October 23, 2021

Looms bring magic from the past

Photos by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Kathryn Wojciechowski of South Otselic at Old School Wool and Weaving Center at Truxton Academy School.

TRUXTON — Kathryn Wojciechowski is in weaving heaven.

She’s renting 2 1/2 classrooms at Truxton Academy for her weaving school, the home of barn looms from the 1700s and 1800s.

“Welcome to my world,” she said, among the massive structures, as well as spinning wheels to make yarn by hand, spindles of yarn, rugs and cloth.

Three looms, which look like square bunk bed frames, are in one space and four are in another.

“These looms turn up and find me. I can’t bear for them to be disfigured and I take them,” she said.

The South Otselic woman, 64, has operated Old School Wool and Weaving Center on the second floor of the elementary school since March 2018.

A weaver for 22 years, she specializes in 18th and 19th century weaving, offering classes on demand — how to assemble a loom, the possible provenance of the loom, beginning weaving on a barn loom, how to spin on a Great Wheel spinning wheel, how to take raw wool to a finished hand woven product, and the history of 18th and 19th century weaving practices.

Wojciechowski doesn’t need to have a specific number of students to start.

“I have no students now. They come and go. Over the weekend I had three from all different states,” she said. “This kind of learning is from all over the U.S. They have to drop what they are doing and be here for several days.”

Patterns from the past

Wojciechowski has two more barn looms she has to pick up from a museum in Buffalo and two others in storage. The devices are about 200 years old and are fastened by wood wedges and pegs.

“All I need is a rubber mallet to put them together and take them apart,” Wojciechowski said.

“I have been involved with these looms for 20 plus years. I just started in the last two years getting into the period weaving that the looms were originally used for,” she said.

She pointed out a 19th century venetian carpet. “Back in the day, around 1850, they would weave it together in strips and combine them to make a full carpet for a home.”

She pointed to a pattern on 18th century cloth she found at the Stratford Historical Society. It’s possible to find patterns in weaver’s receipt books.

Kathryn Wojciechowski of South Otselic in one of her rooms at Old School Wool and Weaving Center at Truxton Academy School.

She plans to to create her own signature pattern and crank out blankets on the loom. She also plans to make cloth like that worn by a working woman in 1750 to 1780 and wear it herself — a linen shift, stockings, a stay, a petticoat, skirt, jacket, apron, cap and scarf: “lots and lots of clothing.”

In the meantime, Wojciechowski is supplying two museums on Long Island with summerweight bed coverings made of Linsey-Woolsey, a combination of linen and wool.

‘Patience of a saint’ needed

The most consuming part of weaving is setting up the loom, she said.

“Threads have to be measured. There’s a lot of math calculations you need. And the loom uses a lot of yarn, 4 1/2 yards of yarn makes three yards worth of fabric,” she said.

It takes her six hours to weave 2 /12 yards of fabric. But it takes her 2 1/2 days to set up the loom.

“To do this job, you need to have the patience of a saint. It’s easy in the beginning for errors to occur,” Wojciechowski said. “You really, really want to see the end result. The reward for setting up the loom is to be able to sit there and make the textile.”

Wojciechowski learned weaving from the Marshfield School of Weaving in Vermont, which is one of two schools in the country that teaches period weaving.

“There’s a lot of places that teach you to weave, but I want period weaving,” said Wojciechowski.

She has been weaving for 22 years, but she still considers herself a novice, because the art is so complex.

Weaving at SUNY Cortland

Jenn McNamara, associate professor in SUNY Cortland’s art department and a fiber artist, understands Wojciechowski’s passion.

“I totally get it. It’s like you can never have too many toys. But with barn looms, they are massive,” McNamara said.

The college has mostly “mighty wolf” looms, smaller and more modern, new in the last five years. But it does have a couple of Cranbrooks, that are similar to the barn looms of yesteryear. They were developed at Cranbrook, an art school outside of Detroit.

“I have not woven on a barn loom,” McNamara said. But she’s used a “backstrap loom” and a “really weird loom in Scotland that you ride like a bike. That was cool.”

“Looms are crazy,” said McNamara, who learned to weave in college in 1993.

“Weaving is a very zen activity,” she said. “The rhythm of motions required once you begin are considered very meditative by many people. The threading needs to be precise, with no mistakes, which can sometimes be intimidating. Like anything else, if you check your work, you are fine.”

Touching history

Weaving takes Wojciechowski into another dimension.

“When I touch these, it connects me to people I have never met, a time I will never get to experience. It keeps that alive for me. I love history,” she said.

Tabitha Scoville, director of the Cortland County Historical Society, knows the feeling. She had the same feeling when she found a piece of a ship manned by Benedict Arnold while putting an exhibit together a couple years ago — a plank from the boat, “Congress.”

When she contacted the U.S. Navy, she learned Arnold commanded the 24-gun vessel on Lake Champlain during the American Revolution. It was sunk Oct. 13, 1776, killing 20 crew.

A piece of white oak tells the story. “Very cool,” said Scoville.

Wojciechowski said Homer and Cortlandville had a huge industry in weaving between 1810 and 1826, some in shops, staffed by men and some in homes, where women took the helm.

A census lists 400 looms in the Town of Homer.

“I would like to know where they are,” Wojciechowski said. “I am sure someone, somewhere has one in their garage, attic, or eves. There’s got to be one somewhere. They are welcome to contact me.”

“Every loom tells a story,” she said. “When I realized I could put my hands on a tool that was 200 years old that someone else had their hands on, that was it. It was all over. I didn’t want anything else.”