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Friday, September 10, 2010

WEAVING – (part 1) Visit to the Weaving Room at the Iron County Historical Museum, Hurley Wisconsin

This is truly the highlight of my vacation, a visit to the Weaving Room at the Iron County Historical Museum in Hurley, Wisconsin.  We stopped here on Wednesday, September 1, 2010.   It has taken me this long to start to organize the many photos I took while visiting here.  I am also going to feature a condensed version of this blog to Janet Meany, publisher of The Weaver's Friend rag rug newsletter for the fall publication.   http://www.weaversfriend.com/

Ever since I saw a segment about this place featured on the PBS television show Discover Wisconsin, I wanted to get to Hurley, WI and check it out.  So this place was marked on my GPS, and I put it down as something on my Bucket List of Weaving things that I wanted to experience before I die.

Here is the information from their website:

Watch living history! Each year, tons of clean fabrics are donated to the Iron 
County Historical Society Museum. From old blue jeans to woolen blankets, 
our volunteers sort the fabrics by color.

Some volunteers cut the fabrics into long strips. Others sew the strips together 
in preparation for the weavers. Then volunteers use looms to weave rugs in 
the traditional and historic method. Yet more volunteers do the finishing work 
to tie the ends and complete each rug by hand. It's a fascinating art form and 
you're invited to watch when you visit the museum.

The sale of the rugs and place mats provide the financial foundation for the 
museum. Our volunteers average more than 500 hours a month creating 
them. The sales are essential to keeping the heat and lights on so that this 
museum may remain open and free to the public year round.

Our weavers have even grown a little bit famous as feature stories on Fox 
news out of Duluth, Discover Wisconsin and other publications tell their story. 
Visit us today to see how this ancient art is performed and buy a rug or some 
place mats for your friends and family.

Special orders are also welcome. The ladies will gladly help you select fabrics 
and colors to match your decor. We've shipped specially made rugs to 44 
states and several foreign countries.

We pulled up to this historical building, a piece of artwork in itself.

In this first part of my blog postings on this visit, I will talk about the gals I met as we toured this interesting place. Remember, they are all volunteers and donate their time, skill and efforts on a regular basis to keep this place going--- without them, this place would just be another museum. And I will talk about each loom they were working on and what was going on here in such a busy room! 

As we came in the back door, we found a Newcomb Studio loom set up right in the main hallway!  
(I have two of these big rug looms myself, so that was really fun to see one in a museum!)  

Working away at the beater was a sweet gal named Kathy.  She greeted us warmly and talked to us, as she worked on the rug at hand.  Notice, in the photo above, most gals here have a pocket pouch attached to their benches, with their scissors slid into the pouch (along with her comb)   A GOOD scissors is a very necessary tool in weaving, and having one at hand at all times is vital. She was working on a Hit N Miss rag rug of varied colors and prints.  That seems to be a favorite theme of rugs among these gals, and are so colorful and fun to make.  Hit N Miss rugs are a blend of various colors, one running into the next, many times the same group of colors is used randomly throughout a full rug.  Other times, it's every color in the rainbow, whatever came outta the rag bag next.   See all of her stick shuttles prepared and ready, next to her bench?

Once we were done checking out Kathy's work in the hallway, she directed me into "The Weaving Room" Steve vanished into the other parts of the museum, rich in the logging and mining traditions of the area.
What a flurry and hustle bustle of activity was going on when I entered this room of weaving!
(I snapped this pic during their lunch break to get a shot of just the room from the doorway)

The next gal I met was Joyce, who was working on a custom order on her big rug loom.  She said a little girl had been in there last week with her grandparents and wanted a rug made to order.  She was allowed to pick out the colors of her special rug, and once the fabric was cut and sewn (will show you that in a bit) then Joyce was set to work on weaving up this rug for the little patron.  She will be back on Friday to pick it up.  Joyce was just smiling from ear to ear, knowing that a sweet little girl was going to cherish this rug of her very own.  It sure added a special touch to the project, because Joyce was able to meet the customer in person. 

And here are the colors the little girl picked out! 
In this photo, the rug is finished, the header is woven, and the two rows of bright orange yarn is just to hold the warp strings in place until the rug is removed from the loom and the fringes are tied in knots. 

Joyce said her loom was a Union Loom... but I am not so sure.  I have two Union looms in my studio and they are very very different than this loom.  I am thinking this is more on style of an Orca Rug Loom from the Oriental Rug Loom Company. 

The next gal I met was Doris, who told us more about the museum and some of the looms and started to show us more about the process of the volunteers.  She was busy tying on a new warp on the barn loom she was working on, tying precise little knots and fixing up a few sections that had been tangled during the warping.  (she didn't do the warp, someone else did)

Her good eyes and patient handling of the threads, plus standing there all the while to do so, will make the loom function correctly for the next batch of rugs.  

(for you non-weavers reading this--- imagine about 360 threads all evenly tensioned, perfectly wound on, not one criss cross or mistake!  This is necessary before one is even able to start to weave a rug)

Doris was working on a huge old barn loom, most likely a homemade loom.  Very rugged and utilitarian, with a brown paint on the lumber.  In the days of old, these looms were often shared by multiple families.  They are able to be taken apart easily, usually by pulling the wedges in the main joints of the loom and carrying each side, and cross piece and beam separately to the next home to work up some more weaving projects. They were commonly called "Barn Looms" as most families didn't have room for such a big loom to be set up in the kitchen or parlor, even for a short time, so the looms were set up in a barn during the summer months where the weaving could take place.  Many times in the winter months, one lucky family member got to have it set up inside of their house, or in a heated shed.  Other members had to get all of their weaving done in the summer months during their few short weeks the loom was at their house. Or barn. 

