and kitchen linens—are in demand at high-end fine art and craft shows and galleries throughout New Jersey, New York and New England.

Locally, Firecrow Handwovens can be found at Sawmill River Arts in Montague, Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls, and at Sheep & Shawl in Deerfield. Updates to the existing website (www.firecrowhandwovens.com) will include an easy-to-use online store to launch March 1.

In addition to working as a production weaver, Litchfield is in her fourth year of a six-year master’s program in weaving. Run by the Hill Institute in Florence, the program requires four years of classes followed by two years in which candidates create 34 original woven projects in different weave “structures” or patterns.

To illustrate what she means by a weave structure, Litchfield pulls “A Handweaver’s Pattern Book,” by Marguerite Porter Davison from her shelf and opens to page after page of photos accompanied by diagrams that resemble guitar tablature. The rows of notations tell a weaver how to thread the loom’s warp — or vertical threads — and how to work its foot treadles to create specific patterns as the warp threads lift and the horizontal weft thread weaves through.

“It’s fascinating,” Litchfield says of the infinite possibilities. “There are so many different things you can do. It’s amazing.”

Litchfield points out two scarves woven in a structure called “deflected double weave.” Light and lacy to the touch, the scarves are woven of Tencel and super soft Merino wool. Though their patterns appear strikingly different, Litchfield wove them using the same warp.

“I thread the loom once,” she says. “Then I do different things with my feet. I can get those different patterns without having to rethread the loom.”

Dazzling possibilities

“I think blending different colors together is what enthralls me the most with weaving,” Litchfield says. “The possibilities are truly endless and so it’s so much fun. It’s so much inspiration, even just looking at the cones (of yarn) on your shelf.”

The studio is indeed alive with color. The roughly 450 chenille threads Litchfield has used to thread, or “dress,” one loom glow in earth tones that move from orange through gold to green. Threads on another loom, not yet fully dressed, are in more of a jewel palette of pinks and blues.

Each thread has to be individually fed through a heddle, an upright piece that allows the thread to be lifted as the weaver manipulates treadles with her feet. The threads must then be tied to the front beam, or tie-on rod, which Litchfield is doing now.

This precise and exacting work, which can take four to five hours, must be done before a weaver can even think about throwing a shuttle, which is what most of us think of when we think of weaving. Shuttle throwing is when the horizontal weft thread is passed through the vertical warp. It’s actually the fastest part of the process, Litchfield says.

But when I refer to it as “the fun part,” Litchfield kindly disagrees.

“I think to be a weaver long term, you have to think that all of it is the fun part, even when some of it is tedious.”

Litchfield says she’ll listen to audio books as she dresses the loom, or see the time that her hands are engaged in tasks that they know well as an opportunity to think about something else.

“You kind of have to enjoy the whole process. It definitely takes some patience because it does take a really long time.”

Now that the threads are all tied on to the loom, Litchfield stands and says, “Hm, the next thing is to decide what color I want to throw through it.”

She chooses pink, murmuring happily, “That’ll be pretty.”

She winds the pink thread onto a shuttle, a wooden tool that holds the weft thread and allows it to pass through the warp. The shuttle’s ends curve and point like the bow of a boat.

“I’m weaving plain weave. So I’m lifting every other one,” Litchfield says, demonstrating by slowly pressing one treadle, then the other with her feet. The warp threads lift and fall. Litchfield begins to throw the shuttle rhythmically back and forth. The loom clacks and shifts and the cloth grows quickly. Several inches accumulate in a matter of minutes and the pink thread begins to shimmer through the other colors.

“I really do love the production aspect of weaving,” Litchfield says. “Really learning something and getting to the point where I feel really comfortable duplicating it again and again is rewarding.”

And she loves doing sows. “It’s so much fun when I go to a show. ... I get to share my love of weaving with other people. It’s so fun to do.”

Where to see it: Find Firecrow Handwovens at Sawmill River Arts in Montague, Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls and Sheep & Shawl in Deerfield, MA. Litchfield has been a vendor at North Quabbin Garlic & Arts Festival in Orange for the past four years, and will be applying again this year. Contact: Kathy@firecrowhandwovens.com; 413-522-0358; www.firecrowhandwovens.com

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at: 
tcrapo@me.com




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