In a simple life well lived, the pursuit of art and craft within one’s life is an important element of peace and happiness. And the long dark evenings of late winter lend themselves to this pursuit. Working with your hands to make something beautiful and useful for your home can be extremely satisfying.
At Cow Hill Cottage, I weave rugs. I have been weaving traditional rag rugs for about five years. I find the weaving process to be both creative in design and color as well as technical in the loom’s setup, treading, and maintenance.
I began my weaving journey with a visit to a woman rug weaver who is a member of the plain community here in the Big Valley of Central Pennsylvania. She gave me some basic insight into the weaving process and direction as to where to find a suitable loom, including in the want ads in local and national plain community publications. Within a few weeks, I answered an ad, and the loom I have today was found just a few miles from my home.
The loom is a Weavers Delight, four-harness, semi-automatic fly shuttle loom that was built in January 1945 by the Newcome Loom Company of Davenport, Iowa, and was shipped to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to be used by the Society for the Blind. At some point in the 1960s, the loom was sold to a member of the plain community in Belleville, Pennsylvania. Over the years, it was used by various members of the Amish and Mennonite communities and now resides in my weaving studio working as well as it did in 1945. I researched the history of the loom based on a single serial number stamped on the wood frame, and with it, I contacted a woman who maintains the records for the Newcome Loom Company. She also maintains a small manufacturing operation that her husband had run that makes replacement parts for the loom.
The semi-automatic portion of the loom allows the weaver to change the harnesses and throw the shuttle from side to side using the beater bar. This allows for slightly enhanced levels of production over traditional hand-weaving techniques. Many weavers used this slight improvement in production in their home-based rug-weaving business. They wove rugs of their own creation or allowed members of the community to provide their rag strips that the weaver then made into practical, long-wearing throw rugs for the home, charging for the weaving on an hourly basis.
Community members often prepared the rag strips at what is known here in Central Pennsylvania as a frolic or work party. Friends and neighbors would gather to help cut strips of cloth from worn household linens and clothing and sew them into long strips. The long strips of cloth would be sorted by color and texture, assuring an attractive rug, and wound into softball or larger sized balls of rags that can often, even today, be found at country auctions and antique shops. Also, these balls of rug rags are often mentioned in the historical record of bridal dowries, indicating their importance to the foundation of a household. The weaver would use these mismatched bundles of rags to weave what is known as the Hit & Miss pattern that allowed the weaver to vary the different cloth strips within the same rug resulting in a multicolored and pleasing-to-the-eye result.
For my rag rugs, I use new cotton fabric, as the old-time process of cutting, sewing, and sorting the various linens and clothing costs more in time than the cost of new material. I cut the cloth into strips of various widths as required by my designs.
What inspires me to continue with this age-old craft is the almost unlimited results that weaving allows for when it comes to colors and patterns. Also, the actual weaving process is very meditative and allows one to become almost lost within the process. I find that when I make an item that is both practical and an artistic expression, it adds joy to daily life.
Often, when I say I weave and make rugs, many are surprised by my involvement as a man. But traditions show that weaving was a meaningful way for the head of a household to make a living. Although women could spin fiber into thread, only men could use the loom, and this convention was enforced through the use of laws and the powerful influence of the guilds that flourished in the old country. Within my community, a strong history of male weavers exists, and only within the past 30 years or so has rug weaving been taken up by women. Even today, when I speak with local weavers or families that have a rug-weaving tradition, they often talk of fathers and grandfathers who did the weaving, with the women of the family producing the cloth strips that supplied the rug-making endeavors. Although I do not subscribe to limiting the craft of weaving to men, I am proud of my involvement and the revival of a male perspective within the craft.
I encourage each of you to explore and find a creative endeavor that is of interest to you. Not only will it bring joy and happiness to your life, but it will also help to preserve the traditional arts and crafts that the modern world has pushed to the very limits of extinction. These age-old skills cannot be left to die out but require our attention to bring them back to our shared experience.
I look forward to hearing stories about your artistic pursuits and encourage your comments below.