Some parts of this loom were repaired, and adjusted to make it work better.  Notice the string *heddles* on this loom (the parts were the warp threads for the woven rug go through)  these go up or down by pressing the treadles (pedals underneath)  and the strings each have a little *eye* on them, all tied patiently at the same height.  Then the right number of threads are lifted, and the right number of threads are lowered... the rag is passed through the opening (a shed) and the rag is then beaten into place. The finished rug is rolled forward onto the beam down below the weaver's knees where it is held under tension.  Sometimes 4, 5, 6 or more rugs are woven in a row, rolled onto the beam, and all cut off at once. 

Now I was introduced to Ruth, who was working on one of the most interesting looms in The Weaving Room.  This huge monster of a loom was made with a Finnish style of finding a big tree that had grown leaning over in the woods in a big curve.  The wood is carefully sawn in half longwise to make the big overhead *arms* of the loom for the beater to hang from.  The fun color it is painted really makes it seem important and impressive and real piece of *working machinery*   It has very heavy gears, ratchets, brake and levers.  

I am just assuming the loom is Finnish, as it is very similar to the Kangaspuut Finlander rug loom on display at the Iron World Interpretive center in Chisholm, Minnesota

Ruth is working away on a rug, with a few more already completed on the beam underneath.  She paused in her work long enough to pose for a photo, and then was busy busy busy right back at her rug. Notice again, all of the string heddles in the foreground.  Modern looms now use metal heddles or a nylon cord called Texsolv for heddles.  These old looms constructed with string and wood are so basic, but yet make very good rugs! 

Now this loom has an added feature that makes it very usable and sensible if you have room in your studio and 320 separate tubes of warp (thread)....  I believe they said Ruth's husband made this rack.  It lets the warp continuously unwind off the spools down through a tension device and keep on weaving and weaving and weaving instead of winding on a set length of threads.  As a tube of warp thread runs low, a new tube is tied on and the knot carefully woven right into the rug. 

This clamping device makes sure all the threads are evenly tensioned and held under pressure so the rug can be woven on the loom.  Most weavers don't have room for this type of setup, so this is the first time I have even seen this continuous warping device in action.

Ruth is working on a soft rug in colorful greens and pinks...  looks like a minty dessert?   Notice that all the weavers in this studio have tossed away their bulky rag rug shuttles in preference for long stick shuttles (me too!)  

The stick shuttles are easier to weave with, less abrading of the warp threads when dragging through thick rag rug shuttles, and less reaching for the weaver.  The stick shuttles are long enough to poke into the open shed on one side and pull out of the other side when you are bit shorter, stiffer or just don't reach as far on wider rugs.  Plus, I use the stick shuttle as a quasi-gauge in planning how many rows worth of rag I have to weave in a rug.  The width of the rug is about the length of the stick shuttle, and how many rounds of rag on there is how many rows I have of fabric available left to weave.  With shorter fat rag rug shuttles, that is harder to figure out.

Here is a closeup of the rug Ruth is working on.  She is almost at the end of her rug now too.  With the multicolored warp threads from that continuous warping rack, the bright colors just make the rug even more delightful in appearance. 

Now, for the weavers reading this, take note about another absence of equipment.  None of these gals uses a temple for weaving their rugs.  I rarely do either.  These weavers take the time for making nice neat selvages, and weave carefully with well-tensioned and well-warped looms.  Not that using temples is a bad thing, just that some weaving folks advocate their use, at times fanatically.  But in contrast, many of the experienced vintage weavers don't seem to need them or want to use them either.  

Now, on to the gals who are keeping the weavers in working materials!   This is Erika, who is a graceful lady in her 90's, if she don't mind my saying so.  She is carefully cutting up denim strips, each perfectly trimmed for the precise width to make a well-balanced and even rug.  These gals cut all of the fabric by hand, and a sharp scissors is a must.  

The camaraderie and laughter fills the room, as these gals creatively craft the rugs, each playing a vital part.

In the background is Judy, talking with Ruth about some upcoming orders and checking on rugs that were coming off another loom.  Judy seems to keep the place going, with answering questions and handling the visitors.  She is also their *computer whiz* and makes the signs for in the rest of the museum.  

Here is a donation of an unopened can of SPAM!   From WWII, this canned lunch meat has been brought in, and Judy will make up a sign for it before it goes on display.  I hope nobody ever opens it!  (I don't like Spam)

And last, but not least, the longest seniority weaver in the place....  this is Irene.  She is busy sewing up more rag strips for the rugs, but is also a weaver too.  Her sewing machine was just humming away with an order of yellows and dark greens--- ummm can you say Packer Colors?   This IS Wisconsin, ya know! 

Irene is patiently sewing together strip after strip, hanging them in bunches over the back of the chair. Once you see the blend of colors all hanging together, a rug begins to form in the mind of this weaver.  It's hard work, but so rewarding to see all the parts come together into the rugs that are made here.  From warping the looms, to cutting the fabric, sewing the strips and weaving the rugs--- then someone has to tie all of the knots on the fringes and trim any stray threads.  Finally the rug is finished --- and waiting for a purchaser to take it home and love it. 

I think this post is long enough....

Upcoming Attractions:
Historical Looms on Display Upstairs
History of Weaving Display
Rugs and mats woven by these weavers for sale
Their storage areas and donations accepted



  1. That was a very interesting visit for you. I know zip about weaving except my Mom had a small loom. It looks like they need to get some younger women in there to carry on the tradition!

  2. thank you for the weaving tour, I had no idea the museum was there, and we went through Hurley a few weeks ago. Definitely a must see.

  3. How cool Karen. I can see you grinning with pleasure as you toured this place!

  4. Karen, you are always such a wealth of information! And a great writer. Thank you so much.


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